Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer at Touro College, Hebrew Theological in Skokie, Illinois. This interview is based on his new book Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Who Rules the Synagogue?
ZE: Long ago, historian Jon Butler called for American religious historians to pay greater attention to the “Catholic model” of historical inquiry. By this, Butler asked the field to consider questions that we normally ask in the realm of Catholic history but rarely do for other religious communities. This provocative essay directed me to ask questions about the role of authority in American Judaism, a research question taken up by Catholic historians but by few others. I hope that my monograph will be a useful model for others in the field of American religion.
JF: What is the argument of Who Rules the Synagogue?
ZE: My book argues that nineteenth century American Judaism underwent important change, in ways that have been heretofore overlooked by scholars. In the first decades, synagogues and other institutions were led by lay leaders. However, by the end of 1800s, it was apparent that rabbis had seized control of the all-important synagogue. Much of this was accomplished through the introduction of religious reforms. My book theorizes that the 1860s represented the most critical period in this transformation and introduced important determinants of change. All related to the Civil War, religious, economic and transatlantic forces brought about a new era of a clergy-led Jewish community in the United States.
JF: Why do we need to read Who Rules the Synagogue?
ZE: I hope that my book introduces important questions that have not yet been taken up by the field. Scholars operating in other subfields may find that other factors led to change. In any case, my sense is that the book’s thesis and many of its rich primary sources will be useful to fellow historians. I really look forward and anticipate a time in the near future when my work will be placed in conversation with other historical studies in the broader field of American religion.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ZE: As an undergraduate at Yeshiva University, I was very fortunate to find several terrific mentors, most notably Prof. Jeffrey Gurock. I wrote my honors thesis (later published in a scholarly journal) under Prof. Gurock and served as his research assistant. Afterward, I conducted my doctoral studies under the wonderful and wise Prof. Jonathan Sarna, as well as leading scholars like Profs. David Hackett Fischer and Jane Kamensky. All of my teachers have pushed me to think more creatively, and with the notion that there is still much room to explore in the field.
JF: What is your next project?
ZE: I am presently working on a project that explores various shifting centers and fissures within the American Jewish community in the 1980s. My major point of focus is the Reform Movement’s decision to accept Patrilineal Descent (as opposed to Jewish status determined by someone’s Jewish mother). This new policy had an important impact upon the middle-of-the-road path in Reform Judaism and in the broader American Jewish community. It also shifted the center of world Jewry from the United States to Israel. Of course, this “‘de-centering” matches similar changes in modern Christian history, as well as the political, social and economic history on American life in the 1980s.
JF: Thanks, Zev!