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Focus on Issues: at Time of Bitter Divisiveness, Are the Jewish People Splitting?

It has been a dozen years since Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg warned that the Jewish people were headed toward an unbridgeable schism.

In an essay titled “Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?” the prominent New York Orthodox rabbi predicted that a split would occur sometime soon after the turn of the millennium.

His warning was widely discussed — and dismissed by most as an overstatement.

But with this year’s barrage of public vitriol and clashes between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, some believe that the only thing Greenberg may have been wrong about was the date.

“The language of argument has turned to the language of delegitimation,” Greenberg said.

“This is not the language of family members fighting. This is the language of divorce.”

There have always been deep divisions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, as there have always been Jews who observed the letter of the law and those who rejected it.

The difference now may be that much of what fundamentally tied one Jew to another has changed over the past 15 years or so.

The Reform and Reconstructionist movement’s policies permitting patrilineal descent to define Jewishness, their ordination of openly gay rabbis and official approval of same-sex civil marriages, as well as all the liberal movements’ ordination of women, are cited by Orthodox Jews as examples of how far traditional and liberal Judaism have drifted apart.

Not only are Orthodox and non-Orthodox institutions becoming increasingly isolated from one another, there are few places today where Orthodox and liberal Jews can get to know each other.

As a result, many say, we are witnessing the death of Jewish peoplehood.

While much of the recent debate has centered on issues related to the Orthodox monopoly of religious life in Israel, there is plenty of alienation at home.

Consider the following:

Many Orthodox leaders today urge their followers not to permit marriage between Orthodox and Reform Jews, whose status according to Jewish law has been uncertain since the Reform movement adopted patrilineal descent in the early 1980s. The decision to count as Jews the children born of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers who are raised as Jews broke with the traditional practice of defining people by their mother’s religion.

A session at the centrist Orthodox Union’s convention last November was devoted to explaining why Orthodox and Reform Jews should not be permitted to marry.

Few young Orthodox rabbis today join local boards of rabbis, which are essentially the only place where Jewish religious leaders of all denominations get to know one another and can discuss issues of common concern.

The Conservative and Reform movements are rapidly expanding their own networks of camps and day schools in North America so that they can educate their own constituents rather than rely on the Orthodox.

At the behest of their movement’s leaders, some Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are cutting off contributions to Orthodox yeshivas and day schools.

For example, the Hebrew Theological College, a centrist Orthodox yeshiva with close to 400 students in Skokie, Ill., lost a significant bequest from a non- Orthodox contributor earlier this year.

A Lubavitch-created traveling exhibit on Judaism, designed for children, was displayed at the New Jersey’s Metro West Jewish Community Center last March.

Several non-Orthodox synagogues from the area made a point of not sending their Hebrew school classes. The local Conservative day school said it would not go, but under community pressure reversed its decision.

Several times a year people tell Rabbi Greenberg that they would rather their daughters marry gentiles than Orthodox Jews.

“An Orthodox Jew would involve a much bigger shake-up of their lifestyle than a gentile,” Greenberg said of their rationale. “That’s a very dangerous situation.”

The separation between Orthodox and liberal Jews reaches beyond the organizational level to the home and even college.

While the fervently Orthodox have often lived in their own communities, the modern Orthodox community today is more segregated than it was in the past, often living in neighborhoods with other observant Jews. Non-Orthodox Jews generally live dispersed among non-Jews.

The days of Orthodox and non-Orthodox young people meeting on college campuses, too, are waning, as the culture of modern Orthodoxy shifts away from broad engagement with American culture.

A group of Orthodox students at Yale University, for example, is threatening to sue the school if they are not permitted to be exempted from its policy requiring all unmarried first- and second-year students under age 21 to live in dormitories.

The keynote speaker at the Orthodox Union’s convention last year, Rabbi Bernard Lander, president of Touro College, described college as “the crematorium of our people” because observant students are exposed to the temptations of non- Orthodox values and individuals. He urged the creation of more colleges catering to the needs of his community.

The divisions between Orthodox and liberal Jews played out in a particularly public and vitriolic manner earlier this year, creating angst particularly among those who have tried to narrow the divide.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York, one of the few well-known Orthodox rabbis willing to publicly engage in joint religious work with non-Orthodox rabbis – – he even admits having attended a Bar Mitzvah in a Reform synagogue — was racked by a crisis of conscience six months ago after a spate of heated rhetoric reached the front pages of many mainstream newspapers.

Particularly disturbing, he said then, was an article on the front page of The New York Times in which Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, termed Israel’s Chief Rabbinate “without a scintilla of moral worth,” and called for its eradication.

Schorsch’s remark came in the wake of a controversy caused by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, a hitherto little-known group of Orthodox rabbis that declared Reform and Conservative “not Judaism.”

At the time, Lookstein, who serves as spiritual leader of Kehilath Jeshurun and as principal of the Ramaz day school and high school — both of which are in Manhattan — said he was uncertain whether he could continue working with the non-Orthodox.

In the past there has been a mutually beneficial, if inadvertent, cross- fertilization between the movements.

Orthodox and liberal Jews understood each other even if they didn’t agree.

It was not unusual for Conservative Jews to marry Orthodox Jews, for their children to marry Reform or secular Jews and for a person’s identification with different movements to shift over a person’s lifetime.

Now the flow of adherents between the movements has slowed, according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study. Even when the liberal leaders rejected the Orthodoxy of their youth, many retained affection for the tradition that had shaped them.

Today, the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent more than 80 percent of American Jews, are led by a generation mostly born in America.

With a newly articulated sense of confidence and impatience, they are saying that they are tired of playing by the old rules.

The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Schorsch, for instance, rejects the contention of some Orthodox leaders that he is at least partly responsible for the growing breach.

Orthodox Jews “would like Jewish unity on their terms, and I am saying that those terms are inequitable and that we will no longer accept them,” Schorsch said.

Although Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism can seem like two separate religions these days, some of those most concerned about the trend are still hopeful.

A dialogue between senior representatives of modern Orthodoxy and the Conservative and Reform movements has been quietly taking place since January.

The gatherings, which take place roughly every six weeks, are organized by Shvil HaZahav, a group founded by an Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Goldin, who has a pulpit in Teaneck, N.J.

“In years past, when problems developed between the various groups, often a leader of one called his friend who was the leader of the other group, and sometimes it would lead to a positive effect,” Goldin said.

“Today I don’t have a friend in the other group to pick up the phone and call. It’s really a reflection of the fact that we’ve all become much more insular.

“If the only result of meetings like this is establishing personal connections and feeling comfortable talking to each other, that would be an invaluable result,” Goldin said.

Lookstein, who has been involved with that dialogue, has found that it has changed his mind about continuing the relationship with non-Orthodox Jews.

“If you look at Jewish history and consider the fact that we are here today, 4,000 years after Abraham and 3,000 years after the giving of the Torah, and that against all odds we’re going strong — even if we are arguing — then that should give us hope,” he said.

“A Jew who is not an optimist is lacking something in his or her Jewish soul.”

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