Tag Archives: hillel halkin

Denominations of Judaism

Philologus had a column a few weeks ago where he claimed:

“Denomination” in contemporary English is a rather sociological-sounding word; it’s what you call someone else’s religion, not your own. Can it be, then, that the real reason more American Jews are now using it is that they have come to regard Judaism as someone else’s religion?

As I was reading it, I knew that it was not true because I was in the middle of typing texts from the early 20th century in which both Reform and Orthodox Jews called themselves “denomination.” I also remembered that Marshall Sklare had used the term in the 1950’s. I was not going to respond since I already responded to one of his articles using Ngram to show he was wrong. Why do it again? But then I received an email from a friend who knows about language, and writes better than I do, exasperated about the column on denominations. After a few emails back and forth, sharing ideas and sharing places to check, the following guest post emerges from my email friend. I found the quote from Sklare, he found the use of the word streams. The humor is not mine but I post the entire thing.

Guest post by Philobiblios
Philologus is back to writing op-eds under the guise of philology. This week he claims that the use of the word “denomination” is new to Judaism. Its usage reflects a nefarious combination of Christian and apathy by liberal Jews impinging the authentic Jewish lexicon which, he says, prefers the term “movement.”

Philologus may have missed Marshall Sklare’s classic, Conservative Judaism (1955), which explains the rise and fall of different groups based on the Chicago School’s theory of first, second, and third places of immigrant settlement. Sklare repeatedly uses the word denomination to discuss the shift from the denomination of Orthodoxy to that of Conservative. “Jews who rise in social class might simply leave one denomination, Orthodoxy, and switch their affiliation to Conservative or Reform. “ The term was used in all subsequent literature based on Sklare. Most Jewish sociologists continued to use the word (e.g. Chaim Waxman; Jack Wertheimer). Even amateur sociologists used it; see, for example, Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend (1977), where the three American denominations are discussed on page 118.

Ok, maybe Philologus had no interest in the Conservative movement of his youth. But he should have know that at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions the Jewish speakers presented as part of the Jewish Denominational Congress. American Jews were proud to take their stand as another faith and denomination.
In fact, between 1893 and 1919, most references to the “movements“ are to the Reform denomination and the Orthodox denomination. (AB-I was actually working on these texts of the early twentieth century text when the op-ed appeared.)

Maybe Philologus does not like universalistic sociology and prefers his beloved tribal Zionism. Zionists surely would not use such a goyish word. But no. Jacob de Haas, the Hasidic and Haredi Zionist leader who worked with Brandeis to build American Zionism, used the word Jewish denominations throughout the 1940’s and 1950s. Maybe Philogos doesn’t like de Haas because he can’t fathom that a Zionist would be Hasidic and not a pork eater.

In any event, already in 1935 the term was being used to describe the constituents of the Synagogue Council of America.

So what’s wrong with movements? No doubt the association with bowels makes the word less than ideal for copy editors (though it offers possibilities for low-minded headline writers.)

The current term, my journalist friends tell me, is “streams.” This is a translation of the Hebrew zerem, and has been the standard word out of Israeli dispatches since the 1970’s. Some of the earliest citations come from reports of Israeli leadership, in the late ’70s and ’80s, promising American machers that if they came to power, they would work to recognize all “streams” of Judaism. How the term zerem came to apply to the religious movements, or denominations, is an interesting question.

But when it comes to English words, however, Philologus has to learn to use Google Books, the Ngram, and various other online archives before creating non-existent philology.

Philo-palin, Hillel Halkin and the phrase Blood Libel

In last weeks’ Forward, Hillel Halkin attributes the phrase “blood libel” to the influence of the Encyclopedia Judiaca (1971). Originally I thought that his column supported one of my prior posts, which showed that the spelling of the word Kabbalah was based on the influence of the EJ.

In order make a decent blog post, I checked Google Ngram and discovered that the change of terminology was 1966-1970. Halkin was wrong again and was more concerned with his political agenda to show the influence of Jabotinsky and Israel than any love of words. With even more wonderful Google technology, I turned to Google Books and found that the books that changed from blood accusation to blood libel were all American volumes. This list included the new volume of Salo Baron, the translation of Dubnov, Dan Ben–Amotz, In Praise of the Baal Shen Tov, Joseph Blau of Columbia’s Varieties of Modern Judaism, the translation of Zinberg, as well as Midstream and Tradition. It is time for a more philological approach to the study of Jewish words.

Here is Halkin’s genealogy:

Although the blood libel itself — that is, the accusation that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes, especially for the baking of Passover matzos — is an old one going back at least to the Middle Ages, “blood libel” as an English expression is quite recent. The 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia covered the subject under “Blood Accusation”; and in Volume IV of his monumental “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” published in 1957, renowned historian Salo Baron wrote, too, of “the fateful popular invention which was permanently to envenom the relations between Jews and Christians in many lands: the so-called ‘blood accusation.’” In the pages that followed, Baron did not once use the term “blood libel.” The Catholic scholar Edward Flannery, for his part, in his 1965 history of anti-Semitism, “The Anguish of the Jews,” referred to “the ritual murder libel,” also calling it “the ritual murder charge” and “the ritual murder calumny.” “Blood libel” is nowhere to be found in Flannery’s book, either.

The 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, has a lengthy entry under “Blood Libel,” written by the Hebrew University professor of Jewish history Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson. It would appear, in fact, to have been this article that introduced the term in English, into which it was translated from the Hebrew expression alilat dam, dam meaning “blood” and alila “libel” or “slander.” Traceable to the 17th-century Egyptian-Jewish chronicler Yosef ben Yitzhak Sambari, who first used it in his history of medieval Jewry, “Sefer Divrei Yosef,” alilat dam has been for hundreds of years the standard Hebrew way of saying “blood accusation” or “ritual murder charge.” Presumably, the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica preferred it in English because a libel is by definition false whereas an accusation or charge may be true, and presumably, too, this was the reason that “blood libel” quickly caught on among historians writing in English and soon displaced its rivals completely.

And here is the Ngram showing that by 1971 the majority of the shift had occurred already.