“Reform Judaism and the Jewish ‘Social Gospel'” by Darren Kleinberg

Reference: Valley Beit Midrash

During a campaign speech at the African Methodist Episcopal Church Convention in St. Louis on Saturday July 5, 2008, then Senator Barack Obama described his conception of religious responsibility in these words:

[O]ur faith cannot be an idle faith. It requires more of us than Sundays at church. It requires more than just our daily prayer. It must be an active faith rooted in that most fundamental of all truths: that I am my brother’s keeper, that I am my sister’s keeper. That we must live that truth not only with good words, but good deeds.

In this speech, many Americans were unknowingly hearing echoes of a religious movement and worldview that developed around the turn of the twentieth century. The Social Gospel, as it has come to be known, was a movement that saw in Christianity a religious calling to improve society and its institutions. President Obama is but one of many Americans who can attribute their understanding of the role religion should play in society to the Social Gospel.

Despite acknowledging that “[s]cholarly research into the subject…has been minimal,” the authors of a standard work on the subject of the Social Gospel published in 1976 were still willing to conclude that “Judaism . . . did not produce a social gospel movement comparable to that in Protestantism. . . .” In this estimation, White and Hopkins drew on the work of a noted sociologist of the American Jewish experience writing two decades earlier who declared that “ . . . it is one of the most remarkable things about American Judaism . . . that it is not particularly concerned with social problems.”

The author, Nathan Glazer, goes on to note that “the failure of a Jewish ‘social gospel’ movement to develop among Reform Jews is really surprising.” While the reader is left wondering why this would, in fact, be surprising, no doubt is left as to the question of whether or not American Jews, and specifically the American Reform Movement, had developed its own “social gospel.” In the opinion of these authors, the answer is unequivocally “no.”

As more recent scholars have begun to acknowledge, however, the truth is very much the opposite. The historian Jonathan Sarna has written in his award winning work, American Judaism (2004), that the “social justice motif [was] the Jewish equivalent of the Protestant Social Gospel” and that classical Reform Judaism was “parallel to the Protestant Social Gospel movement.” Sarna is indeed correct, but his observation can be extended even further. More than simply offering a parallel or equivalent expression of the Protestant Social Gospel in Jewish terms, American Reform Judaism in the late nineteenth century did what no denominational church group, including the as-of-yet unformed Social Gospel Movement, had done before: it formally articulated the central role that social justice played in religious life. In effect, the American Reform Movement was the first denomination in American religious life to develop a “social gospel,” as it were.

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