(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

In 1947, Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote a book called Basic Judaism in which he explored the central religious questions of Judaism by setting them along a continuum between traditional Judaism (Orthodox), which places a high value on keeping traditional practices unchanged over time, and Modernist Judaism (Conservative, Reform), which seeks to adapt tradition to changing historical circumstances. While emphasizing the real difference in religious experience among these groups, he also argued: “The two groups, traditionalist and modernist, have more in common than apart. Their viewpoints make up not two religions but variants of one.”

Samuel G. Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry presents American Jewish communities in the last half of the twentieth century as far more conflicted, and at deeper levels than Steinberg would have conceded. This conflict, argues Freedman, not only occurs in relation to theological interpretation and practice but also plays out politically, especially as Jewish Americans with differing religious conceptions of Jewish identity attempt to create community in the United States. The portrait that emerges here is one of increasingly irreconcilable religious differences that may eventually lead to major theological and social ruptures within American Judaism. However, Freedman’s chief worry seems not so much the inevitability of such a break among religious Jews: He shares with Steinberg a fairly calm assessment of the real divergences between traditionalist and Modernist Judaism. He shows in remarkable detail several specific theological/political disputes, placing them in historical context and working hard to present a balance of perspectives within each conflict. He also shows the real pain that such conflict causes for individuals, families, and communities. In the end, though, his abiding concern seems to be the waning interest in the conflict itself among American Jews for whom religious Judaism is no longer relevant. As would be expected in an analysis firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, the worry is not that theological conflict exists, but that it might cease to matter.

Freedman’s method in Jew vs. Jew is creative and effective. He constructs “parable” stories of several specific American Jewish communities in conflict, culling material from hundreds of interviews but focusing on a handful of key people in each case and working analytically as a journalist-storyteller. He further structures the book by framing these stories sequentially in relation to a set of interpretive “interludes,” each crafted to provide the historical and theological context for the parable that follows. His interlude titles are: “Who is a Jew?”, “Judaism and Gender: Revolution Toward Tradition,” “Israel and America: The Price of Peace,” “Who Owns Orthodoxy?”, and “Unity versus Pluralism: Visions of Jewish Community.” Freedman situates these topics within the cultural crosscurrents of post-World War II United States, where evolving trends for American Jews tended, broadly speaking, toward assimilation, suburbanized middle-class status, and secularization. Add to this mix the newly arrived Jewish refugees from Holocaust-torn Europe, most of them highly traditional and steeped in the strong religiosity of Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy. Contrary to some mid-century predictions that secularized cultural identity would become the strongest force in Jewish America, Freedman argues toward the end of Jew vs. Jew that

In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed. To say this is not to say the Orthodox themselves have prevailed, or that only the Orthodox denomination will survive on these shores. But the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future—and is flourishing already against a backdrop of ever more complete assimilation—is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion defines Jewish identity.

To build to this conclusion, Freedman chronicles the conflict within several American Jewish communities beginning in the early 1960’s. The primary focus in Jew vs. Jew, then, is the struggle over religious meaning, practice, and identity.

The first parable in the book traces the life experience of one woman from her adolescence to mid-adulthood, playing her story in parallel lines with a drift from the...

(The entire section is 1809 words.)