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Orthodox Rabbi Urges Reform Movement to Drop Patrilineal Descent Decision

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, inducted today into the presidency of the New York Board of Rabbis, called upon the Reform movement to “retreat” from its “patrilineal descent” decision according to which children of intermarried Jewish men are regarded as Jews if brought up Jewishly and connected to the temple. The official statement of this decision three years ago “has driven a wedge between the left and the right that fosters polarization, anger, resentment, bitterness and divisiveness,” the Orthodox rabbi said.

Lookstein, who serves, too, as the principal of Ramaz (day) school in Manhattan, also called for the exploration by rabbis of all branches of American Judaism of methods of conversion “which will be acceptable by the Jewish people as a whole, including Orthodox Jews,” and an agreement among all branches that a Jewish religious divorce (get) be given when a marriage ends in civil divorce, a practice Reform Judaism does not require.

At the same time, Lookstein, who described himself in his acceptance address as “part of centrist Orthodox Judaism,” voiced strong criticism of those Orthodox rabbis “who want no part of dialogue” with their Reform and Conservative counterparts “when it comes to religious matters” and who “are not ready to relate” to them “except on broad communal issues.” He continued:

“Are we really afraid that participating together in joint ventures means giving endorsement to those with whom we may disagree? Nobody has asked us for our endorsement nor is anyone interested in it. Individual communities give legitimacy to their own religious leaders. We of the Orthodox movement have no monopoly on granting or withholding legitimacy. No one has given us the right to judge the qualifications of others.”

Lookstein urged Orthodox rabbis “to extend a hand of friendship and love” to Conservative and Reform rabbis and “not to be afraid to sit down with them in order to find acceptable solutions to our problems.” Conservative and Reform rabbis, he stressed unequivocally, “are the recognized leaders of those groups and they must be approached with respect and regard.”

These suggestions, addressed to what Lookstein called the “left” and the “right” in rabbinical circles, came in the context of his call to rabbis of all branches of Judaism to head off while there was still time the “growing polarization that exists in the religious communities” in the U.S. and Israel. Criticizing severely the unwillingness of many rabbis of different branches “to speak to each other civilly” and the way “religious rightists and leftists throw epithets at each other,” Lookstein commented, “there is a lot of hatred out there in the Jewish world. It almost rivals in intensity the hatred of vicious anti-Semites….”

The result of rabbis of different branches not talking to each other and the actions of some American religious leaders, he said, could be “a coming cataclysm in the form of an expected schism between half the Jewish people in America and the other half which will preclude social relationships and intramarriage between one group and another.” The lack of a get in terminated Reform marriages, he said, will make children born to second marriages contracted by former spouses “ineligible for marriage with the more traditional segments of Jewish society.”

The induction of Lookstein into the presidency of the New York Board of Rabbis, the world’s largest inter-denominational rabbinical organization, represents the first time in the Board’s 105-year history that a son of a past president — in this case, the late Rabbi Joseph Lookstein — will serve in the same capacity. Lookstein also serves as chairman of the National Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal and is vice chairman of the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews.

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