Special to the JTA Grappling with Modernity
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Special to the JTA Grappling with Modernity

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A cry of concern mingled with hope that comes from an inner knowledge of what the battle for Judaism’s survival is all about, was raised by 150 rabbis and lay leaders from the United States, Canada, Israel and South America at the Synagogue Council of America’s 10th annual High Holy Days conference for Jewish leadership held recently at the Lincoln Square Synagogue.

The theme of the gathering was "Challenge to Our Faith: American Judaism Responds to Modernity — Evaluations and Assessments." Issues were met head on, and in summing up, Rabbi Henry Michelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council, said the conference was just the beginning of a year of soul-searching meant to "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," with consultations between the Council and regional religious and lay leaders across the country.

All three branches were represented by the key rabbinical speakers: Dr. Gerson Cohen (Conservative), chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; Dr. Alfred Gottschalk (Reform), president of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York; and Dr. Emanuel Rackman (Orthodox), president of Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.


Although each speaker approached the topic of modernity through the filter of his particular affiliation, the problems that persistently emerged centered around two main and interrelated issues.

One is the rapidly diminishing population of American and world Jewry: in the U.S. the number of Jews declined from 3.5 percent of the total population to 2.7 percent in one generation; and in Latin America the number of Jews dwindled from 850,000 in 1959 to 480,000 presently, with only 75,000 of the "losses" attributed to post-1948 aliya, according to the speakers. The second problem is the religious and political "polarization" of present-day Judaism, as Rackman phrased it.

These issues were brought into sharp focus by Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who founded the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Argentina and served as its rector for 25 years, and who is now vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Meyer, who was guest speaker at the conference, issued an impassioned plea for saving Argentina’s fledgling democracy under President Raul Alfonsin by releasing the economic squeeze on its debts to the United States and presented a vivid description of the tortures and brutal murders committed for years by the military juntas during the 1970’s while the world remained silent. He said these issues were "political" only on one level.


Meyer, who was an outspoken critic of the Argentine military during the years of the "dirty war," and who was appointed to the Commission on the Disappearance of Persons last December shortly after Alfonsin was elected, said his involvement in the issues of human rights and political freedom was not merely that of an anguished outcry of one individual against injustice but a plea for Jews to realize that the ubiquitous question, "Is it good for the Jews?" must be transmuted to "Is it good for the human race?" This transmutation is imperative, Meyer said, if Judaism "is not to forget the message for which it was chosen."

He warned that "any society that gives up on the due process of law is doomed to become a jungle, no matter whether it speaks in the name of ‘American democracy’ of ‘the Torah’ or whatever." He expressed concern about the danger of "terror engulfing the world." His "diagnosis of life in Israel and the diaspora today" is that they are in a state "as serious as in the year 70 CE," when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the conquering Romans.

A sub-issue of the "polarization" of contemporary Judaism that disturbed Meyer as well as many other speakers at the conference was, as Meyer put it, the "theocratic threat of an Israeli State where I and others are not considered rabbis" because they are Conservative or Reform.

Even Rackman, who is Orthodox, said he realized it would be desirable for "status" to be found in Israel for Conservative and Reform rabbis. For him, the problem was that the Reform Jews do not accept halacha "as binding." Rackman said that "sometimes individual freedom must be sacrificed for the sake of the group, for unity."


A number of speakers discussed the issue of church-state separation in the U.S., an issue which has dominated the Presidential campaign. They questioned whether the mix of politics and religion should be among the topics for sermons during the High Holy Days. Some rabbis said they did not want to inject religion into politics, but other rabbis said it was unavoidable this year.

Rabbi Joseph Glaser, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, the association of American Reform rabbis, who was chairman of the conference, in his summary of the themes of the meeting, referred to the "unhealthy and unholy mix of church and state, "and said "we are in times of great peril."

Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, president of the Synagogue Council of America, which represents the rabbinical and congregational agencies of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, said that "polarization did not exist in the past to the extent it does today." He said that "We engage in raging debates on ‘Who is a Jew’ rather than on "What is a Jew’. Perhaps we should turn to another question now, namely, ‘Why is a Jew’?"


Gottschalk focused on another dimension of "polarization." He expressed fear "that time and current circumstances are also eroding the powerful influence that Israel has had in sustaining and uniting American Jews" who today feel "a certain disillusion … emotional fatigue … disaffection."

He said he felt that Israel and American Jewry might well be "better served if American Jews were more ready to debate openly and fearlessly those issues which affect our common destiny," such as "Israel’s religious establishment’s refusal to give recognition to Conservative and Reform Judaism."

Jews in the diaspora "cannot go on living their Jewishness vicariously through Israel, especially if the Israeli government at any given time, through its legal apparatus, declares diaspora forms of Judaism as being illegitimate, alien, and therefore not to be recognized," Gottschalk declared.

He also severely criticized "Judaism frozen in its shtetl garb" imbued with "mindless traditionalism" which can offer "a momentary nostalgic high but cannot answer the questions of our young people today."

Dealing with the diminishing number of Jews around the world due, according to some of the speakers, to apathy and intermarriage, the tide could be stemmed by encouraging larger families. Gottschalk said there is "a clear moral imperative to rebuild and reconstitute the Jewish people’s numerical strength. Over a million and a half Jewish children had their lives cut off in the Holocaust …. Generations need to be raised and nurtured in their memory."

Waxman said that one reason for the decline of the number of Jews is that Judaism today is a political and social but not a "spiritual community." At present, he added, "people’s need for spiritual answers is not being effectively met by Judaism."

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