Jewish Journal

When Jews Became a ‘Modern’ People

by Jacob Neusner

Posted on Jan. 27, 2005 at 7:00 pm


"After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity" by David Ellenson (Hebrew Union College Press, 2004).

In the forward of "After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity," Michael Meyer explains: "This book is directed especially to a broader readership ... that is not likely to have read these essays when they first appeared in scholarly journals..."

Author David Ellenson defines modernity: "Emancipation and enlightenment at the end of the 18th century initiated a process of political and social integration of Jews into Western culture.... The essays gathered in this volume ... focus on the ... period in which Jews were called upon to redefine and reconceptualize themselves and their traditions as both the Jewish community and individual Jews entered this radically new realm of possibility and challenge."

He introduces himself first. Raised in an Orthodox synagogue in Newport News, Va., in the 1950s, his education defined a journey into Judaism pursued within the theoretical literature of religious studies. To his credit, he remembers many important influences, at Virginia, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and Columbia University, where he did his doctoral studies on German Orthodox Judaism.

The collection of 23 freestanding, but topically connected, essays in five rubrics covers these subjects, explained by Ellenson in the preface:

1. Reflections on Modernity: Judaism resurgent? American Jews and the evolving expression of Jewish values and Jewish identity; Jacob Katz on the origins and dimensions of Jewish modernity; Max Weber on Judaism and the Jews.

Ellenson explains: This "presents the overarching theme that informs my work in general ... the ongoing and evolving nature of the Jewish response to the modern enterprise ... in the American context."

2. The Challenge of Emancipation: Emancipation and the directions of modern Judaism. The lessons of Melitz Yosher; a disputed precedent: the Prague organ in 19th century central European legal literature and polemics; Samuel Holdheim and Zacharias Frankel on the legal character of Jewish marriage; traditional reactions to modern Jewish Reform, the paradigm of German Orthodoxy; the Rabbiner-Seminar Codicil, an instrument of boundary maintenance. "These essays look at Jewish legal and liturgical writings in 19th-century Europe...and indicate how Jewish religious leaders ... demonstrated that the Jewish religion and Jewish culture were worthy of respect by the gentile world...."

3. Denominational Responses: the Israelitische Gebetbuecher of Abraham Geiger and Manuel Joel; the prayers for rain in the Siddurim of Abraham Geiger and Isaac Mayer Wise; German Jewish Orthodoxy, tradition in the context of culture; Gemeindeorthodoxie in Weimar Germany, the approaches of Nehemiah Anton Nobel and Isak Unna; the curriculum of the Jewish Theological Seminary in historical and comparative perspective; a prism on the emergence of American religious denominationalism

The essays cover "how the leaders of Liberal and Orthodox branches of Judaism in Central Europe constructed novel parameters for their communities through prayer books, legal writings, sermons and journal articles.

4. Modern Responsa: Women and the study of Torah: a responsum by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin of Jerusalem; Gender, Halakhah, and women's suffrage: response of the first three chief rabbis on the public role of women in the Jewish states; Parallel worlds: Wissenschaft and Psak in the Seridei Eish; a Jewish legal authority addresses Jewish-Christian dialogue: two responses of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein; Jewish legal interpretation and moral values: two responses by Rabbi Hayim David Halevi on the obligations of the Israelite government toward its minority population; Interpretative fluidity and Psak in the case of Pidyon Shevuyim: an analysis of a modern Israeli responsum as illuminated by the thought of David Hartman; Artificial fertilization and procreative autonomy, two contemporary responses.

Here Ellenson "takes a close look at 20th-century Jewish legal decisions on ... new issues: the status of women, interfaith relations, modern academic scholarship, recent medieval advancements, and the reestablishment of Jewish political autonomy through the creation of the State of Israel."

5. New Initiatives, New Directions: a new rite from Israel: reflections on Siddur Va'ani tefillati of the Masorti (Conservative) movement; David Hartman on Judaism and the Modern condition; Marcia Falk's The Book of Blessings, the issue is theological.

These essays "analyze a few landmark contemporary works of legal and liturgical; creativity by individuals and movements from diverse sectors of the Jewish religious world."

The essays are diverse -- some of narrowly academic interest, others of broad implications that engage a wide audience. Among the latter is "Judaism resurgent?" which "demonstrates the ways in which American attitudes toward ethnic identity and public manifestations of faith have evolved over the past century.... Jews in the United States are overwhelmingly universalistic, and particularistic affirmations are made in the service of universal moral and spiritual values ... the question ... is whether such affirmations will provide strong enough ... to sustain a broad cultural and communal identity."

The survey of 20th-century Jewish opinion is illuminating. But the strongest group of essays are those that expound the ideas of theologians and scholars of Judaic thought, inclusive of both the media of law and philosophy. Here Ellenson is able to introduce systematic analytical writings and show how they work. Among the best work in the book are the essays on Jacob Katz, Max Weber and a number of 19th- and 20th-century Orthodox and Reform religious thinkers, including Geiger and I. M. Wise, Holdheim and Frankel, Nobel and Unna.

Finally, a sequence of halachic disquisitions shows Ellenson at his best: erudite, lucid and purposive. Most of the chapters are given "final thoughts," conclusions that underscore the main point. Ellenson is a scholar who generalizes and draws conclusions and doesn't only lay out a lot of obscure information about this and that. So there is never reason to wonder about the point of the exercise; it is always made explicit and accessible.

Ellenson stands in the front rank of scholars of modern and contemporary Judaism, and these essays constitute a formidable contribution to not only the study of the topics they treat, respectively, but also the formation of a coherent, encompassing conception of Judaism in modern times.

No wonder in his presidency of Hebrew HUC-JIR he has made so many truly distinguished appointments, turning the Reform seminary into an influential center of learning in Judaism.

Jacob Neusner is research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.


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