ISRAELITES AT CONGREGATION Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, recently squared off in a highly public dispute that pitted reformers in the congregation against their brethren who increasingly refer to themselves as Orthodox. This emotional debate inside one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious congregations reflects a growing tension within our community, as we struggle to maintain the noble fabric of our faith, while adapting to the blessed freedoms of America. Regrettably, the controversial affair at Beth Elohim—characterized by squabbling and sore feelings—has spilled into public view. The unfortunate events began in 1840 when an argument erupted at a congregational meeting to decide if an organ should be placed in the shul and played on the Sabbath and festivals.
DIFFERENCES EMERGE In defense of the organ, Abraham Moise, a leader of the reformers, praised the Israelites of Charleston, saying that they were “rendering the service of the synagogue acceptable to all by restoring it to its primitive beauty and simplicity.” Furthermore, he rejected accusations leveled at the Friends of the Organ (as the reformers have become known) denying that they were Christianizing our ancient faith. On the contrary, Moise responded, reformers at Beth Elohim are removing what they believe to be Judaism’s “defects and deformities” without “touching its fundamental principles.”
A HISTORIC VOTE The opposition recoiled at the possibility that “true adherence to our holy religion” might be indiscriminately cast aside. Nathan Hart, then president of Beth Elohim, reminded the community that instrumental music in the synagogue not only violates Jewish law but also blurs the important distinction between the synagogue and the ancient Temple, where music was played. Nonetheless, the Friends of the Organ prevailed, 46-40. Disappointed, Hart warned the reformers that the decision to install an organ violated the congregation’s constitution. Instrumental music interferes with the “minhag (usual custom) of the Portuguese Jews, to which the congregation of Charleston professes itself,” he claimed. Therefore, changing the style of worship at Beth Elohim without a three-fourths majority would be illegal. The reformers listened to Hart’s argument but ultimately rejected it and became the first Jewish American congregation to play an organ on the Sabbath. Reluctantly, a substantial number of the Orthodox party left Beth Elohim and formed a new synagogue, Shearith Israel.
AN UNEXPECTED BETRAYAL During the next three years, the Reverend Hazan of Beth Elohim, Mr. Gustavus Poznanski, inexplicably turned his back on the Orthodox members who remained in the shul; indeed, some say he betrayed them. Although the traditionalists were his original supporters, Poznanski deserted them during the organ controversy, urging that the organ be installed. And then, to their astonishment, he championed additional reforms. For example, on the first day of Passover in 1843, the minister criticized the traditional practice of observing yom tov for two days. Astounded, the Orthodox members of the Board of Trustees reprimanded Poznanski. “One minister and one congregation cannot have the right to alter longstanding observances at pleasure,” they admonished. Although their views now represented a minority of the congregation, these trustees demanded that the minister inform them whenever he intended to propose “innovations in the established forms of service as observed by us (the Charleston congregation) and all other congregations of Jews throughout the world.” Poznanski politely agreed but remained dedicated to reform. In fact, in his written response to the Board’s rebuke, the Hazan challenged his critics, saying that he would refrain from urging further innovations only until representatives of the congregation demanded otherwise.
THE FINAL SHOWDOWN Traditionalists on the Board were upset and determined to stop the minister’s reforms; however, they fell three votes shy of passing a resolution to establish a worship service at Beth Elohim that embraced “all the Mosaic and rabbinical laws.” Feeling as if they had no other options, they joined Shearith Israel and also filed a lawsuit that challenged the legality of the religious changes they had opposed. The stage was set for the final act in the “Charleston organ case.”
THE JUDGE DECIDES Appeals Court Judge A.P. Butler sympathized with the traditionalists, explaining in his ruling that they “deserve respect, and are to be regarded as useful checks on reckless innovation.” Nonetheless, he refused to decide the case in their favor. Questions about religious practice should not be decided by the courts, Judge Butler wrote. Instead, religious beliefs and ritual practices “must necessarily belong and should be committed to” the leaders of each congregation. As with other important matters in America, the future of American Judaism will henceforth be decided by the people.