There’s some commentary in the New York Times Sunday that requires more than just a Facebook share with an open-ended comment like “a cautionary tale.”
It’s not that I disagree with the author’s interpretation of How America’s Jews Learned to Be Liberal. It’s not that I object to America’s Jews becoming liberal, politically or religiously though I identify as conservative in both realms (guarded locution because both liberal and conservative are highly contested and equivocal, and there no doubt are some, starting with one of my nephews, who would scoff at the very notion of a Never Trump Conservative).
What merits comment is this:
Judaism became a distinctively American religion, substantially changed from what it had been for more than two millenniums.
One factor in the rise of an American Judaism was practical. To assimilate and work in their adopted land, many Jews abandoned some of their ancient practices, from observing the Sabbath to keeping kosher and wearing distinctive clothing. Discarding these practices forced Jews to turn their faith into a devotion to core beliefs, rather than customs and practices.
More broadly, Jews sought to “Americanize” their rituals, making them look more like the church ceremonies of their neighbors. The largely German immigrants of the 19th century started Sunday schools, mixed men and women in family pews and incorporated choirs, organ music and sermons in their services while rejecting or shortening some obscure prayers. These changes provoked debates, division and lawsuits. But they took hold, even among traditionalists, and continued even after the influx of two million Jews from Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
The most significant change to Judaism was its untethering from the ancient tradition of praying for an altogether human messiah to deliver the Jews back to Jerusalem, restore the ancient temple destroyed in the year A.D. 70 and re-establish the House of David to rule over Jews in their ancient land of Zion, as prophesied in the Bible. These were among the enduring 13 principles codified as central to Judaism by Maimonides in the 12th century.
I grieve that American seduced many of its Jews to abandon their ancestral religion for what arguably is a counterfeit.
I caution those Americans whose Christian tradition has some “ancient practices,” especially in your liturgy/order of worship, not to relinquish even one of them just because it makes you odd. As Flannery O’Connor once quipped, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
Those Americans whose Christian traditions have no “ancient practices” I would caution differently: Have you already substantially changed historic Christianity into a distinctly American counterfeit? (I’m looking at you, Evangelicals who not just tolerate Trump but enthuse over him because he promises to “MAGA”.)
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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.