- Who Rules the Synagogue? Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism by Zev Eleff
The earliest American synagogues were created by immigrants hoping to sustain Jewish ritual, practice, and community in a new environment. As the number of Jews in the United States grew (from around 5000 in 1820 to approximately 250,000 in 1880), and as the social and economic status of one-time new immigrants trended upward and solidified, expectations for their public religious lives transformed accordingly. As synagogue communities evolved to meet the needs of Americanizing Jews, so did expectations for the men invested with congregational leadership.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Jews in numerous American cities had organized themselves into congregations, often hiring functionaries to lead services, slaughter kosher meat, and collect membership dues. The men hired for these tasks were not highly valued, as it was presumed that any literate male Jew should be able to perform their duties. Meanwhile, congregational lay leaders navigated the often messy process of adjusting traditional religious practices to new world expectations. When disagreements over slaughter technique or worship style arose, there were no collectively recognized authorities to settle such disputes. Communities might defer to those with the most ritual knowledge, put issues to a vote, or turn to authorities in other cities or countries. The results were not pretty, often resulting in fistfights, excommunications, court battles, and occasionally new congregations.
In Who Rules the Synagogue? Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism, Zev Eleff portrays the struggle for religious authority in nascent congregations as the terrain on which the Americanization of Judaism took place. Rather than focus on the particulars of ritual reform, Eleff tracks the question of who in these communities could claim the standing to make religious decisions, lead movements for change, and represent the congregation.
Drawing upon a broad range of sources (enriched by digital search capacities not available to earlier historians of these questions), Eleff offers an intriguing and textured narrative of the nineteenth-century American synagogue and its leadership. In doing so, he enters a discussion previously focused either on rabbis who imposed European doctrines upon American Jews or on laypeople whose desire for change led them to break away from tradition to create synagogues embodying their own democratic inclinations. As he traces a self-conscious strategic campaign by European-trained rabbis to wrest control of the synagogue from laymen’s [End Page 310] hands, Eleff identifies a “revolution” in synagogue life that he asserts has been overlooked by earlier historians. His telling shifts the view of the development of nineteenth-century American Judaism away from ritual change to a focus on rabbinic campaigns for power and authority.
Eleff’s rabbinic protagonists seek tools that could force congregational leaders to defer to them rather than vice-versa. He emphasizes the self-conscious efforts of rabbis like Isaac Mayer Wise, probing for weaknesses among lay authorities, learning from the successes and failures of their peers, and girding themselves with textual knowledge, as they sought to redefine congregational practice. The 1850s brought a wave of rabbi-composed liturgies which, as Eleff notes, were not all that different from the traditional service. Their main purpose, in his reading, was to create a service that congregants could no longer navigate or lead on their own.
Eleff finds the rabbis victorious by the late 1860s and carries his story through to the assertion of rabbinic power represented by the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. By that time, Wise and his colleagues presided over a solemn, decorous Judaism in elaborate synagogues built by prosperous post-Civil War communities. Yet, in Eleff’s view, theirs was a hollow victory. Although successful in transforming the synagogue from informal communal homes for recent immigrants into more formal venues for prosperous Americans, these rabbis looked out over sanctuaries that were as empty as they were grand. According to Eleff, laypeople had lost interest in a setting that they no longer controlled. Here Eleff leaves his reader hanging. Since we know synagogues did not disappear...