A First Course in Jewish Tradition

Ashes on Fire

Ashes on Fire address the nationalist politics that turned European nations into fundamentally unsafe places for Jews to live. We weren’t the only ones, as the late 20th century made quite clear – Armenians and Kurds don’t fit into Turkish nationalisms. More histoirically, Romany (“Gypsy”, a derogatory term you should avoid) didn’t fit into French or Italian nationalisms, Albanians didn’t fit into Serbian nationalisms, and historical religious differences buried by nationalist movements re-asserted themselves within 100 years after European nation-states formed – Croats (Catholic) vs Serbs (Orthodox) in Yugoslavia, Orange (Protestants) vs Green (Irish Catholic) in Ireland, Islam vs secular values (Turkey).

Ashes on Fire addresses how Jews figured in both the ethnic and religious “problems” European nation-states faced. Vladimir Lenin, prior to the Bolshevik victory and creation of the Soviet Union, wrote a tract called The Jewish Problem. Such attitudes motivated Jews from all over Europe, but especially Russian Europe, to emigrate. They primarily went to America. In America, Judaism became expressed in different movements – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform were the originals but there was positioning going on here; some Reform and many Orthodox rabbis were trained in the Conservative school.
European halakha was highly advanced. Jewish life in America, however, created many and interesting halakhic questions – some of these resulted from the tremendous social differences between America and Russia (or Poland or Germany…), others resulted from the constant manufacture of new inventions. Old candles burnt out, new candles were lit, and this is…

Ashes on Fire.

Many interesting religious questions surfaced in America – could Jews worship in synagogues without separations between men and women, could one drive to synagogue on Shabbat if the synagogue was in the city and the home in the suburbs, is a parev cheeseburger kosher, can young women be bat mitzva? Both halachic traditions answer these questions.

The Orthodox answers? No, men and women must sit separately; no, it’s better to stay at home on Shabbat than to violate Shabbat by driving to a synagogue; yes, but a parev cheeseburger is problematic because someone might assume you’re violating kosher standards; and yes, girls may have a bat mitzva within certain limitations.

Conservative Judaism answers quite differently: Yes, you may daven without a mechitza; yes, you may drive to services on Shabbat or a holy day (but we prefer you don’t); yes, a parev cheeburger is fine; and yes, girls may have bat mitzva (sometimes within certain limitations).

These answers create more ashes on fire.

A plurality of American Jews are not represented by the halakhic traditions of American Judaism – today these are the Orthodox and Conservative movements. Reform Jews stress ethical action. Reconstructionists observe Judaism without halakha. The Jewish Renewal movement is a nascent tradition which combines Reconstructionist tendencies with chasidut, especially Lubavitcher. The personalities presented here are all religious leaders, but they are almost all educators; social service, which was essential to congregational leadership in the past, is not part of the American Jewish religious leadership dynamic. The lack of meaningul religious social services create still more ashes on fire.
Let’s learn now of the first attempt to train traditional rabbis in America.

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Sabato Morais was the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), which he helped establish. He was Sefardic, born in Legorno and educated in the Italian traditions of Judaism. Morais came to Philidelphia in 1851. He was widely involved in all facets of Jewish service and was a vocal proponent of Historical-Positive Judaism, which became Conservative Judaism in America. This trend is now called Masorti in Israel and abroad. Morais became professor of Hebrew and Bible at Maimonides College of Philadelphia in 1867. He was a prolific correspondent in the the American Jewish press. He was politically active in Italian liberal nationalism as expounded by Giuseppe Mazzini, with whom he was close. Morais was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He became an honourary member of the Union League of Philadelphia during the US Civil War. Morais proposed an American seminary to train all rabbis but sectarian trends militated against this. Morais was liberal for his time but was essentially a traditional religious Jewish educator and clergy, and this was taken by his sectarian opposition to mean “Orthodox”. He actively participated in organising the JTS in New York City, which opened in January of 1887. In the first graduating class (1894) was Joseph H. Hertz, who went on to election as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom (1913-1940).

We will learn now of some European rabbis who came to America and directly influenced the formation of American Jewish religious movements.

Ashes on Fire