Papering Over Hot-Button Issues


Twenty years after Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a prominent American rabbi, predicted that the growing ideological rift among traditional and liberal Jewish movements would cause an irrevocable split in religious life, the denominational wars have subsided.

But in a new report commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, to be released next week at the group’s annual meeting in Washington, an expert warns that key religious issues have been papered over rather than resolved — and just under the surface remain certain to flare up anew.The study, “All Quiet On The Religious Front? Jewish Unity, Denominationalism, and Postdenominationalism in the United States,” is a thoughtful and provocative exploration of developments over the last two decades in the community.But if its author, Jack Wertheimer, the provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is correct in his analysis, his cautionary note about the need to explore and confront religious issues that have polarized the community — for instance, conversion, intermarriage, divorce, homosexuality and gay marriage — will largely go unheeded.

“From one perspective — perhaps the dominant one — the current climate of public amity is healthier than was the period of friction and conflict between the movements a decade and more ago,” Wertheimer writes.“There is much evidence of overt cooperation, and where there are differences, everyone is more polite and eager to cover them over. Consensus has seemingly returned to the Jewish community,” he observes, asserting that “the mood is one of ‘live and let live.’ ”That’s a far cry, Wertheimer notes, from the climate in 1985, when two years after the Reform movement accepted patrilineal descent — splitting from the Orthodox and Conservative movements on defining who is a Jew — Rabbi Greenberg, then head of CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, published an essay titled “Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?”

In 1993, Wertheimer wrote a book called “A People Divided: Judaism In Contemporary America,” which concluded that “the divided world of Judaism imperils the unity of the Jewish people in America.”On the surface, at least, the dire predictions have not come true. The emphasis in the community has been on stressing areas of cooperation and “seeking common ground rather than confrontation,” according to Wertheimer.In part as a response to the worrisome 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which reported an intermarriage rate of 52 percent, communal organizations launched a variety of “continuity” programs — from communal day schools to adult education courses to leadership training to free Israel trips for young people — emphasizing education in ways that sought to transcend denominationalism.

Each of the religious movements has softened its rhetoric, and while the Orthodox have focused increasingly on outreach programs to less observant Jews, the Reform have turned inward, strengthening their infrastructure and showing increasing confidence that their liberal views on controversial issues resonate with most American Jews.Wertheimer is most critical of his own Conservative movement, which he describes as “in too weak a condition and too preoccupied with its own internal problems to engage in communal dispute.” He says Conservative leaders rarely speak out on these issues, and their position is one of “a kind of ‘me-too-ism’ or diffidence” that reflects a movement with “a declining will to stake out and insist upon the correctness of the Conservative position, let alone to confront other movements.”

In an age of increasing post-denominationalism and even anti-denominationalism, with younger people far less interested in affiliating with synagogues or religious ideologies, one might assume that the reduced friction between the movements is a positive development.

But Wertheimer suggests that despite the benefits of a quieter environment, the divisive issues not only remain but continue to grow.He agrees with Rabbi Greenberg’s observation of 20 years ago that both the Orthodox and liberal movements believe the other eventually will disappear, so there is little need for confrontation. But Wertheimer points out that despite the relative quiet, there is still disagreement on patrilineality, even as the number of people considered Jews by the Reform but not by the Orthodox increases.

Similarly, there is no agreement on the requirements for conversion or religious divorce.As a result, Wertheimer writes, “hardly anyone is working domestically on solving these issues for the betterment — and unity — of the Jewish people.” He notes that American Jews have come to believe in “the magic bullet” of pluralism, “a fine idea that simply avoids confronting differences by celebrating them.”While debates over what is and what is not Jewish law or proper Jewish behavior can be unpleasant and even painful, Wertheimer is correct in arguing that the avoidance of such issues marks a certain degree of religious, ethical and intellectual dishonesty.He notes the unpopularity of establishing communal boundaries, which are perceived as exclusionary, but warns of the “danger that the rich and multilayered culture of Judaism will be stripped of its authenticity and meaning.

A religion without responsibilities can be open to the point of meaninglessness.”Wertheimer concludes that among the denominations today, “good manners have trumped serious confrontation of the issues,” and “pragmatism” has triumphed “over ideology.” In an age of inclusiveness, there is little talk of religious truth or mitzvot, he notes, and while Wertheimer gives credit to the spirit of cooperation, he says that “beneath the facade of calm, the issues continue to fester” and “healthy debate has been silenced — for now.”

In a foreword to the report, Steven Bayme, director of the AJCommittee’s contemporary Jewish life department, agrees that while there are advantages to “decreased communal squabbling,” constructive conflict would indicate a healthy degree of passion and interest. The threat that caused Rabbi Greenberg to write his essay two decades ago — on whether Jewish unity is imperiled — remains and continues unchecked, he observes.

Rabbi Greenberg himself notes that the concerns that prompted him to write in 1985 are still largely unresolved, and while the rift may not have taken place by the year 2000, it could still happen in the next several decades — a point he made in a footnote in his original essay.“We are close to being two Jewish peoples, the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox,” he told The Jewish Week, and there still has been “no serious attempt to rebuild connections” between the movements.Calling the Wertheimer report “an important contribution,” Rabbi Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, cited parallels between the Israelites who experienced the Exodus from Egypt and recent generations of American Jews.

“It’s a matter of how you deal with freedom,” he said, noting that the first post-Exodus generation was self-centered and immature, blaming Moses for difficulties rather than accepting responsibility.Similarly, he said, American Jews in the 1960s, newly liberated from the yoke of anti-Semitism, went their own way. Individuals opted out of Jewish life, and the denominations pursued their own ideologies — the Orthodox moving further to the right and the Reform further to the left — rather than worrying about the common good.“It was a form of contempt,” he said, “acting if the others didn’t exist” or matter.

Now, a generation later, Rabbi Greenberg is hopeful that there will be “a sense of maturation,” a realization that freedom brings “restraint and responsibility.”“I’m counting on that,” he said, while admitting that the odds are still against a communal attempt to salvage Jewish continuity before it is too late.