The Chosen People in America
A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology
Publication Year: 1983
"This is a book of extraordinary quality and importance. In tracing the encounter of Jews (the chosen people) and America (the chosen nation).. Eisen has given the American Jewish community a new understanding of itself." -- American Jewish Archives
"... one of the most significant books on American Jewish thought written in recent years." -- Choice
What does it
mean to be a Jew in America? What opportunities and what threats does the great
melting pot represent for a group that has traditionally defined itself as "a people
that must dwell alone"? Although for centuries the notion of "The Chosen People"
sustained Jewish identity, America, by offering Jewish immigrants an unprecedented
degree of participation in the larger society, threatened to erode their Jewish
identity and sense of separateness.
Arnold M. Eisen charts the attempts of American Jewish thinkers to adapt the notion of chosenness to an American context. Through an examination of sermons, essays, debates, prayer-book revisions, and theological literature, Eisen traces the ways in which American rabbis and theologians -- Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox thinkers -- effected a compromise between exclusivity and participation that allowed Jews to adapt to American life while simultaneously enhancing Jewish tradition and identity.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: The Modern Jewish Experience
PART ONE: Introduction
I. A Part and Apart
JOSEPH JONAS, one of the first American Jews to journey west of the Alleghenies, has left us a tale from his travels that precisely captures the several dilemmas with which this study is concerned. One day in 1817, Jonas reports, he encountered an elderly Quaker woman who had never before laid eyes on a Jew, and was rather excited by the prospect. "Art thou a Jew? Thou art one of God's chosen...
PART TWO: The “Second Generation” (1930–1955)
II. “Nation, People, Religion—What Are We?”
IN ORDER TO understand the second generation's reinterpretation of election, one first needs to examine the context in which it occurred, and the primary use to which it was put. Over a million Jews had poured into America in the decade before the First World War, following hundreds of thousands who had come just before them. Yet another quarter million would come soon after.1 In the...
III. Reform Judaism and the “Mission unto the Nations”
THE PRINCIPAL theological legacy of nineteenth century Reform Judaism—its notion of a Jewish mission unto the nations—was never without its vehement critics. Zionists repeatedly ridiculed the idea that the Jews' dispersion throughout the world had been a divinely intended device to bring the truth to all mankind, rather than a catastrophic historical accident which should be...
IV. Mordecai Kaplan and the New Jewish “Vocation”
THE PRINCIPAL THEORIST of American Jewish identity throughout the second generation, and the principal critic of the doctrines of mission and chosenness, was also the period's most influential, prolific, and incisive Jewish thinker. Turn where one would in those thirty years, one found Mordecai Kaplan with a critique of the traditional idea of election as he understood it, or of one of its...
V. Conservatism, Orthodoxy, and the Affirmation of Election
THE "UNRECONSTRUCTED" of the Conservative movement—the source of Kaplan's special frustration and ever the butt of his sarcasm—engaged throughout the second generation in an often futile search for middle ground. Kaplan at times exaggerated the evasions and confusions attendant on their effort: "on the one hand," he would say, "you had Reform. On the other, you had Orthodoxy. And on both hands—the Conservatives."1 However, Conservative interpretation of chosenness does lend credence to Kaplan's...
PART THREE: The “Third Generation” (1955–1980)
VI. Ambassadors at Home
THE TENSIONS INHERENT in the second generation's marriage of Judaism with America, detailed in previous chapters, were all too apparent to the thinkers of the third. In part theirs was the criticism that one expects of any child come of age: parental failings were enlarged upon (and, often, the virtues of the grandparents exaggerated) in an effort to create space and legitimacy for the...
VII. Children of the Halfway Covenant
THE "CONDITION OF JEWISH BELIEF" during the third generation received remarkable summary expression in a symposium of that title which appeared in Commentary magazine in 1966. Three conclusions may be drawn from the symposium that are of particular relevance in introducing the third generation's reflection upon chosenness. First, as editor Milton Himmelfarb astutely ...
PART FOUR: Conclusion
VIII. The Lessons of Chosenness in America
WE HAVE NOW traced two generations of American Jewry's public conversation about the meaning of its chosenness. Recalling R. W. B. Lewis's comment that "every culture seems, as it advances toward maturity, to produce its own determining debate over the ideas that preoccupy it."1 we have argued that chosenness preoccupied American Jewish thinkers because it was essential to...