Samira K. Mehta
Jews in America have had a complex relationship to race. At times, they have been described as a racial minority, whereas at other times, they have been able to assimilate into the white majority. Jewish status has largely depended on whether white Americans felt, in any given moment, socially secure. Jews have therefore fared better during times of economic prosperity. This social instability has strongly affected their relationship to African Americans. Jews, who have a strong sense of themselves as outsiders, have often identified with African American struggles but feared that overt solidarity would endanger their own status as white. Nevertheless, American Jews were disproportionately represented in the civil rights movements. Lastly, while American Jewish are predominantly Ashkenazi, which is to say of Central and Eastern European heritage, contemporary American Jewry is increasingly racially diverse, in part because of Jewish immigration from other parts of the world but also because of interfaith marriage, conversion, and adoption. This increased racial diversity has caused problems in the contemporary American Jewish community, but it is also changing the face of it.
K. Healan Gaston
The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical tasks of cultivating harmonious relations between these traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States.
However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.
The eruv is perhaps the most creative, confounding, and contested spatial construct in Judaism. Territorially, it demarcates the urban space within which prohibitions otherwise attached to Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews become permitted. While virtually imperceptible to the human eye, eruvin (pl.) sanctify what would otherwise be sacrilegious. An eruv thus creates permissive religious space for Jews on Sabbath. Hundreds of cities worldwide, including urban areas across North America, are home to an eruv. Notwithstanding their prevalence and undetectable physical imprint on urban landscapes, the establishment of eruvin has unleashed intense hostility and resistance in some locales. Opposition has typically been mounted by a surprisingly mixed array of critics including non-Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and dissenting Orthodox Jews. The eruv highlights, in compelling fashion, the spatial challenges of navigating faith, ritual, secularism, and pluralism in contemporary American cities. Seemingly ethereal religious beliefs can occasion radically different perceptions of public space.
Americans, and others, have used the term “Zionism” to relate to groups and individuals that have promoted the idea that Jews should settle in Palestine and build a commonwealth there. Zionist ideas and movements have had a long and varied presence in America, beginning in colonial times. Despite the absence of a unified Zionist program, both Christian and Jewish Zionists translated religious messianic yearnings into political, social, or cultural goals, varying in their motivations and visions. Christian Zionism has developed mostly among messianic-oriented Protestants, although at times other Christians too have supported Zionist goals. In recent decades, Christian Zionism has been associated with conservative evangelicals, in America as well as in other countries.
Zionism developed a noticeable presence among Jews in America at the turn of the 20th century. In its first decades, the movement attracted few followers, most Jews preferring other political or ideological options. It gained more ground after the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the movement grew further following the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933. During the 1960s–1980s, the majority of Jews in the United States embraced pro-Zionist views, which by that time both Christians and Jews understood as promoting support for Israel in the American public arena.
The cooperation between Christian and Jewish Zionists, over the building of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine or over supporting it, has been more extensive than standard histories of Zionism have suggested. Christian and Jewish Zionists have provided each other immense encouragement, offering validation and legitimizing each other’s messianic convictions and projects. Christian supporters have acted as pro-Zionist lobbies, attempting to influence American policies. Their activities became crucial during World War I and then again in the 1970s–2000s, with the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in the United States. Cooperation between conservative American Christian and Jewish Orthodox messianic groups developed at the turn of the 21st century, with many evangelical Christians contributing to support Jewish settlers and organizations that prepare for the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. This alliance has stirred strong reactions among pro-Palestinian and liberal Christians and Jews, who object to what they see as one-dimensional support of right-wing Israeli causes on behalf of messianic interpretations they do not share. For many antagonists, Zionism has become synonymous with a state they oppose and agendas they see as hostile to their cause. Self-identification as Zionist is currently prevalent among Modern Orthodox Jews and conservative evangelical Christians. Many others, including former liberal Christian supporters and progressive Jews, in the United States, Europe, and Israel, have moved to define themselves as post-Zionists, if not as non-Zionists altogether.
Lawrence A. Peskin
Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.
Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.
These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.
As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.
After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.
Martin Luther was engaged with the topic “Jews and Judaism” all his life, from his earliest works until his last. The main context for his preoccupation with this topic was interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly in his many and ample lectures on books of the Old Testament, starting with the “Dictata supra Psalterium,” his first lecture on the Psalms (1513‒1515), down to his “Lecture on the Book of Genesis” (1535‒1545). In addition, he wrote several treatises on the question of how Christian society should relate to the Jews living in its midst, most important, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” (1523) and “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543). These writings were, however, to a large extent also exegetical works. Altogether Luther’s attitude toward the Jews and Judaism is characterized simultaneously by continuity and by radical change: (1) continuity is obvious in his theological statements on Judaism which were based on a certain hermeneutics of the Old Testament centered in the Messiahship of Jesus Christ; and (2) change in his demands regarding the treatment of contemporary Jews which in earlier years followed his conception of the Two Kingdoms whereas in later times he came back to the traditional ideal of corpus Christianum. This change led to contradictory receptions of his statements on the topic in the course of history. All this is reflected in the research on the subject since the beginning of modern historical scholarship.
Anne W. Stewart
Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.
The uncomfortable question of Martin Luther’s place in the development of modern anti-Semitism is raised by Luther’s status as a national cultural icon after German unification (1871) and by the fact that the Third Reich (1933–1945) perpetrated what is arguably the most violently racist state policy known to human history thus far. Luther contributed to the symbiosis of religious and secular prejudices. The reception of Luther’s anti-Jewish discourse illustrates the gradual diffusion of religious hostility into a society where churches slid from a central position to the margins of social influence. This can only be understood against the backdrop of a long chronology of religious thinking. The long chronology shows that Luther was more a conduit than a catalyst of European anti-Jewish polemic and feeling.
Stephen G. Burnett
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.