The ProsenPeople

In Whose Image? Maimonides Among the Portraits of Lawgivers

Friday, August 26, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Zev Eleff wrote about religious disputes in American advice columns and how social media is impacting Modern Orthodox Judaism. He has been guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In 1951, Congress moved back into the United States Capitol, displaced for more than a year to repair a poorly constructed iron ceiling. The renovations provided a chance to attend to a number of key updates: installation of better acoustics, improved lighting, and a state-of-the-art air conditioning system. Far less practical but considerably more symbolic was a set of 23 engraved plaques, the Portraits of Lawgivers, hanging on the walls above the doors of the House Chamber.

The Lawgivers required a studied opinion. The Architect of the Capitol and a Philadelphia-based firm assembled teams at the University of Pennsylvania, the Columbia Historical Society in Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress to help select the subjects for sculpture portraits: “personages who were, relatively or marginally, prototypes during history of activities being conducted in said House Chamber.”

The outcome of this assignment tells a lot about how Americans viewed their intellectual underpinnings at the middle of the twentieth century—and the subtle politics of this important space offers much to consider for our own time.

The Capitol’s criterion eliminated founders of religion. “Perhaps Jesus Christ should be included in the list of an avowedly Christian Nation in a legislative hall in which each of its sessions opens with Christian declarations,” reasoned the Washington group, but there was “some feeling that Jesus Christ is too exalted a character to be included.” The same sort of logic nixed Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad.

The final list of Lawgivers chosen to inspire the House was well-rounded but still well-ensconced in classical intellectual traditions. Thomas Jefferson and George Mason represented the Americans. The balance was composed of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the men (no women were picked) typically associated with the legal foundations of Christendom.

Still, the list also demonstrated an effort to include figures of other religions, very much in line with postwar Judeo-Christian sensibilities. Suleiman the Magnificent represented the Islamic world while Judaism received a pair of Moseses—the prophet Moses and Moses Maimonides, the Sephardic physician and legal codifier of the twelfth century. Of course, other religions claimed Moses of the Bible; Maimonides (or any other Jewish legalist), on the other hand, was something of a surprise. In preparing its list of lawgiving candidates, one of the appointed teams was underwhelmed with the Jewish choices, concluding that the “Hebrew system has been given undue credit—too much for too little.”

Most members of the House applauded the plaques and their religious inclusivity. Some, though, were nearly impossible to please. John Rankin, for example, “objected to all the foreign lawmakers except Moses.” Reportedly, the Southern Democrat from Mississippi would have replaced them with Confederate heroes like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Then again, this was typical of Rankin: years earlier, in response to Albert Einstein’s calls to cease all ties with Hitler’s allies, the Mississippian, an antisemite and all-around bigot, dismissed the Nobel Prize physicist as a mere “foreign-born agitator.”

Nativists like Rankin found it more challenging to get their way in the postwar period. Save for the anti-Communists, peoples of all types gained relatively stronger footholds in the United States. In the particular case of religion, popular writers like Will Herberg convinced millions of Americans that Catholics and Jews were equal shareholders with Protestants in the nation’s religious-cultural foundations. In this time, the number of Muslims in the United States was small, but gestures like the House Chamber’s Lawgivers indicated that this religious community was also on the minds of thoughtful Americans.

The Lawgivers sculptures also reveal another quality of postwar cultural openness. Amid pressure to shed distinctions in the American Melting Pot, religious and ethnic groups persevered and placed considerable value on retaining their own cultures and symbols.

Consider the Moses Maimonides plaque. Brenda Putnam sculpted the rabbi of Islamic Cairo. The noted sculpture artist and scion of an important American family, Putnam was eager to etch Maimonides in the image of the increasingly more recognizable American Jew. To do so, she wished to place a yarmulke atop Maimonides’s head rather than a turban or nothing at all—two more accurate possibilities for an Egyptian Jew in the High Middle Ages.

In the United States, few Jews adorned the religious skullcap outside the synagogue, but it was one of the best known attire-sensitive identifiers of this religious group. Putnam queried rabbinical scholars whether there was any chance that Maimonides might have worn a “small cap such as you and your colleagues wear.” To plead her case, the artist admitted that “I should like to add this small, recognizable insigne—not only because it adds distinction and a decorative line to the design, but because it would make him the more readily identifiable to the thousands of visitors in the galleries.”

But Maimonides did not resemble America’s Jews, nor other Americans. In the end, Putnam relented. She sculpted the rabbi with Arab headgear, a more approximate head covering than the yarmulke. Her decision—as well as the selection of a religiously diverse set of law codifiers—confirmed that national identities and legacies were complex concepts. What is more, the individuals chosen to hang above America’s top legislators did not need to appear all that similar to the women and men debating on the floor below.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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The New Digital Discourse and Modern Orthodox Judaism

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


In May 1969, Rabbi Norman Lamm published an essay on “Modern Orthodoxy’s Identity Crisis” in a magazine circulated by the Orthodox Union. His mission was ambitious: to identify and grapple with the struggle of modern Americans who were concomitantly committed to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Lamm also offered some salience rather than musings. The essay transformed Rabbi Lamm and Modern Orthodox Judaism into a movement marked by stability and rooted identity.

Of course, Rabbi Lamm did not do this alone. Young women and men—many of them, first-generation day school graduates—joined in, and revitalized Orthodox Judaism in the United States. He also benefited from a respectful form of Orthodox discourse. Differing points of view were welcomed as essential elements of a more wholesome conversation. In 1965, the editors of the Rabbinical Council of America published an article authored by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits in the pages of its journal despite the the fact that “most of our Editorial Board disagree with the views expressed in this essay.” Rather than reject the paper, the Orthodox rabbinical organization included it as a marker of communal “revitalization.”

The maintenance of informed and diplomatic public conversation is essential, particularly in anxious moments of tumult. Lately, talk of an “identity crisis” within Modern Orthodox Judaism has resumed. By and large, the discourse takes place in the arena of social media. It is therefore an undaunted conversation. It lacks a moderator and moderation. The rightist wing refers to a “crisis” as it writes off an outmoded “ideology [that] is murky and vague.” The leftists allude to the same crisis, characterizing it as “trying times for Modern Orthodoxy.”

Both sides rehearse similar revisionist histories. Invariably, these sorts of writers and bloggers cite Dr. Bernard Revel, an early president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, considered Yeshiva University’s most important historical figure. Their conclusions typically call for change, a Modern Orthodoxy defined by “approaches that came straight from the greatest of European yeshivos” or a vision intended to be, frankly, “something new.” The middle-of-the-road outlook is not too often considered. Further, these kinds of expositions rarely engage the primary sources. They lack texture and nuance, draining the past of all its color and creativity. In the end, these writings are the stuff of polemic; not the language of constructive discourse.

Still, there is more to it. Increasingly, Orthodox Jews turn to social media to take part and read blogposts, articles, and comments on the gripping religious issues of the day. These are the forums in which many Orthodox Jews obtain religion, though an informal type. For many, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as sacred spaces to acquire Judaism and Jewish content. Of course, the synagogue and other important cultural centers still offer much, but these “traditional” institutions compete with digital venues that are always open and are constantly uploading new content. In most cases, it is hardly a contest—after all, the rabbi’s sermon is only a weekly occasion, and adult education classes simiarly must fit into some sort of restrictive schedule. By contrast, Facebook threads are timeless, untethered, and hyperlinked.

Relevance and promptness have assumed unprecedentedly precious qualities of religious commodities. Owing to this, rabbis and educators take to the Internet for this very sort of relevance. The savviest among them upload their sermons and author blogs. These women and men recognize that to be someone of consequence they must become a part of the online conversation.

There is an alluring and democratizing aspect of Facebook. The elites—the most educated, title-holding lot—no longer have so much control. Social media is a dialogue—not a monologue, after all. Consider Daniel Rosenthal’s recently polemical tract, Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox. In his tirade against the Orthodox Left, the author marshaled loads of extra-academic evidence that amounted to 487 footnotes: the lion’s share of these citations were drawn from Facebook and YouTube. In one exercise of social media arithmetic, Rosenthal actually counted the number of times a Facebook post was “liked” by members of a particular Orthodox group.

Of course, there are drawbacks to the new mode of discourse. Most notably, this sort of unhinged conversation tends to introduce historical errors and oversimplifications. The Modern Orthodox community is far from unique in its embrace of online media as a primary form of discourse. Similar trends are evident in other Jewish communities, and within other religious spheres. Modern Orthodoxy is also not the only one undergoing a so-called “identity crisis.” It is, however, the one that I can best help—that’s why I authored Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Featuring more than 180 texts and images, this documentary history seeks to equip the present digital dialogue with a sturdier foothold within the sources. The anthology aims to restore sophistication and nuance to the new discourse. Far from claiming to offer the final say on any matter, the user-friendly commentaries and annotations are meant to bolster a more informed conversation. For instance, the material on Orthodox Judaism’s parting of the ways with Conservative and Reform, the role of rabbinic authority and the place of women in stations of leadership are crucial. These subjects are pertinent to the classroom, the synagogue pulpit, Facebook and wherever else we may strike up an intriguing conversation on the past and future of Orthodox Judaism in the United States.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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Orthodox Judaism and its Conversion to the Cult of Compartmentalization

Monday, August 22, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


In July 1984, Ann Landers penned a response to a woman in Dallas who had had enough of her newly Orthodox children. The letter-writer, the irritated “Not Kosher Enough for Our Children in Texas,” complained that her son and daughter-in-law had recently “embraced the Orthodox Jewish religion,” a decision that had taken a step toward family divisiveness and generated “ill will.” The Dallas woman found it terribly offensive that her son refused to eat in his parents’ home, even though “I wouldn’t dream of serving shellfish, bacon or ham or pork”—iconic non-kosher items. Nor would he answer the telephone on the Sabbath, leaving the concerned mother to wonder whether a protocol was necessary if “God forbid, there were a tragedy in the family.”

In truth, the seventy-year-old Texan confessed that she could get past the dietary and Sabbath restrictions. More than anything else, she worried about the idiosyncratic behavior of her “born-again” Orthodox children and grandchildren. First, her daughter-in-law tended to serve gastronomically challenging foods. “When we eat at their house the food is so heavy it gives us heartburn and indigestion,” she told the renowned advice columnist. Second, the whole Sabbath leisure experience appeared to her somehow un-American: “They just sit [at] home and do nothing. No TV. No cards. Nothing.” Third, she feared for her grandchildren, who she imagined would “be considered peculiar by their friends” as they got older.

In response, Landers (née Eppie Lederer) empathized with “Not Kosher Enough.” By no means an observant Jew herself, Landers freely offered that while the dietary laws made sense “thousands of years ago before refrigeration,” they do not anymore “seem logical.” More to the point, Landers reported that she had consulted with a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, who recommended that in a conflict between two Biblical commandments, “Honor Thy Father and Mother” outranked the dietary laws. In other words, the Dallas matriarch had every reason to insist that her children follow the Americanized path of their parents and social milieu. The Sabbath, she reasoned, should still be treated as Saturday, like in all other American households.

Landers’s message was apparent: in Judeo-Christian America, religious communities were supposed to conform to those red-white-and-blue values. In 1955, Will Herberg’s best-selling Protestant-Catholic-Jew had convinced millions of Americans that all three of these religions served as steaming pots intended to boil out all of the hyphenated descriptors and extraneous culture that got in the way of becoming truly American, and Landers’s advice resoundingly echoed this sentiment.

Orthodox leaders would have objected to the columnist’s recommendation. The application was off, and furthermore encroached upon the rigid standards of Jewish law. Yet the idea probably resonated with many Orthodox Jews who sought to blend traditional Judaism with basic American values. Armed with a strong philosophical underpinning, these folks pushed for middleclass refinement, advanced education for young women and men and a healthy embrace of high- and middlebrow culture. Whenever and wherever possible, they would have it, Orthodox Jews should endeavor to synthesize the best of Judaism and America.

But not everyone agreed. Landers’s advice troubled Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union, pragmatically and philosophically. As the former director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Stolper had made a career out of convincing religiously uninitiated young people that Orthodox Judaism offered great substance to life. As one of the many pied pipers of the growing “Ba’al Teshuva Movement (literally, “Master of Repentance”),” Stolper could testify to the thousands of Jews who had “returned” to Orthodox Judaism. He therefore dashed off a private note to Ann Landers to dispel her notions of all-or-nothing Americanism. He told the popular columnist of the countless Jews who “observe the Sabbath” and the “tens of thousands more [who] have joined their ranks.” No doubt, Stolper’s numbers were exaggerated but this mattered little in his quiet polemic. “Not using the phone, the car or the television on the Sabbath is one of life’s greatest blessings,” he wrote. “What could be more rewarding and relaxing than one day off from the technological barrage, the slavery to gadgets, the noise and babble of the media?” Stolper also had had some choice words for Landers’ correspondent in Texas:

The lady says that “they sit at home and do nothing. No TV. No Cards. Nothing.” TV and cards are “nothing” even on a plain Tuesday—on the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews enjoy festive family meals, rest and relaxation, prayer, reading, good conversation, Torah study, visits to neighbors—it is a day of rest, joy and spiritual elevation. As for lights and air-conditioning, that’s all on automatic clocks like any good modern establishment. As to heartburn and indigestion—some Jews enjoy eating heavy foods—but this has nothing to do with the kosher laws. I know Orthodox Jews who are “veggies,” “health nuts,” and all the rest.

In a way, Rabbi Stolper had banded together with other smaller religious and racial groups in the United States who, in the 1980s, argued for a multicultural outlook. These advocates suggested that hyphenated identities like “Mexican-American” or “Jewish-American” were hardly inconsistent with the prevailing culture in the United States. This view rejected the postwar “melting pot” notions of the American personality, believing it too stifling of narrow. This argument was what sociologist Charles Liebman described around this time as “compartmentalization.” Orthodox Jews, observed the social scientist, tended to separate areas of their lives that could not, in their view, be synergized. To the contrary, men like Rabbi Stolper won over adherents on the supposition that it was perfectly feasible and acceptable to compartmentalize rather than synthesize.

In the final analysis, claimed Stolper, “where there is love, caring and good will there is no reason why the children and the parents cannot keep each other happy without breaking any of God’s laws.” No doubt, his recommendation came from a good place and was indicative of the success of the Ba’al Teshuva Movement. It also signaled, however subtly, a sea change in mainstream Orthodox Jewish philosophy—one with unsubtle implications.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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