(American) Religion (and Society) (David Kaufman, Shul with a Pool)

I finished reading David Kaufman’s book on the American Synagogue-Center movement, an idea which enjoyed its heyday between the 1890s or so and the 1920s. It’s a great book with lots of food for thought re: the relations between religion and society, matter and memory, youth culture and religion, religion and aesthetics, and American Judaism.

The Synagogue-center idea and institution was predicated on the complete fusion between religion and society, in particular Jewish religion and Jewish society. Long associated with the American Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan, we learn from David that this idea originated first in Reform Movement circles, before being taken over by graduates from JTS. The design of the Synagogue-center was to expand the scope and activities of the synagogue to include a more mult-functional platform for the promotion of Jewish religion and community.

This idea establishing an identity between religion and society, as well as, more recently religion and politics is an old idea that is now, again, very much in vogue. As it turns out, much of the impetus for the idea came from an idealized reading of the Jewish medieval past propounded by Israel Abrahams in his influential Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1897). As it turns out, many of the proponents of the idea fusing Judaism with politics, or confusing Judaism and the political are themselves Straussians, whose own work was very much indebted to a certain, indeed controversial, readings of medieval thought, law, and politics.

It’s not that there’s no overlap between Judaism and the social, but one of the things we learn from David’s book is how this idea fell flat. While it is certainly true that, today, many of the services provided by the synagogue are indeed “social.” But the attempt to synthesize the religious and the social in a more formal and systemic way turned out not to work in the end. The tension between religious and communal interests and their leaders proved too difficult to integrate.

So what we learn, against the grain of David’s own argument, is that the attempt to synthesize religion and secularism, religion and society proved to be a failure. As for politics and “the political,” the recent elections re-electing Barack Obama and the drubbing of the Christian evangelical right would both seem to signal that attempts to fuse conservative religion and politics was never going to work in the long term. Indeed, many of the synagogue centers established in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens have since been turned into orthodox religious institutions.

There’s an elegiac quality to David’s book. David was trained as an architect, and there’s a nice bit of  linkage between  the memory of a world gone by, the American Judaism circa 1890-1924, and attention to architectural models and monuments, and even relics. Namely, the memory of that historical period is very much bound up with the material basis of an architecture style that continues to survive and to mark American urban and suburban landscapes.

One thing that I learned about American Judaism is the institutional tensions involved in the Americanization of the synagogue, namely, the shift starting in the 1880s, 1890s from the “spirituality” and “idealism” of the German born and German trained American rabbinate, to an American born American rabbinate, whose world view was more social, institutional, pragmatic, material, and empirical. It’s a pity that contemporary Jewish philosophy has still not seemed to have caught up with this important trend from the last fin de siècle.

What I also learn from David’s book is the importance of youth culture as a motor for religious transformation in American Jewish history. As a graduate of the socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim-Dror, David’s interest in this aspect of religion and religious history should not surprise one. It comes up again and again in the book, that there is no transformation in American Judaism except when the youth take advantage of the generational tide. I’d be willing to bet this is as true in the 1960s and the 1970s as it was then, and that it is a truth that one would like to see embraced today, namely the importance of handing things over to young people, and letting them settle on the proper course.

Lastly, I appreciated the attention paid to aesthetics in this study of American synagogue history, the attention to architecture, spatial models, beauty, and ventilation. The synagogue, I guess, like any form of religion, is always in need of getting aired out, or at least every now and then. Because it’s one thing to insist upon the truth and truths of religion or of Judaism, but these do get musty after awhile. That a good shake is always in order is what we get from David’s very felicitous study.

I’m coming late to this book, but the funny thing about books is that you find them and they find you sometimes at precisely the right moment you need them. For me, this is a very important contribution to my own burgeoning interests in bourgeois religion and American Jewish thought and culture.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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