The Limits of Orthodox Sociology

BY: Yitzchak Ratner.

Reviewed Book: Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). Price: $24.95.

A primary goal of a historian is to place a subject – be it a person, event, or idea – within a chronological context.  We would do well, then, to analyze Jeffrey Gurock’s Orthodox Jews in America by attempting to place his work on a historiographical spectrum.

An exacting reader could take issue with the book’s overly expansive title, as one might infer that Gurock’s tome purports to present the definitive history of American Orthodoxy, something it clearly does not do.  Gurock stays far away from any form of analysis of thoughts and ideas within Orthodox Judaism (with an important exception to be discussed below) and only describes American Orthodox social, political, and religious institutions insofar as they help explain the people that created and made use of them.  But the author (or perhaps his overly ambitious publisher) can be forgiven for this possible lapse in judgment, as from the book’s start its purpose is made abundantly clear.  Beginning with the book’s prologue, in which he nostalgically remembers the “wide tent” of the Orthodoxy with which he grew up,[i] Gurock attempts to chronicle the fluctuating levels of halakhic observance within Orthodox Judaism as well as to illuminate the recurrent struggle encountered by generations of American Jews: in the face of modernity, how should one relate to tradition?  With few exceptions, Gurock achieves his stated goals. In a word, Orthodox Jews in America is a social history of traditionally religious Jews in the United States.

While making numerous disclaimers, Gurock defends his right to compose this work despite his inherent biases as an Orthodox Jew who grew up in a world in which Jews with different levels of halakhic observance were treated as equals.[ii] Modern historians have moved away from German historian Leopold von Ranke’s claim that empirical study can reveal history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” – as it really was.  We realize now that no one can be totally objective, but, nevertheless, historians still seek to limit and contain as much as possible any inherent inclinations and predispositions.

Gurock’s ostensible weakness, however, soon reveals itself as a strength.  His proximity to the subject often enables him to get to the crux of the matter, producing a nuanced view of how ordinary Orthodox Jews dealt with traditional religion and American culture.  At least when it comes to the Orthodox Jews with whom I am most familiar, including the black-hatted Haredim of my Brooklyn hometown and the Modern Orthodox youth of Yeshiva University, Gurock’s descriptions of how they feel and think ring particularly true.

Orthodox Jews in America starts off by describing the travails of the first Jews to arrive on these shores in the 17th century.  These pioneers came to a land that was, in theory, tolerant of other religions, yet was inhospitable to the traditionally religious Jew who required much that was unavailable here, from Torah scrolls to etrogim to spiritual leaders. Still, Gurock informs us, they made do, paving the way for the first organized Jewish communities in New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia.  From the very beginning, the temptation to abandon traditional religious structures presented itself: the depiction of Michael Hart throttling his pork-guzzling son to the point of regurgitation is humorously grotesque.[iii] Concomitantly, many strictly observant Jews built the institutions necessary for religious life, including mikva’ot and synagogues, making it abundantly clear that while some Jews arriving in the New World immigrated in order to escape the shackles of tradition, many who came kept Halakhah to the best of their abilities.

It is striking that that level of religious discrepancy between different parts of the Jewish community, or at least a rapid change of viewpoint within the community, was present even in those early times. For example, Moses Nathans was on a committee from Congregation Mikveh Israel “that ruled against granting full religious burial rights in a special case involving an intermarried Jew. […] However, in later years, Nathans’s hard-line attitude changed dramatically when he himself consorted with a Christian woman who bore him a son”![iv] One thing was certain: the absence of an established Jewish community made it easier to give in to the call of the surrounding American culture.

A noticeable feature of American Judaism in the 1800s was the lack of traditional religious leadership.  There were few rabbis competent enough to keep the thousands of Jewish immigrants in line with the traditional Judaism prominent in Europe.  Changes in traditional lifestyle, therefore, were not as much a function of ideology as they were a practical response to the ever-present pressure to acculturate.  When certain congregations revised parts of the liturgy, it was often out of a desire to appear similar to their Christian neighbors, not out of an inner conviction that modern times demanded that Judaism change. Indeed, even when services might have been altered somewhat, many Jews still desired to keep kosher.  Reform Judaism, recognizing a widespread desire among American Jews to acculturate, used the opportunity to make deep inroads into American Jewish life.  This deference to practicality dominated how traditional Jews practiced their religion in America.  Tens of thousands of Jews worked on the Sabbath due to the widespread conviction that otherwise they would not be able to support their families.  Yet, many of these Jews self-identified with Orthodoxy.  When they held early (hashkamah) minyanim on Saturday mornings before heading out to work, they usually did so in an Orthodox synagogue.  There was no “compartmentalization” of their actions; the Sabbath desecrators did not say to themselves, “I believe in certain aspects of Judaism, just not this particular one.”  They held themselves to be traditional Jews who needed to survive and thus made concessions in their observance of Halakhah.

Ironically, though, as it became easier to be openly religious in America, with kosher hot dogs sold in ballparks and popular music by Jewish singers widely available, many Jews strayed further from Orthodoxy.  When these Jews removed themselves from traditional modes of Jewish living, whether consciously or unconsciously, they fell out of the tent of Orthodoxy, even one as big as that which Gurock describes.

Although Gurock never explicitly defines “Orthodoxy,” I understood him to mean that anyone who self-identifies with the Orthodox Jewish community can be considered religios.  It may come as a surprise to some that the term “religious,” in this book, is not defined by a certain level of observance – even though Halakhah itself, despite an awareness that “ki adam ein tsaddik ba-arets asher ya’aseh ttov ve-lo yeheta (for there is no man upon the earth who does good and does not sin),”[v] would certainly not consider some of Gurock’s Sabbath-breaking, pork-eating Orthodox Jews to be within the boundaries of observant Judaism.  But that is of no concern to the historian, and rightly so, as he is occupied with portraying what is colloquially known as Orthodox Judaism.

It seems, however, that some of Gurock’s own proclivities contributed to the inclusion of a chapter that simply does not belong with the rest of this excellent work.  Admitting that he is a long-time congregant of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ shul, Gurock devotes the last chapter to feminism and Orthodoxy, viewing this topic as the next frontier on which the borders of Orthodoxy can be pushed.

The social ramifications of Orthodox female rabbis and women’s prayer groups for Orthodox Jewry might be obvious, but the issues involved are overwhelmingly intellectual.  Attempting to wade through the complex legacy of Rabbi Soloveitchik on these topics, Gurock gets involved in issues over his head.  He is patently unqualified to evaluate the different arguments put forth by Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mayer Twersky, and Avi Weiss on this topic, and that becomes clear in his writing.  Gurock glosses over the nuanced halakhic problems involved, instead focusing on the “cruel irony” that the RIETS Rashei Yeshivah came to the same conclusions arrived at by the Agudah camp.[vi] Halakhic issues should be debated on their own merits, since an honest posek does not consider which sociological faction will agree with the conclusions he reaches.

There is an even simpler reason why Gurock should not have concerned himself with Orthodox feminism: it is a story that has not yet ended. Orthodox Jews in America, though it treats the subject seriously, was published before the recent controversy involving the Orthodox ordination of women, possibly one of the most salient episodes in the movement’s thirty-year history.  It is easy to miss the one passing reference to Sara Hurwitz, the focal point of the recent brouhaha, indicating that her first, limited, appointment had not been fully appreciated at the time of publication.  We should restrain ourselves from trying to place Orthodox feminism within the larger context of Orthodoxy in America until the full picture can be seen.  Twenty/twenty hindsight is the historian’s best weapon, and it should be put to use felicitously.

Yitzchak Ratner is a second-year student at BRGS majoring in Medieval Jewish History.

[i] Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodox Jews in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), p. 1.

[ii] See especially ibid., p. 20.

[iii] Ibid., p. 29.

[iv] Ibid., p. 36.

[v] Kohelet 7:20.

[vi] Gurock, p. 286.