ASP Abridged: Defenders of the Faith by Judith Bleich

We are pleased to introduce a new series of blog posts, ASP Abridged, in which authors give readers a short and sweet introduction to their latest book.

In the first blog post in this series, Judith Bleich introduces us to her new release, Defenders of the Faith: Studies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodoxy and Reform.

Tell us what Defenders of the Faith is about in simple terms.

The emancipation of European Jewry during the nineteenth century led to conflict between tradition and modernity, creating a chasm that few believed could be bridged. Unsurprisingly, the emergence of modern traditionalism was fraught with obstacles. With the growth of the Reform movement in the nineteenth century, factionalism became a hallmark of Jewish life. By the second decade of the century, the ideological cleavage within the ranks of Judaism was pronounced and the Orthodox and Reform movements emerged as clearly defined denominations pitted against one another in a struggle for supremacy. Involving questions of faith commitment and hallowed practice the ensuing debates were heated and ofttimes intemperate. Defenders of the Faith analyzes the many areas of sociological and religious tension that divided the competing factions, including synagogue innovation, circumcision, intermarriage, military service and many others. The work depicts the passion underlying the disparate views, the particular areas of vexing confrontation and the hurdles faced by champions of tradition.

How does Defenders of the Faith make a unique contribution to the field?

There are numerous books and articles, both academic and popular, that chronicle the trajectory of the Reform movement, portraying its ideologues and recounting its successes. However, there is a dearth of material elucidating the views of the traditionalists and bringing to life the personalities of their foremost exponents. Avoiding strident polemic, Defenders of the Faith addresses this lacuna and casts a spotlight on the concerns and objectives of an embattled community.  The work discusses innovations in ritual practice and theology and places them in sociological context. Defenders of the Faith illuminates the history and development of the diverse streams of Judaism and identifies the issues that continue to divide them in contemporary times.

Of particular importance is the section of the book devoted to the thought of Rabbi Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg, a charismatic twentieth-century rabbinic scholar. Rabbi Weinberg was a leading intellectual figure whose writings are insufficiently appreciated. This work introduces his insights to the English-speaking reader by examining excerpts taken from many of his essays and responsa. The final chapter traces current trends in synagogue practice and relates them to the elusive search for spirituality that characterizes the modern era.

Judith Bleich, Ph.D., has been Professor of Judaic Studies at the Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies since its inception and has taught at the Lander College for Women for over four decades. In 2004, she received the Founding Faculty Award of the Lander College for Women. She specializes in the nineteenth-century development of Reform and Orthodoxy in the wake of the Enlightenment and has written and lectured extensively on modern Jewish history. She serves on the editorial committee of Tradition, is a contributing editor of Jewish Action and a member of the Orthodox Forum Steering Committee.