Judaism Confronts America
Jonathan D. Sarna
Brandeis University
Fall 2005

     This course examines, through a close reading of selected primary sources, central issues and tensions in American Jewish life, paying attention to their historical background and to issues of Jewish law.

1. Introduction - Why this course could not have been offered a generation ago: (a) cult of synthesis; (b) “the law of the land is the law.”


2. Traditional Authority vs. American Freedom

3. Jewish Prayers for the United States Government

4. Majority Rule

5. The Problem of Kashrut

6. The Charleston Organ Controversy

7. Slavery

8. Temperance & Prohibition

9. Driving and Electricity on Shabbat

10. Women’s issues: seating, agunah, head covering, feminism, women rabbis

11. Eruv

12. Homosexuality

Midterm project

     Write an introduction to a published rabbinic responsum (Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, English or Hebrew) that deals with some conflict between Judaism and America. Your job is to introduce the responsum and to provide readers with the necessary background to understand it. Although you want to focus on the issue underlying the responsum, your introduction should also provide the reader with vital information concerning the author of the responsum, when it was written, and how to contextualize it. Feel free to point the reader toward critical passages or points of interpretation.
     Note that many Reform responsa are on www.ccarnet.org/index.cfm and are also in published form in the library.  Some Conservative responsa are on the net and many are found in volumes like Responsa 1991-2000 by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly; Responsa in a Moment: Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues, ed. Rabbi David Golinkin, The Institute of Applied Halakhah; Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement; The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa, Simon Greenberg, JTS, 1988. The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg, ed. David Golinkin, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1996. Most Orthodox responsa are in Hebrew and found on the Bar Ilan CD-Rom in the library and many on www.hebrewbooks.org. See also the Journal of Contemporary Halachah and the famous volumes of Igrot Moshe: The Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (in Hebrew; some are translated).

Final paper

     Explore utilizing primary sources (in conjunction with secondary sources) any theme that highlights aspects of the tension between Judaism and American culture. Your research may utilize newspapers, magazines, responsa, institutional documents, correspondence or other sources; it may deal with one branch of Judaism or various branches; and it may deal with a theme considered in the course so long as it does so using additional (different) primary sources. You must include copies of the primary sources you use as an appendix to your paper (if you use websites, you can provide me with the URLs). Suggested topics (no need to select any of these, they are just suggestions): use of the microphone on Shabbat, mixed dancing, free (unassigned) seating; shaving by men; eating out while on business trips; Celebration of Thanksgiving Day; Christmas & Chanukah; and the approach of one or more contemporary poskim [rabbinic decisors] to America.