When Rabbis Seized Control of the Synagogue: The Role of Authority in American Judaism

Congregation Shearith Israel, in NYC, 1860.

In this RD10Q, historian Zev Eleff uncovers the little-known story of how American Jews became a clergy-led community.

RD: What inspired you to write Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism?

Zev Eleff: In 1991, historian Jon Butler called for scholars of American religion to consider how “church authority” worked to shape “lay faith.” A few biographers had heeded Butler’s call, but I felt that there was much work to be done. I was convinced that religious authority and its overall impact had been overlooked as a valuable feature of religious life.

For Jews, changes in religious authority helped determine changes in prayer and ritual, synagogue construction and gender dynamics. Here was an opportunity to offer scholars of religion a monograph that focuses on the formative century of Judaism in the United States, one that places this faith community in the broader context of American religion.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Readers will gain a deeper understanding of religious authority and the tensions it caused between lay and religious leaders. Beyond this, I hope scholars and students of American religion will use this work as a model to explore how historical questions might be answered by turning to considerations of religious power and those who control it (and, of course, those who don’t!).

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Absolutely not. Mine is a very tight work that seeks to explore certain questions and answers them, hopefully satisfactorily. Still, this monograph has offered me new questions and paradigms to help understand other historical epochs. My study concludes in the 1880s, just before a mass migration from Eastern Europe grew the American Jewish community from 250,000 women and men to about a million at the turn of the 20th century. The changing nature and culture of the Jewish community in the United States provides new variables to explore. However, the role of religious authority in determining new developments is more than evident in other periods.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

My sense is that historians started to think less and less about the role that authority has played in the formation of religious communities. The concepts of “authority” and “power” seem, on the face of it, to relate to the elites and did not do much for the much more popular study of “lived religion.” Yet, careful research of authority on local and national levels reveals that religious power flowed in many directions, impacting how individuals behaved, worshiped and thought. A heightened scholarly awareness of authority throws much light on current trends in the history of lived religion.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

This was a dilemma for me. My particular focus is American Jewish history. I’ve written about it in books and articles. I study it, read it, live it. I also consider myself a student of American religion (Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam) and modern Jewish history (in the United States and Europe). I wrote this book in a way that speaks to all of these fields and made ample use of the primary and secondary sources in all three disciplines. I also did my best to write in an engaging manner that would appeal to practitioners (rabbis, ministers, laypeople), as I think the arguments posed in my monograph have something to offer contemporary folks as well.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Anger them?

I certainly never try to anger anyone! This is an interesting question. I suppose, as a teacher and scholar, my role is always to engage students and readers. Entertaining, then, is a core component in any successful scholarly enterprise. My book—I think anyway—doesn’t have an agenda. As a historian, I am moved to discover (or rediscover) new ideas and facts and reconstruct a historical moment with theses and other scholarly scaffoldings. That’s my truest agenda. If I, as a historian, and the reader, as a student of history, come out better informed and more intrigued by the complexities of religious life—then I’ve succeeded.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Oh, dear. The first title was Pulpits, Power and Pews. My editors at Oxford University Press, Theo Calderara and Marcela Maxfield, were very wise and gracious to do away with that overdone display of alliteration. Then we considered When the Rabbis Reigned. Finally, thanks to a suggestion by my mentor, Dr. Jonathan Sarna, we agreed upon Who Rules the Synagogue, an allusion to the political scientist Robert Dahl and his very influential work on political power, Who Governs.

How do you feel about the cover?

The cover is elegant and up to the high standards of Oxford University Press. Several years ago, I found the drawing of Rabbi David Einhorn rebuking his congregants in Baltimore (he was a fierce abolitionist and they were not) in the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. At the time, I thought it might make for a good cover. I am very grateful that my publishers found a way to incorporate this image so prominently into the cover’s design.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
History is a cooperative endeavor. I’m so very happy that other terrific historians have taken up the responsibility of writing on American religion. I have gained much from their writing and wisdom and am glad that these women and men have enabled the rest of the field to benefit from that work. My scholarship is stronger because others came before me and strengthened the literature. So I don’t really wish that I had written anything that has already appeared—just glad that it is available for me to learn from and utilize in my own work!
What’s your next book?

I am working on a history of patrilineal descent. In the 1980s, Reform Judaism (under the leadership of Rabbi Alexander Schindler) changed the way this community viewed religious status and identity. Before then, all Jewish communities—save for the Reconstructionists—identified Jewishness through one’s mother and not the father. I will focus on the substantial political and religious literature during this decade that stresses the “fracturing” and “polarization” of American life. The patrilineal decision decentered American Judaism, causing rifts within the various movements and shifting the center of concern from the United States to Israel. So far, I have delivered a number of talks on this subject and received great feedback.