- Disagreement and Denominationalism: The Kohut-Kohler Debate of 1885
This paper examines an important religio-cultural moment in nineteenth-century American Jewish history: the dispute between two prominent rabbis, Alexander Kohut and Kaufmann Kohler, which exposed the emerging denominational nature of Jewish religious life in the United States. The controversy in the summer of 1885 between Kohut, an advocate of liberalized traditional Judaism (a precursor of what would later be called Conservative Judaism), and Kohler, the dynamic intellectual force behind Reform Judaism in the United States, led to the formation of firmer boundaries between traditionalism and Reform. I argue that the issues at stake in their debate were part of the leaven for American Jewish denominationalism. This paper examines the substance of their debate within the larger context of the fragmentation of the Jewish religious community. What is new about my approach to the debate is that I view it, especially in my concluding remarks, from an “economics of religion” perspective—that is to say, the social and religious issues that occupy Kohut and Kohler unfolded in the way they did because of the particular religious market in which they found themselves. I will conclude with reflections about what this episode might teach us about contemporary denominationalism.
This period of American religious history generally, and American Jewish history specifically, was an era of great inter- and intra-religious competition. [End Page 71] The religious choices available to American Jews were broader than any community in Jewish history had ever had: there were no temporal penalties assessed for choosing one option over another. An American Jew did not have to join another religious community to see his or her religious needs fulfilled. There were now alternatives within Judaism. Different religious desires prompted the creation of different responses from religious leaders, as American Judaism had moved largely from a religion based on obligation to one based on personal preference.
Although I argue that the debate between Kohut and Kohler was a significant moment in the creation of a denominational structure within American Judaism, Kohut did not see himself as part of a new denomination. An editorial in the American Hebrew, a publication that would prove amenable to the views of Kohut, noted that Judaism preceded the “fierce wrangle” of sectarianism: “What Dr. Kohut, did, and is doing with wonderful force, is to bring us back to the realization of this old truth.”1 Despite the optimism of the editorial, he was in fact defining the broad outlines of a third movement in American Judaism, instead of extracting himself from the fray of sectarianism. Kohut defined this movement of mind, if not yet of bodies, as “conservative progress” against “nerveless indifference” and “glowing fanaticism.”2 By setting firm boundaries between his own Judaism and the Judaism of those on his right and left, Kohut was not, as he imagined, marking out a Judaism above denominational competition, but one very much within it. As Jonathan Sarna notes, denominationalism is at the heart of American Judaism: “historically, every group that has announced that it is non-denominational, post-denominational, or transdenominational ends up being just one more denomination.”3
This paper will consider in detail two issues that divided Kohut and Kohler: biblical criticism and Jewish law. Both issues serve to highlight the growing, if not yet abysmal, differences between Reform, especially in its radical phase, and liberal traditionalists. Before turning to the key issues in their debate, some background on the debate is necessary.
The American Hebrew published competing sermons of both Kohut and Kohler in the summer of 1885. Kohler’s addresses were a vivid illustration [End Page 72] of radical Reform, while Kohut’s sermons were something separate altogether from both Reform and East European-style Orthodoxy, placing before the Jewish public a new contender for their allegiance.4 Although other Jewish weeklies were involved in the print dispute, the American Hebrew was the main forum for the debate between the two rabbis, publishing the sermons of each. The paper began printing in 1879, quickly developing into an important force in the Americanization of the growing immigrant Jewish population in the United States. It had the...