PROFILES IN AMERICAN JUDAISM: The Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist Traditions in Historical Perspective by Marc Lee Raphael

PROFILES IN AMERICAN JUDAISM: The Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist Traditions in Historical Perspective

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Thoroughly competent and in some ways quite useful--but also dense, dry, and top-heavy. Raphael (History, Ohio State) knows a great deal about the history of American Judaism, and into this brief survey he packs so many names (of notable rabbis, seminary presidents and professors), membership statistics, and institutional acronyms (UOR, CCAR, RIETS, RRC, etc.) that it almost swamps his narrative. We learn a lot about Hebrew Union College, Yeshiva University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and so on, but very little about the Jews who went there. Occasional flashes of color (like the 19th-century Baltimore Hebrew Congregation that fined members for singing louder than the hazzan or chewing tobacco--though the synagogue had plenty of spitoons) only serve to highlight the general grayness. On the other hand, Raphael does a fine job of describing and cataloguing the European roots, theological temper, and internal politics of the four major traditions. He deals evenhandedly with the incredibly broad spectrum that runs from the near-atheism of Reform rabbis like Jacob Voorsanger of San Francisco (18521908) to the near-primitivism of some contemporary Orthodox communities where women with children couldn't carry their babies outside the house until an eruv, a symbolic non-public area, was created by adjusting utility poles to form a continuous ""boundary."" At the same time Raphael stresses the enormous variety (and occasional contentiousness) within each tradition--as for instance between the Belzer and Satmar (strongly anti-Zionist) Hasidim. Meticulously documented, unpedantic (all Hebrew words translated), enlivened now and then by a trenchant judgment (Sba 'are Tefilla, the standard Reform liturgical text, ""remained the prayer book of a people who hardly ever prayed""), this is a reliable, no-nonsense guide.

Pub Date: Jan. 16th, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row