America on the Responsa Map: Hasidim, Mitnagdim, and the Trans-Atlantic Social Network of Religious Authority.

Author:Segal, Zef

There is a deep tension limning the experience of Jews, Jewry, and Judaism in America and their relation to the Old World. One side of this tension--perhaps ambivalence--is the depth of the immigrants' uprooting, the degree to which they rejected the alte baym (old home). Few voluntary migrations in the modern world were as decisive, the disowning they implied so conclusive. The demographics of the migration, including the proportion of people who migrated versus those who stayed, the rapidity of their coalescence into a mass-migration movement, and that movement's unidirectionality, indicate an overwhelming rejection of the old country.

From the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, fully one-third of Eastern European Jews evacuated their countries of birth. The uprooting was thorough and systematic: a large majority of the Jewish immigrants had their way paid by relatives who had already settled in America. The intention was patent: no family member should remain behind. And indeed, an unusually large share of Jewish immigrants never looked back. While at least 30 percent of most (non-Jewish) immigrants returned to their homelands, the rate of return among Jews was a minuscule 7 percent, and even that was until the outbreak of World War I, which practically stopped return migration. (1) Strictly, "no return" may have been mythical, but it was certainly a dominant state of mind. Jewish immigrants to America conclusively and emphatically turned their backs on the countries they left. (2)

Yet at the same time, Jewish Americans were distinctly outward looking, remarkably mindful of their brethren's affairs. Historian Eli Lederhendler has recently argued that the distinguishing aspect of American Jews, both as an immigrant group and religious group in America, was precisely their awareness, interest, and connectedness to their coreligionists abroad. This "foreign aspect of American Jewry's history," Lederhendler argues, was unique, it was "an essential attribute of Jews' 'otherness.'" (3) The significance of this dimension of connectedness stands, however, in stark contrast to the decisiveness we noted in the uprooting process characterizing American Jewish immigration.

This duality, which touches on the most fundamental sensibilities of American Jews, calls for careful analysis. What follows is an attempt to untangle one strand of this ambiguity, one that relates to the religious aspect of the problem of continuity and its severance. Lederhendler argues that ecclesiastical ties disintegrated, that there were "no formal, hierarchical relations between Jewish rabbis and congregations in the United States and those abroad. Such ties of religious dependency that occasionally developed were ephemeral and apt to atrophy quickly." (4) While we do not disagree with the gist of this argument, we will try here to delimit its scope and point to areas in which religious authority served as a realm of connectedness between American Jews and their homelands, rather than an arena of severance. In what follows, we attempt to map and evaluate the forces of connectedness between America and Europe and their disruption, the continuity and change in the realm of religious authority and religious teachings. In this study, we use responsa literature as a prime source for uncovering the dynamics of traditional Jewish religious authority, its disruption and its binding force.

Responsa literature is a traditional rabbinical genre, dating back to the Middle Ages. Responsa are written replies to questions of Jewish religious law (halakhah), which had been conveyed in writing to a rabbinic authority. While many consider responsa strictly as exchanges related to practical, real-life legal dilemmas that had actually occurred, responsa have in fact been written on virtually every aspect of Jewish life and thought. The diffusion of such texts, in turn, became the standard mode of circulating legal rulings throughout the Jewish diaspora since the Geonic period, in many cases setting binding legal precedents, civil law-style. (5)

Accordingly, responsa literature has been widely recognized by historians as a rich resource for both reconstructing the development of rabbinic law and for illuminating the historical details of everyday life in Jewish communities over the ages. (6) Less obvious and less utilized, but as important, are two other pieces of historical information contained within responsas. Both relate to using the exchange of responsa itself, not the content of the responsa, as a historical source; both are communication-oriented. The first concerns the physical layer of the conveyance of responsa: the documentation of the flow of questions and answers provides unequalled evidence of the routes and channels used by Jews over the ages. This helps chart the map of contact and communication among responsa across the diaspora. The second goes beyond the lateral plane and deals with social structure and hierarchies. Since responsa represent lower religious authorities appealing to higher ones (laymen to rabbis, lower ranking rabbis to higher authorities), the exchange of responsa provides a map of networks of religious authority crisscrossing the Jewish religious world. (7) These two aspects are of course relevant to the problem of the degree and nature of religious connection and communication between American and European Jews.

Accordingly, the present study focuses on the network-oriented aspects of responsa literature relating to America and American Jewry. References to America in European responsa literature can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but these were rarities. (8) Reflections of America in this genre only became frequent during the late nineteenth century, and especially around the turn of the century. This increase corresponded to the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to North America, rising gradually in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, particularly after 1881. The wave of migrants would subside after 1924, when legal restrictions were laid on the path of potential immigrants. By then, more than two and a half million Eastern European Jews had immigrated to the United States. Responsa relating to America can thus serve as a source for trans-Atlantic communication, tracing certain kinds of relationships between individuals and communities in the new world and the old, as well as the social networks they charted.

This kind of contact was particularly significant in shaping the Orthodox community in the United States, which included, at least nominally, most of the immigrants. However, no precise mapping of these networks of legal authority has previously been attempted in either America or Europe; nor have the connections across the Atlantic been charted. At least as important as mapping these links and connections is identifying lacunae and discontinuities in time and in space. As this study demonstrates, a spatial analysis of the connections between Europe and America in the responsa literature provides some unexpected, even striking findings that may require a reevaluation of certain historiographic commonplaces concerning the religious history, and even the social history, of American Jews. We find that they focus on the divide between Hasidim and Mitnagdim--two social and religious groups within modern Judaism that will be discussed below.

Responsa Literature as a Source for Constructing Communication Networks

Using responsa literature as a source documenting communications between Jewish individuals and communities allows us to focus on questions related to geography: Which European communities corresponded with those in the United States, and which did not? An answer to such a question is relevant to many aspects of the lives of Orthodox Jews and the Jewish community in the New World. They include the nature of local religious authority established there; the role of American rabbis; the ties between immigrants and their European communities of origin; and the emergence of an autonomous American rabbinate. (9)

The evidence we gathered from extant published responsa only surveys one side of the communication network: the reply of European rabbis to queries referring to the United States. Unfortunately for social historians, rabbinic authors and publishers of printed responsa were chiefly concerned with the preservation of halakhic decisions, and tended to omit details that they regarded as superfluous. As a result, the queries are in most cases either abridged or completely absent. Needless to say, in most cases, the names of the queries' authors, their places of residence, and the correspondence dates are not mentioned. Consequently, it is usually difficult to fix the place and the time of the real world occurrence or circumstance launching the responsa process. (10) Inevitably, the chief points of tangible information on networks relevant to the New World are the identity of the responding rabbi mentioning America, and the publication date and place of his work.

Responsa as Digital Data

Fortunately, much of the responsa literature printed over the ages has remained extant, and is now available in digital form. Huge digital databases such as Otzar Hahochma, Hebrew Books, and the Bar Ilan Responsa Project enable a digital analysis of 594 responsa publications appearing between 1890 and 1930. (11) On the downside, and as noted, responsa do not necessarily document the time, place, and identity of the asker or even the text of the query: each responsum usually repeats the gist of the question(s), analyzes the legal issue and then provides a resolution, which commonly is not dated either. Therefore, in this study, when the date of the query is not provided, we used the publication date of the responsum as the basis for dating. In a sample of entries, we found that it took an average of eight years for a responsa to go from written query to publication in a...

To continue reading