A debate has raged of late over the spiritual condition of American Jewry, and in particular over the forces that make for continuity in that condition as opposed to the forces that make for change. In the usual model, change is considered to come from without, from the stresses and stimuli of modernity, while continuity comes from within, through the mobilized resources of tradition. My own view is that the usual model has the terms reversed: for Jews in the post-emancipation period, it is the process of modernization that is both normal and normative, constituting the element of continuity. Change, insofar as it enters the picture at all, takes the form of attempts at what might be called rejudaization. Such attempts, seeking at a minimum to set a brake to the modernization process, and more ambitiously to make the Judaic element once again the central pivot of Jewish life, have very rarely met with success.

An excellent source for examining this entire issue is Nathan Glazer’s classic study, American Judaism, which has been continuously in print since 1957. The second (1972) edition of Glazer’s book has recently been republished with a substantial new introduction.1

It was as a young “New York intellectual”—writer, editor, part-time professor—that Glazer was invited by Daniel Boorstin to contribute a volume on Jewish life to the prestigious Chicago History of American Civilization; other books in the series included Winthrop Hudson’s American Protestantism and John Tracy Ellis’s American Catholicism. In the brief compass of a 149-page text, Glazer put forward a strikingly original interpretation of Jewish religious development in the United States, focusing in good part on the period 1940-56.



Glazer was writing at a time—the mid—1950’s-when religion was enjoying a remarkable revival of prestige among intellectuals, and he was clearly caught up in it. As he would later recall:

My only involvement with Jewish religion as anything more than unexplicated practice came in my early years [as an editor] at COMMENTARY, when I participated for a while in a study group that read the Mishneh Torah [by Maimonides], but not in any Orthodox or traditional manner, and more briefly met, at Irving Kristol’s suggestion, with Seymour Siegel to read the Talmud. Clearly none of this took. But it left me with an appreciation of the Jewish heritage, a sympathy with the effort to maintain and continue it under the circumstances of modern life. But that is where it stayed.

Thus, in American Judaism Glazer was writing, as Daniel Boorstin has observed, “from within the Jewish tradition,” as a well-wisher. But on the basis of the evidence at hand he was nevertheless forced to conclude that the prospects for the Jewish religion were bleak indeed: “[H]onesty requires one to say that it is likely that no satisfactory example [of Jewish religious life] can be given in the modern world, that those moments in Jewish history when the Jews were truly a people of priests and a holy nation required circumstances that never can be repeated.”

What lay behind this dark assessment? Quite simply, the twin processes of modernization and secularization, which Glazer saw as undermining religion generally and Jewish life and faith particularly. Modern Jews, he wrote, were positively enthralled with science and reason, values they associated with the Enlightenment and with political emancipation. These values were epitomized in the Reform movement, the “most consciously rational and universalizing Jewish religious tendency.” Traditional or Orthodox Judaism, by contrast, was bereft of intellectual resources for coping with a changed social reality, the more so since its emphasis on deed over doctrine, observance over belief, left it without a “defense in depth, so to speak.”

But the main damage wrought by modernization, according to Glazer, was the fundamental split it introduced between Jewish faith and Jewish ethnicity. Judaism, he stressed, was unique in being a “nation-religion,” and the tie between faith and people was “so intimate that the word ‘Jew’ in common usage refers ambiguously both to an adherent of the religion of Judaism and to a member of the Jewish people.” Precisely because this combination has always been so essential, the “assimilation of Jews—that is, the disappearance of Jews as an identifiable and distinct people—is a real threat to the Jewish religion.” That, indeed, had been the pattern in Western European society. In America, however, something different was happening: the religious element was becoming subordinate to the ethnic. As Glazer put it, “. . . the emphasis on the national characteristics, on the Jewish people, has become so strong within parts of American Judaism that it has obscured what seems to a modern mind the properly religious elements in Judaism—the relation to God, the idea of salvation, and the like.”



In tracing this split between Judaism and “Jewishness,” Glazer developed a basic scheme of periodization for the study of American Jewish religion. He began with the colonial period (1654-1825), focusing on the “dignified Orthodoxy” of the Sephardim. From there he moved to the era of German Jewish immigration, charting the growth of Reform Judaism in both its moderate and radical versions (1825-94), and then the opposition to Reform by the more traditional-minded adherents of the nascent Conservative movement (1880-1900). Next came the great age of East European Jewish immigration (1880-1920), which witnessed the wholesale collapse of Orthodoxy. Glazer then turned to the period 1920-40, in which a “floundering religious life” was offset by an efflorescence of ethnic Jewishness:

Socialists, Communists, anarchists, Zionists of all types, territorialists . . . and combinations of them all, in the dense areas of Jewish settlement in the big cities, had their groups, their centers, their social events, their newspapers and periodicals. Outside of politics there were the cultural Yiddishists and Hebraists with their circles and centers, their publishing organizations, and newspapers and magazines.

On a somewhat higher social level, there were other forms of Jewish life which had little or nothing to do with the Jewish religion. These were the philanthropic, defense, and benevolent societies.

When he came to his final period—1940-56—Glazer suddenly confronted a mass of evidence that appeared to contradict his thesis of increased Jewish ethnicity and decreased Jewish religious practice. These years, after all, saw the great push of second-generation American Jews into suburbia, a push that was accompanied by the phenomenal growth of Conservative and Reform synagogues, by a sharp rise in the number of children receiving some form of Jewish religious education, and even by a modest strengthening of what Glazer called the “modified American standard of piety by which one attends services, lights candles on Friday night, and observes the major holidays. . . .” Did not all this indicate a religious revival in the making?

Glazer was skeptical. In accounting for the growth of “institutional Judaism” he fashioned instead an argument strikingly similar to that of Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Marshall Sklare in Conservative Judaism, two books that had appeared in 1955. It was, he wrote, in conformity with the social expectations of middle-class America that Jews were becoming members of synagogues, and their Judaism was merely the institutionalized expression of the demarcation of American suburban life into communities recognizable by their “denominational” affiliations: “It is the social needs of the individual Jew, and the communal needs of the entire community, that the synagogue has met. . . . But the Jews themselves do not demonstrate any strong religious drive.”

In his concluding chapter, Glazer went beyond analysis to lament openly the sorry fate of the Jewish religion in the modern world. What had become of Judaism’s capacity to produce models of authentic religious life—the “holy community”? With the single exception of the Brooklyn-based Hasidim, Glazer found no such models on the American Jewish scene. So rare was genuine “spiritual experience” among Jews that “any strong religious feeling is looked upon with suspicion in the Jewish community.” Given these circumstances, Glazer saw little hope for an authentic religious renewal. “What can still come of [American Judaism] I do not know,” plaintively reads his closing sentence.



Thus, Glazer in 1957. In 1972, however, in an interview conducted just prior to the release of the second edition of his book, he found himself able to report some “positive differences” that had occurred over the intervening fifteen years. And in the epilogue to the second edition he spelled out what these differences were. The regnant ideology of American Jews, Glazer wrote in 1972, had become “survivalism”—“the interest of Jews in surviving as Jews, with no additional interest in what the content of Jewish life and religion should be.” This survivalist outlook was reinforced by a rising tide of black militancy, by New Left hostility to Israel, by the emergence of the Soviet Union as the world center of anti-Semitism, and by the growth of Holocaust consciousness. But first and foremost it was shaped by the “extraordinary days of June 1967,” the time of the Six-Day War, in which Jews came to see themselves as “specially threatened and specially worthy of whatever efforts were necessary for survival.”

Yet survival was not just a practical imperative for Jews in the post-June 1967 era; it was virtually a “theological category.” Glazer was genuinely impressed with survivalism’s energizing impact on American Jews, with the way it led “to a new intensity of self-consciousness and a new level of concern for Jewish issues, among them religious issues.” He took particular note of the rise of the Jewish student movement and the development of a serious current of religious reflection. Certainly this was a significant improvement over the situation in the early 1960’s, when “interest in Jewish religion and Jewish issues . . . reached a nadir. . . .”

At the same time, however, Glazer’s old skepticism was far from gone. He could not help wondering about survivalism’s ultimate carrying power for Jewish religious life and hence for Jewish continuity. Might it not, like the institutional Judaism of the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, be just another form of ethnicity in the guise of religiosity? “Was not the Jewish religion itself pressed into the service of mere survival, since so many Jews identified with synagogues and temples not because of concern for religion but because they wanted to stay with Jews, to strengthen the Jewish causes and communal life, and to ensure that their children married Jews—all pure ‘survivalist’ aims?” And if this was so, was not survivalism wholly inadequate as a force to preserve Judaism and hence inevitably Jewishness as well?



Here we come to the one apparent weak spot in Glazer’s analysis. As was pointed out by a number of contributors to a retrospective discussion of American Judaism (“Revisiting a Classic,” American Jewish History, December 1987), postwar Orthodox Judaism hardly figures at all in Glazer’s scheme—and yet, especially in the years since the publication of his first edition, Orthodoxy had not only undergone a revival, it had become quite an aggressive force in Jewish life. In short, a movement which Glazer had taken to be, at best, a residual phenomenon—a “‘saving remnant’ that supplies the fund of Jewish knowledge on which all the rest draw,” as he put it in the 1957 edition—was back on the scene with a vengeance.

Nor was the most dynamic element within Orthodoxy itself made up of the “modern” Orthodox—those who seek some form of engagement with contemporary society and culture. The undeniable achievements of this group paled by comparison with the traditionalist Orthodox sector—the “black-hat” yeshiva world and the hasidic communities. Here was an element that openly rejected modernity—limiting the secular education of its children, spurning modern cultural life, opposing contacts with both Gentiles and non-Orthodox Jews—but which was nonetheless thriving, to the point where it had become the dominant group within Orthodoxy. Not only had the traditionalists succeeded in moving the whole Orthodox community in a more “rightward” direction, they were also managing to attract a substantial number of recruits—ba’alei t’shuva—from among the most modernized and secularized sectors of American Jewry.

When, in the concluding chapter of American Judaism, Glazer had invoked the Brooklyn-based Hasidim as the model of a holy community, he was indulging in mere sentimentalism. But the sentimentalism of 1957 turned out to be the plain realism of 1987 and today. Orthodoxy, especially traditionalist Orthodoxy, had defied “the laws of religious gravity” (in the words of Marshall Sklare), constituting a clear example of successful rejudaization in the face of modernity.

All this Glazer himself acknowledged in his own contribution to the 1987 discussion, noting there that “nothing in American Judaism suggested the recent strength of American Orthodoxy.” Yet even so, he did not see sufficient reason to alter his basic judgment. The revival of Orthodoxy, he argued—he had “modern” Orthodoxy in mind—had more to do with “institutional factors” (“turmoil in the public schools, the growing strength of Orthodoxy in Israel, . . . frightened responses to the revolution in values”) than with “faith and belief” per se. He did not add, although he might have done so, that however significant the revitalization of Orthodoxy might be in its own terms, as an example of successful rejudaization it was very much an isolated case.



Glazer’s most recent assessment of American Jewish religion is to be had in the introduction to the latest reissue of American Judaism. Here he has come full circle, reverting to the bleak outlook of 1957 and underscoring not only the severity but the seeming permanence of the Judaism/ Jewishness split.

What has prompted this latest bout of pessimism on Glazer’s part is the emergence of its opposite, namely, a school of thought which seeks to put forward a strikingly upbeat and optimistic interpretation of the American Jewish condition. Glazer mentions specifically in this connection the scholarship of Calvin Goldscheider and Steven Cohen and the popular work of Charles Silberman; these writers, who have come to be known as “transformationists,” have departed from the bleak assessment of some of their academic colleagues and have proposed instead that not only Jewish bodies but Jewish souls, albeit “transformed” ones, are alive and well in contemporary America, flourishing in Jewish-studies programs at colleges and universities, in synagogue life, in Jewish cultural pursuits of every description, and in a generally unselfconscious attitude toward Jewish identity.

Where, however, the transformationists see evidence of positive change in the phenomena they enumerate, Glazer sees only further evidence of historical discontinuity, the emergence of something that is “very far from traditional Judaism, too far to maintain . . . Jewish commitment and identity at its present level.” To Glazer, indeed, transformationism itself represents yet another link in the same old chain, another attempt to substitute ethnicity for religion. The transformationists, he argues, are able to cling to an optimistic outlook only because they “accept whatever Jews do (‘Jewishness’) as Judaism.” But this is “too easy,” in that it ignores a basic question: “[W]hat role can Judaism play for Jews and Jewish life when its content as religion, a religion of faith and belief, is radically reduced?” And he concludes by reaffirming the position he first put forth thirty-three years ago: “[F]or the great majority of American Jews, Judaism remains an ethnic commitment more than a transcendent faith.”

In my own judgment, the consistency of Glazer’s view over time speaks not to any rigidity on his part but rather to the consistency of what he, correctly, sees: the essentially uniform character of Jewish religious life in the modern context. In describing the historic shift from Judaism to Jewishness, Glazer asks whether this development is “of sufficient gravity for the question of continuity to be raised.” I would formulate the matter somewhat differently, and ask whether, amid the steady continuity of Jewish religious modernization, there have been any significant signs of change. With the single exception of Orthodoxy, my answer, like his, would be no.

1 University of Chicago Press, 214 pp., $11.95 (paperback).

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