In The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became An American Religion (S&S, Aug.), Steven R. Weisman, v-p for publications and communications for the Peterson Institute for International Economics reviews the history of Judaism in the United States, starting in the 18th century. Through the stories of some colorful figures and controversies, Weisman examines the tensions between tradition and reform that shaped the Jewish religion into its current forms.
How would you summarize the idea for this book?
The Chosen Wars recounts the turbulent story of how rabbis, activists, traditionalists, feminists, and rebels redefined Judaism in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their revision of practices, traditions, and doctrines split Judaism into its three main branches, with “reformers” dominant then and now. This was a classical American phenomenon—American Protestants were splitting into various denominations at the same time, infused by a democratic spirit in which worshippers sought their own identities. These trends gave birth to a reshaped “mission” for most American Jews—away from seeking a return to Zion and toward a new emphasis of being “chosen” as a “light unto the nations” to spread a message of monotheism and justice for all.
Could you provide some examples of who defined American Judaism, and how they did so?
The book focuses on maybe a dozen major characters. They include Isaac Mayer Wise, a German immigrant who established the institutions of Reform Judaism but tried unsuccessfully to create a single “American Judaism” adopting modern practices. His archrival was Isaac Leeser, a brilliant traditionalist in Philadelphia [who became] the father of Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. I’ve tried to bring these and others to life in the book, including important feminist pioneers like Rebecca Gratz (founder of Jewish Sunday schools) and the poet Penina Moise.
Why did you write this book now?
American Judaism is at a historical inflection point, divided over many issues and plagued by concerns over intermarriage, secularization, and assimilation, not to mention Israel and its policies. Are Jews a “people” with a racial identity or adherents of a religion? Disagreements also abound over social and economic justice, tolerance, feminism, gay rights, government’s role, and the protection of religious liberty. American Jews on opposite ends of the religious spectrum do not even recognize one another as Jews.
I wrote this book to show that these debates are rooted in history—ancient and modern—and that Jews in America have overcome them and defied predictions that they would disappear. As I write in the Epilogue, Jews can draw strength from their history and the courageous figures of the past and look forward to the leadership that will surely come in the future.
Do you see any connection between the changes Judaism underwent in America, and how Islam is viewed in the U.S. today?
Yes, but only by implication. Many experts say that Islam must go through a “reformation,” as Judaism has, in order to be accepted. Bigots who revile the Qur’an for its passages of hatred and murder forget that the Bible contains many similar passages that Jews wrestled with and reinterpreted or discarded. We can only survive in a society of pluralism and tolerance. The saga of Jews struggling with those goals is relevant to all religions, including those alien to some in the mainstream—not only Islam but Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Asian faiths.