Gustav Gottheil was a person of great influence in the development of American Reform Judaism, but his story has been largely forgotten. From 1873 to 1903, he was rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, the largest and wealthiest Reform Congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A prolific author and public teacher, he was “a striking and dominating figure … in American Judaism at large.” He was also controversial, criticized by some for his perceived openness to the ideals, institutions, and elites of American liberal Christianity. One editorialist wrote that he was “frequently accused of … ogling with Christianity, of servilely fawning upon it.” Another suggested that, when the history of American Reform Judaism was written, “ill-disposed critics [would] deny Gottheil his legitimate place,” judging that he was “dragging the congregation into … un-Jewish paths” based on his warm relations with urban Christian elites.
This essay is a study of the complex dynamics of Gustav Gottheil’s relationship to American Christianity. It argues that Gottheil believed America was in profound religious transition. In spite of the fact that American culture was dominated by Christian normativity, liberal Christians who were giving up their Trinitarian dogmas were actually becoming Reform Jews—“Modern Christianity,” he said in 1885, “is ancient Judaism.” This trajectory left him in no doubt that Reform Judaism was the “only possible religion of the American future.”
Throughout his ministry, Gottheil sought to advance the process of the conversion of American Christianity to Judaism. He entered into extensive dialogue and friendship with scores of liberal Christian leaders—the “ogling” and “fawning” for which he was criticized. His strategy was rarely to debate but, rather, to inhabit their vocabulary. He spoke the religious language of the normatively Christian American culture, affirming the cultural impulses of the Christian nationalist vision while creatively renarrating them on Jewish foundations.