INTRODUCTION: NEW INFLUENCES ON NEW JEWISH AMERICANS
Joseph Seligman’s home town was Baiersdorf, a village of something over 1,000 inhabitants about four miles north of Erlangen where the ambitious youngster had once studied. The typical Jew in a Bavarian village was rigidly Orthodox in thought and practice. After Seligman reached these shores he became a secretary to Asa Packer, the carpenter who built the Lehigh Valley Railroad and ultimately became one of the richest men in all Pennsylvania. The secretary who deliberately turned peddler became an international banker only twenty-seven years after he stepped foot on American soil; the erstwhile Orthodox religionist became a firm supporter of nontheistic Ethical Culture.
When Seligman began opening branch banks here and abroad in the middle 1860’s he and his fellow-travelers had been in this country for a generation; living in this open society they were already completely Americanized. Though this Bavarian emigrant and the Jews of his day were never to escape Judeophobia they were completely emancipated enjoying all rights and immunities. Living in a great day when opportunity challenged them on all sides many of them met that challenge successfully. New York City was a far cry from Baiersdorf or Inowrazlaw in Posen. The American megalopolis of postwar days had streetcars, railroads, monster machines, barrack-like tenements, and hundreds of thousands of laborers who mass-manufactured goods for a world market. The factory and the city had produced one another and together they had given birth to huge ethnic subcommunities. One of these was the Jewish community with its own charities, schools, and synagogs.
This urban society created more than opportunity; it also created problems. It distorted the traditional European Jewish way of life. In this new interdependent and standardized American world it was difficult to maintain Jewish separatism. The factory and office were not hospitable to religious diversity; they played havoc with the Saturday-Sabbath, the dietary laws, the daily services, the beard, the earlocks, the Jewish language, and the age-hallowed garb. But there were also compensations: an open road to economic freedom, wealth, secular culture, and the chance to scatter largesse to Christian and Jew alike. With riches and culture came a larger degree of social acceptance by the host elite and, for those whose eyes sparkled at the thought, assimilation, escape.
The inviting contemporary culture made for radical changes. For many the new learning and the older Jewish civilization were incompatible. The acceptance of modernity seemed to demand the rejection of antiquity; science took precedence over tradition. The historicocritical approach to knowledge and belief was bound to end in the neglect or modification of the Jewish way of life. The older spiritual world was shaken to its foundations. New philosophies and literature questioned all tradition, Jewish and Christian, and emphasized a common humanity. The orthodoxy of all Judeo-Christian believers was affected by the new geology, astronomy, biology, and cosmogony, by Lyell and Darwin. Geology which had declared the world millions of years old blasted the Garden of Eden, God’s single act of creation, and man’s overnight ascent to angelic heights.
And even as man was not kneaded into the semblance of a human being in a moment neither were Jewish beliefs and customs and ceremonies. The new Science of Judaism—sophisticated criticism applied to Jewish literature—had demonstrated that all that the Jew believed had evolved slowly over the centuries; it was not the lightning-flash revelation of one single point in time. The most sacred religious teachings rose over the centuries, were modified through the ages, and are ineluctably subject to further change. The Bible as a total book is not the word of God; it is great literature, ethical literature, but it is not authoritative. The new thinking of the mid-nineteenth century turned Orthodoxy and the world of the Bible bottom side up. The rising discipline of comparative religion made for doubt, anticredalism, tolerance, and religious indifference. Thousands no longer believed that they had the one and only truth; for many this awareness was utterly devastating. For others the impacts of modernity were not a tearing down but a building up. Life was enriched through western culture. The inhibitions of Orthodoxy were there to be surmounted: man had the right—the duty?—to throw off the incubus of the past and to think for himself. Jewish scholars could now harness the message of science to explain the realities of the past; possibly even a more inspiring national grandeur might be brought to light. The new culture might well open vistas to the Jew that would enlarge him spiritually, mentally, emotionally, giving him the opportunity to voice his highest humanitarian impulses.
The new economy, the exacting state, modern culture and critical thought, all have done much to overthrow Jewish law and authority. Yet it is equally true that the majority of Jewish religionists of the Civil War and post-Civil War period never fully confronted the new academic discipline; most Children of Israel lived intellectually undisturbed in the older world of rabbinism and in the comfortable new intellectual milieu that was America. Even many who thought themselves Orthodox adjusted their daily actions and thinking to the modern world about them. For a growing influential minority of successful businessmen, however, there was no halfway house; they rejected Orthodoxy. Emancipating themselves from an unscientific, unacceptable tradition, they began to adapt modern ways of thinking and acting to their own needs. They insisted on what was for them a rational and viable faith. Ready for change they moved into the camp of Reform Judaism. Here was a mode of religious thought that satisfied them; there was no need to forswear Judaism, to turn to Christianity, Unitarianism, or to the other liberal movements of the postbellum decades.
If the Jews of the second half of the nineteenth century were ushered into a new world it was in no small measure the act of the mercantilist and capitalist state which sought to exploit all possible sources of power and wealth. Creative and intelligent, the Jews were such a potential source. Thus they were given all civil and political rights in the United States and even a substantial measure of social acceptance. Jews, many of them newcomers, found themselves caught up in American secular dilemmas. They took sides in America’s mid-century war as their neighbors did—as Northerners or Southerners—not as Jews. And the war itself—the pressures of army or the homefront—made them more American. Individuals among them began to make a career in politics; Jews, learning the value of bloc-voting in a democracy, exerted pressures on the government to intercede on behalf of disadvantaged Jews here and oppressed communities abroad. For the first time in many centuries a Jewish community had arisen that became the subject not the object of history.
Everything is bought at a price. Having but one, a unitary type of citizenship, the modern state demands uniformity in culture, language, customs, and even ideals. It insists on subservience to the folkways of the majority. Jealous of all church authority the government preempts the highest loyalty for itself, the new religion. The national ethos thus becomes the rival of Judaism, it menaces the faith of the Jew, and because the country’s culture is more prestigious, more appealing, and more profitable he can disregard his own ancestral traditions. Americanism, the common national complex of character, tone, and belief, threatens to supersede Judaism. Thus if it wishes to retain its adherents here it is driven to modify itself radically.