Ben Rothke

Book review – Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism

When asked if the patriarch Abraham wore a kippah (skullcap), a young boy replied innocently, but incredulously “what, Abraham not go out without a kippah?. The anecdote illustrates that our perceptions of our current environment are not always indicative of how they truly played out throughout history.

In Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism (Oxford University Press 978-0190490270), historian Zev Eleff shows that synagogue life in the United States today, is not, to quote the Talking Heads, same as it ever was. Nineteenth century American Judaism underwent significant changes which for the most part has not been thoroughly studied. This well-researched monograph is a fascinating and enlightening read and was recently nominated as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in early January.


Eleff explores the years 1816-1885 of American synagogue life. He asks questions as to how synagogues were run, what the specific roles of the rabbi and congregants were, what types of text were in use, how the liturgy was modified and more.

The book brings to light that in the early 1800’s, American synagogues were lay-lead. In this milieu, pulpit rabbis found themselves subservient to an often-hostile lay body. Leadership and direction came not from the rabbinate, rather from the synagogue’s board. In those early years, it was the lay leaders who made the decisions, and the rabbi’s role was to offer their learned guidance around those decisions.

By the end of the 19th century, Eleff writes that a significant change occurred and rabbis gained (or perhaps regained) control of the synagogue and overall Jewish communal life. The book details how that change happened.

The question of who rules the synagogue was not simply how to create an org chart for the synagogue. It’s that religious authority is what determines the overall dynamic in Jewish society. By understanding that dynamic, Eleff has uncovered just how Jewish communities developed and evolved.

The book notes that much of this lay/rabbinic struggle occurred at the same time clericalism was raging thought the Christian issues around clericalism. Also, the rabbis and laity often fought around areas of textual authority, specifically around sacred texts. Some rabbis updated and wrote their own prayer books with the understanding that with control over the nature of the text and prayers, comes rabbinic power.

The book notes that once power was regained, it did not come without a cost. There was at least one unforeseen ramification in that many of the laity receded into the religious background as the rabbis assumed larger roles and responsibilities.

While the pictures Eleff paints have changed significantly; there is still some issues that gave not changed. The disaffection of Jewish youth in the synagogue, inter-rabbinic quarreling, and the problems of talking during services are still issues in the 21st century.

The 70-year period the book covers was a time of transition and tension and a time of how religious power developed. Eleff writes that it was the Civil War in which rabbis ironically gained power again via several issues set in motion by the war.

The book ends in the 1885, just before the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe started, which would change Jewish and synagogue life even more.

An absorbing read, the book chronicles the struggles and challenges that an emerging American Jewish society faced during these turbulent years. For those with an interest in American Jewish history, Who Rules the Synagogue?: Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism should be part of their required reading list.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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