Early Americanization

The formative period of American democracy was also a formative period for American JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol.... Much like the young republic, Judaism in America defined itself in contrast to its European past: created by the will of the people, it generated its leadership from within. The rhythms of the new nation resonated deeply with the Jews of early federal period who were present at the creation of the United States. And while caught up in the fight for American independence, they sowed the seeds of their own independence from European Judaism. By creating a distinctive American Judaism, they would become Americans themselves.

In the European Jewish community, religious authority was vested in a hierarchical structure at whose apex stood the chief rabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... of that community. In federalist America, however, the absence of rabbisRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... placed the institution and administration of the religious community in the hands of laymen. The early development of American Judaism was therefore highly democratized; created, to borrow words from the U.S. Constitution, “by the people, for the people, and of the people.” Through this democratization process, the synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... not only became the home for Jewish religious and social life, but also an arena for developing Americanization. Membership requirements were lowered to be more inclusive, synagogue regulations were reconceived as a written constitution, the community elected a president, and ideals of free speech created rich community conversations. At the same time, symbols of American patriotism became incorporated into the synagogue: the celebration of American holidays, the memorialization of war veterans, and an insistence upon using the English language. More and more often Christian American neighbors would be welcomed as visitors. Ultimately, such openings to the outside world would have repercussions for the nature of Judaism inside.

The Americanization of Judaism was perhaps best represented by the new form of religious leadership. In 1768, the Jewish congregation of New York hired twenty-three year-old Gershom Mendes Seixas as the first American-born hazzanIn Judaism, a cantor or hazzan/chazzan is one who recites, chants, or sings prayers or liturgical passages in the synagogue. (lay ministerMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam).), engaged by the colonial synagogue as the regular leader of the service. In Europe, the hazzan often functioned as the kosherKosher means, literally, “proper” or “correct” and refers to food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws (kashrut). These dietary laws prescribe what foods may be eaten, how animals must be slaughtered etc. butcher, the ritual circumciser, and the religious educator, but never attained the community authority and respect of the rabbiRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion.. However, in an American context where ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... ministersMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). were venerated and ordainedOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... rabbisRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion. nonexistent, Seixas’ role as the hazzan soon attained a wider scope and larger purpose, providing the nascent Jewish community with a figure who might represent Judaism both within the synagogue and to the world at large.

In this context, Seixas joined the revolutionary effort and led his community out of British-held New York City to Philadelphia. There, in 1782, he spoke at the dedication of the new synagogue and invoked blessings upon “His Excellency the President, & Honorable Delegates of the United States of America in Congress Assembled,” thus bringing American politics and revolutionary themes into the synagogue service. In December 1783, Seixas participated in a petition to abolish the Christian oath required by the Pennsylvania Constitution for government service, which acknowledged both “the scriptures of the Old and New TestamentThe New Testament is the collection of a body of writings the early Christian community came to accept as authoritative: the four gospels, the Book of Acts, the letters of Paul, several other letters or epistles, and the Book of Revelation. to be given by divine inspiration.” According to Seixas’ petition, the oath requirement was “a stigma upon their nation and their religion.” Returning to New York in 1789, Seixas was present at the inauguration of President George Washington. Had he remained in Philadelphia, he would have been the hazzan to walk arm in arm with his fellow clergymen in celebration of the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. In short, Seixas’ career, combining religious functionary and ethnic representative, was the prototype for the American rabbi.

In general, however, the post-Revolutionary period witnessed a decline of the religious sphere. Just as the role of the churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... in American life was receding, the synagogue/community bond was also no longer the quintessential element of some Jewish individuals’ lives; many Jews began to assimilate into politics or journalism as means of expressing Jewish commitments. An example of this model would be Mordecai Manuel NoahNoah was the descendant of Adam whose story is told in the biblical narrative of Genesis 6-9. He built an ark and saved himself and his family from a flood, taking with him pairs of animals of all kinds. After the earth was devastated by flood, God made a... of New York and Isaac Harby of South Carolina. While both were active in their respective synagogue communities, each reached a position of influence through journalistic writing and public speaking. Noah is best known for his proto-Zionist plan to establish a Jewish colony near Buffalo, and Harby as the leader of an early effort to reform JudaismReform Judaism is one of the major modern Jewish movements, originating in 19th century Europe and coming to flower in the United States. It emphasizes the legitimacy of change, the commanding importance of ethical monotheism, and the liberal Jewish commi... in Charleston. These were a new kind of Jew: active and successful in secular society, yet maintaining loyalty to their Jewish origins. At the same time, the Jewish tradition was developing a new way of life that combined democratization, Americanization, and secularization—a process that brought Judaism into a new era in North America.


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