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  • America on the Responsa Map:Hasidim, Mitnagdim, and the Trans-Atlantic Social Network of Religious Authority
  • Zef Segal (bio) and Menahem Blondheim (bio)

There is a deep tension limning the experience of Jews, Jewry, and Judaism in America and their relation to the Old World. One side of this tension—perhaps ambivalence—is the depth of the immigrants' uprooting, the degree to which they rejected the alte haym (old home). Few voluntary migrations in the modern world were as decisive, the disowning they implied so conclusive. The demographics of the migration, including the proportion of people who migrated versus those who stayed, the rapidity of their coalescence into a mass-migration movement, and that movement's unidirectionality, indicate an overwhelming rejection of the old country.

From the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, fully one-third of Eastern European Jews evacuated their countries of birth. The uprooting was thorough and systematic: a large majority of the Jewish immigrants had their way paid by relatives who had already settled in America. The intention was patent: no family member should remain behind. And indeed, an unusually large share of Jewish immigrants never looked back. While at least 30 percent of most (non-Jewish) immigrants returned to their homelands, the rate of return among Jews was a minuscule 7 percent, and even that was until the outbreak of World War I, which practically stopped return migration.1 Strictly, "no return" may have been mythical, but it was certainly a dominant state of mind. Jewish immigrants to America conclusively and emphatically turned their backs on the countries they left.2 [End Page 133]

Yet at the same time, Jewish Americans were distinctly outward looking, remarkably mindful of their brethren's affairs. Historian Eli Lederhendler has recently argued that the distinguishing aspect of American Jews, both as an immigrant group and religious group in America, was precisely their awareness, interest, and connectedness to their coreligionists abroad. This "foreign aspect of American Jewry's history," Lederhendler argues, was unique, it was "an essential attribute of Jews' 'otherness.'".3 The significance of this dimension of connectedness stands, however, in stark contrast to the decisiveness we noted in the uprooting process characterizing American Jewish immigration.

This duality, which touches on the most fundamental sensibilities of American Jews, calls for careful analysis. What follows is an attempt to untangle one strand of this ambiguity, one that relates to the religious aspect of the problem of continuity and its severance. Lederhendler argues that ecclesiastical ties disintegrated, that there were "no formal, hierarchical relations between Jewish rabbis and congregations in the United States and those abroad. Such ties of religious dependency that occasionally developed were ephemeral and apt to atrophy quickly."4 While we do not disagree with the gist of this argument, we will try here to delimit its scope and point to areas in which religious authority served as a realm of connectedness between American Jews and their homelands, rather than an arena of severance. In what follows, we attempt to map and evaluate the forces of connectedness between America and Europe and their disruption, the continuity and change in the realm of religious authority and religious teachings. In this study, we use responsa literature as a prime source for uncovering the dynamics of traditional Jewish religious authority, its disruption and its binding force.

Responsa literature is a traditional rabbinical genre, dating back to the Middle Ages. Responsa are written replies to questions of Jewish religious law (halakhah), which had been conveyed in writing to a rabbinic authority. While many consider responsa strictly as exchanges related to practical, real-life legal dilemmas that had actually occurred, responsa have in fact been written on virtually every aspect of Jewish life and thought. The diffusion of such texts, in turn, became the standard mode of circulating legal rulings throughout the Jewish diaspora since the Geonic period, in many cases setting binding legal precedents, civil law-style.5 [End Page 134]

Accordingly, responsa literature has been widely recognized by historians as a rich resource for both reconstructing the development of rabbinic law and for illuminating the historical details of everyday life in Jewish communities over the ages.6 Less obvious and less...


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