Special to the JTA the Fate of the Jewish People
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Special to the JTA the Fate of the Jewish People

The multiplicity of denominations within the Jewish religion enhances Jewish options. But the recent trend toward polarization and increased interdenominational clashes within Judaism is jeopardizing the ideological pluralism in Jewish life.

This condition was examined at a symposium last week presented by the faculty of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). Addressing the question, “Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?”, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of CLAL, detailed the roadblocks to unifying the Jewish people and proposed practical solutions to “bridge religious gaps” between the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements.

Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, warned that, while there is an image of Jews being clannish, “we are heading toward a communal and personal tragedy … a fundamental split in the Jewish people.”

Citing a recent Wall Street Journal survey, Greenberg said that there are about 10,000 converts to Judaism annually in the U.S., and he predicted that 90 percent of them will be Reform, not fulfilling the conversion requirements demanded by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.

Along with the controversial religious status of converts, there is also the split over the issue of patrilineal descent, Greenberg noted. He asked: “How can the Reform rabbinate proclaim the right of patrilineal descent, when they know full well that neither the Orthodox nor the Conservative movement accept such children as Jewish?”


Greenberg expressed the fear that Orthodox and Conservative parents, seeking to prevent their children from marrying offspring of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers — who are not considered Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law) — will tell their children to “stay away from places where you can meet Jewish people who are only passing for Jewish.” The result, he said, will be “alienation” between Jews and “civil war.”

Greenberg noted that, as the Jewish divorce rate goes up, and with it the remarriage rate, there is a corresponding increase in “mamzerim,” children halacha considers illegitimate.

Halacha defines as illegitimate children born of illicit unions, such as a remarriage in which the mother did not receive a “get” (official Jewish bill of divorce) from her previous marriage and whom halacha therefore regards as an adulteress. Offspring of adulterous unions are forbidden to marry legitimate children according to Jewish law.

This situation is exacerbated with the growing “baal teshuva” (returnees) movement, Greenberg said. There is a recurring dilemma among young people from non-observant homes who decide to commit themselves to Judaism and to become observant, only to learn that they are halachically illegitimate.

While Greenberg commended Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, dean of the Orthodox rabbinate and renowned Talmudic scholar, for attempting to resolve the problem, he assailed the ruling that since Reform rabbis are not valid rabbis according to halacha, the marriages they perform are not valid and do not require a “get.” Greenberg said that this was a form of delegitimizing the Reform movement.

Greenberg charged that the delegitimizing of the other denominations “diverts each one from facing its real issues.” If Jews from all denominations would get together — the Conservative and Reform, which according to Greenberg need more discipline and tradition, and the Orthodox, which he said needs more flexibility to respond to contemporary problems — they could ultimately “exchange, agendas and understanding.”


As an example of estrangement between the denominations, Greenberg cited the decision by the Conservative movement to ordain women as rabbis, a decision which he added has tended to polarize the Conservative movement itself. Greenberg said while he respects the decision on women rabbis, “it should have been coupled with a commitment to make extraordinary efforts to enter into dialogue with the Orthodox.”

He noted that the Conservative movement was too concerned about settling its own agenda and has said, in effect, “let others go their own way.” Greenberg added that women rabbis could have offered “to refrain from serving as witnesses on halachic personal status documents for a decade — on condition that an intensive Conservative-Orthodox dialogue to work through the issue be pursued.”

Greenberg asserted that there must be a dialogue so that each denomination can find a common solution for common problems. He said that if each movement overcomes stereotypes, they would not seek solutions that “save (their) own skin by pushing others out of the lifeboat.”

But the dialogue to ensure unity among the denominations has regressed in the last 10 years, Greenberg contended. “Jewish education is up but unity is down,” he said. “Federations are giving millions for Jewish-Christian dialogue but only pennies for Jewish-Jewish dialogue.”

The purpose of CLAL, Greenberg said, is to awaken Jewish leaders to the “social withdrawal of Jews from each other” which is the ultimate result of a combination of demographic trends, primarily in the areas of conversion, patrilineal descent, and halachically illegitimate children.

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