Read/review the following resources for this activity:
Initial Post Instructions
For the initial post, respond to one of the following options:
Follow-Up Post Instructions
Respond to at least two peers or one peer and the instructor. Respond to a peer who chose an option different from the one you chose. Further the dialogue by providing more information and clarification.
Judaism: The Father of Three Great Religions
Despite its small numbers, Judaism has had an incalculable influence on Western religion. Abraham was the father of all three Western religions. It was Judaism which gave to the West its unique sense of one God (ethical monotheism), as well as its unique prophetic tradition; part of the covenant (or agreement with God) is social justice and claims that the world may be evil, but it is not static. The world can change, and we are, necessarily, a part of that change.
Judaism and the American Experience
The experience of Jews in America is illustrative of how religions adapt in a new world. By examining the story of Judaism in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, we get a microcosm of how this change works. Before the American Revolution, Jews were a distinct minority, living in port cities such as New York and Charleston. Most were Sephardic, that is, they came to America from Spain and Portugal. They quickly organized their community life around synagogues. After the American Revolution, they, like many other immigrant populations, benefited from newfound freedoms. They began to assert their rights as a group and to establish organizations to further their needs. As European Jews migrated to the United States, many fleeing from a rising tide of persecution in Eastern European countries, they encountered a new culture that was both full of promise, and full of challenge. While America offered many opportunities, the immigrant Jewish populations found themselves crammed into small apartments and working in poor, sometimes dangerous, conditions. The Americans of the early 1900’s were uncomfortable with the influx of Jewish culture and traditions, and many Jewish immigrants faced prejudice and suspicion not dissimilar to that they had left behind in Europe.
Reform Judaism began to take shape in the synagogues of urban Germany. Its first impulse was simply to free itself from governmental rule and revise synagogue worship. These revisions included introducing the vernacular into worship, hymns, and even sermons. David Einhorn (1809-79) was a leading figure in Reform Judaism in both Europe and the United States. He had been chief rabbi in Mecklenberg (Germany) and immigrated to the United States after the 1848 revolutions. At his inaugural sermon in Baltimore, he said:
“Judaism has reached a turning-point when all . . . customs and usages as are lifeless must be abolished, partly with the object of retaining its own followers, partly to protect from moral degeneracy. . . . On the one hand, the most important ceremonial laws are violated daily, laws which are still considered incumbent upon the Israelite; on the other hand, religious wishes and hopes are expressed in prayer which do not awaken the least response in the heart, and stand in absolute contradiction to the true spirit of Sinaitic doctrine.”
Einhorn’s words were prophetic, as within one generation, an entirely new branch of Judaism emerged. The first Reform synagogue was established in Charleston, South Carolina, where dissatisfied members, partly influenced by the spread of Unitarianism, created the breakaway “Reformed Society of Israelites.” These first Reform synagogues were influenced by American-Protestant services and adopted many of their practices.
The temptation for Jews to simply blend in and become American was very strong, but there were voices that called for both Americanization and a sense of Jewish identity. Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was a German-born Jew who became a hazan at a Philadelphia synagogue and then took to the road for seven years of circuit riding. Leeser traveled from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed to have met Jews in almost every town between Scranton and Chicago. He found 20 families in Detroit and smaller congregations in Marshall and Kalamazoo, but they all lacked spiritual leadership. Leeser then founded The Occident, a Jewish newspaper, and published books for Jewish children. He also established Maimonides College (1868) as the first Jewish institution of higher learning. Leeser settled down at Beth El Emeth synagogue in Philadelphia for his final years, but his ideas provided the seeds for the development of Conservative Judaism.
To most Americans of the last decades of the 19th century, Reform was the most visible form of Judaism in America. In some ways akin to Unitarianism, Reform set out to turn the Jewish faith into a cultural force more than a religious one. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) was the leader of Reform Judaism for more than six decades. Wise sought to develop an American-style service, with no mention of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Wise led his crusade for reform from the Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Cincinnati and summarized his goals in this one line: “American Judaism, free, progressive, enlightened, united, and respected.” The story of Reform Judaism and Isaac M. Wise is illustrative of the attempts of German Jews to assimilate to American culture. These Jews often went West with early settlers, and found it impossible at times to keep traditional Jewish ways (e.g., the Sabbath), and helped settle the West along with other immigrants. In the East, they often entered the garment industry and founded such familiar stores as Sears, Macy’s, and Bloomingdales, in New York City.
The profile of Jewish immigration to the United States changed profoundly when pogroms directed against Russian Jews forced thousands of East-European Jews to immigrate to America.
Religiously Orthodox, these Jews found themselves in a new and alien culture, cut off from loved ones, and in many cases, forced to violate tenets once held dear. A few returned to Europe, but in the wake of persecutions in Russia and elsewhere, the promise of American life shined ever brighter. Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) became a spokesman for this group. Born in Lithuania but fluent in Russian, Cahan immigrated to America in 1881. Cahan understood these Jews and became a chief mediator between them and their new country. As a journalist and writer, he easily mingled with the various ethnicities and languages of the Lower East Side in New York City. He was philosophically a socialist, but in practice, a pragmatist. From 1903 to 1946, he edited the Jewish Daily Forward, where his daily advice column, Bintel Brief, endeared him to New York’s Jewish community. His major work, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), is widely considered to be a classic narrative of the immigrant experience.
By 1920, more than 80% of American Jews were of East-European descent. Religiously Orthodox, these Jews rapidly outnumbered the old German majority that was liberal and Reform. The story of their children is a microcosm of the larger story of immigration and Americanization. Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), of the Jewish Theological Seminary, tried to reinvent Judaism for these Americans by emphasizing Judaism’s unique status as both a religion and a culture, with a unique emphasis on the latter. Kaplan’s approach to religion was sociological with no hint of the supernatural. In The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, he wrote: “To modern man, religion can no longer be a matter of entering into a relationship with the supernatural. The only kind of religion that can help him live and get the most out of life will be the one which will teach him to identify as divine or holy whatever in human nature or in the world about him enhances life.” Kaplan’s goal was to none other than “reconstruct” Judaism as a shared Jewish experience which centered on the synagogue and traditional rituals (hence the term Reconstructionist Judaism). As he wrote, “We learn more about God when we say that love is divine than when we say God is love. A veritable transformation takes place. . . .Divinity becomes relevant to authentic experience, and therefore, takes on a definiteness which is accompanied by an awareness of authenticity.” Conservative Judaism, with its ambivalent stance between Orthodox and Reform beliefs, adopted many of Kaplan’s ideas without its radical implications.
The story of Judaism in America is emblematic of other immigrant groups and their religious history. Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) argued that the unique American identity was forged by the frontier. He wrote, “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.” However, the frontier ended by the turn of the century (U.S. Census Bureau) as newer forces of immigration and urbanization continued to forge the American identity. The story of Judaism in America illustrates how these forces challenged American religion.
The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil is one of the most vexing religious questions. The problem is simple, but difficult to solve. God, according to Judeo-Christian and Islamic teaching, is infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, and infinitely loving. God knows all, can do all, and means well, but the world is full of pain, natural disaster, and human evil. Indeed, as the American poet Emily Dickinson wrote in a number of her most powerful poems, God calls us to love him, to seek him, to worship him, and then arranges matters so that we must die before we can be gathered into his bosom. What sort of loving God is this? Couldn’t God have prevented the Holocaust? Can’t God stop the problem of disease in the world? The problem is as old as faith itself.
David Hume, in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, poses the question as a dialogue between Philo and Cleanthes:
“And is it possible, Cleanthes, said Philo, that after all of these reflections, and infinitely more, which might be suggested, you can still persevere in your anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of the deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power we allow is infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal is happy: Therefore, he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore, it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, does his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolency and mercy of men? Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing?” Whence then is evil?”
And there it is: If God is willing to prevent evil but not able, then He is not omnipotent. If He is able but not willing, then He is not benevolent (Epicurus). And if this is so, then God does not know when evil will be committed, so he is not omniscient (all-knowing). Gottfried Leibniz, the great German logician, mathematician, and philosopher, argued that God had created the best of all possible worlds. If he did not want to create a world, he would not have done so, but since he did, this must be logically the best of all possible worlds, since God must be good. The French writer, Voltaire, satirically put down this argument in his most famous work, Candide. Voltaire argued that God must be fairly impotent if this was the best of all possible worlds. In an odd way, the problem of evil is a twin to the proofs for the existence for God. No nonbeliever has come to belief through the latter, and no believer has become a nonbeliever through a philosophical discussion of evil.
Molloy, M. (2013). Experiencing the world’s religions (6th ed.). New York City, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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