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How American Independence Democratized Judaism, Too

How American Independence Democratized Judaism, Too

White Star of David emrboidered on navy cloth alongside five pointed stars as if depicting an altered version of the American flag

Sarna_Biennial badge_0.jpgThe values of the American Revolution – liberty, freedom, and especially democracy – profoundly affected the small colonial Jewish community and laid the groundwork for the emergence of Reform Judaism in America.

Communal change often begins with the actions of strong-minded individuals. So it was with Jacob I. Cohen, one of the earliest known Jewish residents of Richmond, VA. He had fought bravely in the Revolutionary War as part of the Charleston Regiment of Militia, known at the time as the “Jew Company,” although a minority of its members were actually Jewish. After the war he opened a store with a fellow Jewish militiaman, Isaiah Isaacs.

A year later, in 1782, Cohen traveled to Philadelphia on a prolonged buying trip and applied to join Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue. At age 38, he may also have been looking for a wife. Within three months he had fallen in love with a recently widowed woman of his own age, Esther Mordecai, whose husband’s death had left her impoverished and with three children.

But then a problem arose. Esther was a convert to Judaism and Jacob was a kohein, a Jew of priestly descent – and according to halachah (Jewish law), a kohein is prohibited from marrying a convert. In an act of public defiance, Cohen spurned the law and dictates of the synagogue, which ran counter to his newfound sense of democracy and freedom.

Mikveh Israel prohibited its chazan (minister) from conducting the marriage, but its leading members – Haym Salomon, Revolutionary War hero Mordecai Sheftall, and the well-respected Philadelphian Israel Jacobs – privately conducted the wedding ceremony. In knowingly placing personal liberty above the synagogue’s dictates, the three were serving notice that times had changed and the congregation’s power to regulate Jewish life was waning.

Mordecai M. Mordecai, one of Mikveh Israel’s most learned lay members and the son of a rabbi, similarly flouted synagogue authority on two subsequent occasions. First, he took the law into his own hands when, in an apparent attempt to reconcile members of his extended family, he performed an unauthorized Jewish marriage ceremony for his niece, Judith Hart, and her unconverted husband, Lt. James Pettigrew. On another occasion, he performed the traditional last rites on Benjamin Clava, an identifying but intermarried Jew whom the synagogue, as a warning to others, had ordered buried “without ritual ablution, without shrouds and without funeral rites.”

On both occasions, Mordecai vigorously defended his actions, insisting that he knew Jewish law better than those who judged him.

Clearly, the real question here had less to do with Jewish law than with the limits of Jewish religious authority in a new democratic age. The problem, from the perspective of Mikveh Israel, was that Jews in post-Revolutionary America were making their own rules about how to live Jewishly, and there was little the synagogue could do about it.

This trend toward “democratization” of Jewish life was evident as well in Richmond, VA’s first synagogue, Beth Shalome. In 1789, the congregation took the innovative step of adopting a “constitution,” which: outlawed as undemocratic the traditional practice of having only wealthy families run the synagogue; promoted the goal of communal consensus; and offered dissenters the unprecedented opportunity to have their views heard.

In 1824-1825, a revolt of young people at Charleston, S.C.’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim led to a split in the congregation and the establishment of the Reformed Society of Israelites. The Reformers expressed dissatisfaction with the “apathy and neglect which have been manifested towards our holy religion.” Fearful that Judaism would not survive unless it changed, they advocated, among other things, for an abbreviated worship service, vernacular prayers, and a weekly sermon.

In addition to ritual reform, the new congregation also provided for a good deal more democracy and equal rights, rejecting the plutocracy and authoritarianism of Beth Elohim. This development is often recalled as the beginning of Reform Judaism in the United States – which, in many ways, it was.

It also signaled that a new and more democratic Judaism had arrived in America.

This article was adapted from Jonathan Sarna's chapter in New Essays in American Jewish History (American Jewish Archives).

Professor Jonathan D. Sarna will be a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism's 2017 Biennial in Boston, December 6-10, 2017.

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. He is also past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Author or editor of more than 30 books, his American Judaism: A History won six awards. His most recent book is the award-winning Lincoln & the Jews: A History (with Benjamin Shapell).

Jonathan D. Sarna
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