A map of jewish migration from Europe to USA 1910-1930

Responsa literature as transborder communication between Jewish immigrants to America and their European communities

Research by Prof. Menachem Blondheim and Dr. Zef Segal

The great Jewish migration to America in the turn of the 19th century was researched excessively, specifically concerning its causes and the incorporation of the immigrants into the American society. However, research has scarcely dealt with transborder communication between individuals and communities in the “new world” and communities in the “old world”. This kind of contact is particularly significant with regards to the Orthodox community, since rabbinical authority was largely based on communication networks.

This research focuses on the European responsa literature as a source for dialogues between the European orthodox world and the American orthodox world. This literature comprises a body of written Halakhic decisions given by rabbis in response to questions addressed to them. Unlike other genres of rabbinical literature, such as Halakhic codifications, responsa represents time- and place-bound supplementations to previous codes or accepted practices, due to new contingencies for which no previous provisions have been made. The circumstances of American migration to the orthodox society could, to say the least, be considered such a contingency.

By using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, it is possible to spatially analyze the level of connections between European congregations and America. We therefore tried to identify all the references to America in European responsa literature between 1890 and 1930, and chart the location of the rabbis responding to America. Comparing these new communication maps with other spatial properties of European Jewry such as migration patterns, political affiliations and the relative distribution of Hassidic populations leads to meaningful findings concerning immigrants as transborder mediators and the formation of an autonomous American rabbinical hierarchy.

In addition, we identify the context in which America was being referred to in response literature, as a means for analyzing a change in the attitude towards America. America’s growing role in the lives of European orthodox communities was portrayed through the changing connotations of “America” in the overall corpus of questions and answers. As it appears, America was transformed from a marginal problem of runaways living outside the norms of an organized orthodox society, to a land whose implications to Jewish life worldwide were significant, and called for distinctive stand.


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