Crisis of faith – Religious strife polarizes the Jewish community
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen
It’s been ten years since Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg warned that religious extremism would polarize the Jewish people into virtually two different religions. At the time he was criticized as alarmist.
Has he been proven right or wrong? “There’s a slow rotting away of unity much worse than it was ten years ago,” he says. Rabbi Reuven Bulka, an Orthodox rabbi in Ottawa, Canada, also wrote of the widening gulf between liberal and traditional Jews in his 1984 book titled “The Coming Cataclysm”. “I may have underestimated the gravity of the
situation,” says Bulka, reflecting on how things have devolved since then.
“The prediction [of polarization] is coming true,” argues Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who is increasingly marginalized within the Orthodox world for his efforts at pluralism. “Psychologically it’s already true. Long term, if it continues, it will have disastrous demographic and religious effects,” he says. “People who look back in 50 years will say that this was one of the worst periods” in American Jewish history. Says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, incoming president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations: “We are deeply and profoundly polarized.”
Jewish thinkers and leaders spanning the spectrum of ideologies who were interviewed for this article agree: Religious polarization has become a spiritual drain and threatens to stifle the informal cross-denominational creativity which has historically, and significantly, shaped American Jewish life.
This polarization is nothing new. It has been a source of increased concern since the “Who is a Jew” imbroglio of the late 1970s and 1980s illuminated the growing rift between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Yet the gap has grown wider of late, the religious extremes driven farther apart by changes on the left and the right from the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent to the increasing influence of the ultra-Orthodox on those who subscribe to centrist Orthodoxy.
The polarization has begun to bear bitter fruit: In recent months the gap has stretched far enough to rip apart long-standing coalitions in which the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements once cooperated. And the rift has grown so wide that the viability of those which remain is threatened.
With the disintegration of each umbrella group, there are fewer opportunities for people with different understandings of what Judaism means to get to know one another. Moreover, the rhetoric on issues which concern all Jews from the Arab-Israeli peace process to the legitimation of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel has become harsher than anyone can recall it being before. Recently, the situation so degenerated that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations felt compelled to issue a statement urging “civility in debate and behavior.”
The ways in which these tensions play out will, in profound ways, influence how the American Jewish community looks and functions in the decades to come. If the current trend does not shift, it may not be long before no Jewish groups can say that they truly represent the whole of American Jewry. And it may not be long before the United Jewish Appeal campaign slogan “We Are One” simply won’t be true.
In 1970, when Mark Winer was fresh out of rabbinical school and working in his first job at a Reform temple in Connecticut, he would take his teen-age students for a walk on Shabbat to a nearby Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi there, the late Abraham Hefterman, welcomed the teens into his sanctuary, where he insisted that the boys and girls sit together in the first few pews for the rest of Shabbat-morning services because he knew that sitting together rather than divided by the mechitzah which separates the genders in Orthodox shuls was most familiar to them.
“This was a wonderful, learned Orthodox rabbi of the old school, who recognized that we’re an expression of Judaism which is not the same as his, but that we’re part of the Jewish people and stood at Sinai with him,” said Winer, who still counts many Orthodox rabbis among his close friends. “That wouldn’t happen today. That breed has died out,” he said with a sigh.
The schism between Orthodox and “other” has so deepened in recent years that some observers wonder if such acceptance will ever again be possible. It’s not just that a generation of Orthodox rabbis has passed from the scene: Each denomination has undergone ideological and sociological changes that have contributed to the widening rift.
Among the greatest changes was the Reform movement’s decision to recognize as Jewish those children born of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, if these children are raised and educated as Jews. More traditional in its liturgy and practice than it was a century ago, the Reform movement is nevertheless struggling to come to terms with congregations which often include members who, by traditional standards, are not considered Jewish. Twelve years ago, the movement finally opted to abandon the traditional standard of matrilinealdescent.
The decision’s detractors from within the movement and in the other denominations say that the policy’s adoption caused an irreparable break within the Jewish people, creating a new class of Jews which the other movements will not recognize as such. “It was the single most divisive step taken in modern Jewish history,” charges Rabbi David Zwiebel, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel. “The Jewish people are clearly becoming more and more divided, and with all due respect, I lay that primarily at the door of the Reform movement and its patrilineal decision.”
A 1991 survey of American rabbis by sociologist Samuel Heilman showed that just over half of the Reform spiritual leaders also viewed the patrilineal decision as one of the most divisive acts in contemporary Jewish life. And nearly one-third of the Reform respondents disagreed with the decision to make it policy, according to the survey. But the incoming president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational arm, says that the number within the movement who disagree is actually far smaller. “There is virtually no pressure in our movement to reverse it and it has overwhelming support in the grassroots” constituency, says Rabbi Eric Yoffie. “The patrilineal decision was the correct decision.”
Still, it has clearly caused friction between the denominations. According to Greenberg, “the patrilineal decision not only offended the Orthodox and violated the halachah but pushed many Orthodox to the right. “It became a very powerful stick to beat anyone who wanted to work things out” with the other denominations, he says.
While the liberal denominations have moved to the left with the acceptance of patrilineal descent and advocacy for gay and lesbian rights in the Reform movement, and the ordination of women in the Conservative movement observers note that Orthodoxy has moved away from the middle ground as well. In fact, some say that the Orthodox center has all but been silenced by those to its right.
Why has the right wing of Orthodoxy gained such influence? Much of the answer lies in the shifting proportions of the sub-groups within the Orthodox world. While the percentage of American Jews overall who identify as Orthodox has remained fairly constant over the last few decades, the ultra-Orthodox population has grown at a steady rate.
Some observers also say that the influence of the Jewish religious right may exceed its numbers reflecting a parallel phenomenon in the Christian right’s influence on American politics because there is a yearning for simpler times, stronger values and the “purer” Judaism of previous generations.
While modern Orthodox Jews have emphasized integration into the larger culture, the ultra-Orthodox have focused on separation. “The right wing offers the promise that they can keep you pure by separating you from the values of the dominant culture. People gravitate towards that,” says Rabbi Ron Price of the Union for Traditional Judaism, a group whose members include graduates from both the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the centrist Orthodox Yeshiva University (YU).
Some modern Orthodox Jews, or the centrist Orthodox, as they are now known, also lay blame at the feet of those centrists who are reluctant to challenge the right for fear of throwing their own legitimacy into question. The result is that personally and institutionally, the standard has moved right.
For many who call themselves Orthodox, the degree of stringency required in religious observance has become more rigorous in recent years. Meat which is “just” kosher, won’t do; glatt supervision is required. “Regular” milk, long accepted as kosher, must now be chalav Yisroel. And for married women, simply covering their hair with a scarf or hat is no longer acceptable; a wig covering every wisp of real hair is expected.
An important factor in this shift was the longterm infirmity and death of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1993. The dean of YU’s rabbinical school, he was regarded as an anchor that kept modern Orthodoxy firmly in the center. Today, however, on issue after issue the Orthodox right pressures the center to hold to the hard line and the tactic seems to be working. In its most recent attack on the center, Agudath Israel’s publication, The Jewish Observer, this past summer published an open letter assailing YU President Rabbi Norman Lamm for allowing a homosexual club at Cardozo Law School despite Orthodoxy’s prohibition of same-sex relations.
The letter condemned Lamm’s view that, as a technically secular institution, the school cannot discriminate against those who are seen as violating Jewish law. It would, he said, risk losing valuable public funding if it discriminated against gays and lesbians. Some
observers allege that while Agudath Israel’s criticisms of Lamm on this issue are, on the surface, founded in halachic concerns, the ultra-Orthodox organization’s true goal is to undermine the ideological legitimacy of the more centrist institution. These observers note that Agudath Israel has itself filed papers with the City of New York from which it also gets contracts to run various programs stating that it complies with the city’s regulation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
After The Jewish Observer ran the letter criticizing Lamm on the gay-rights issue, Alan Yuter, an Orthodox rabbi from Springfield, New Jersey, wrote an article defending him, and submitted it for publication in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, one of the three major institutions of centrist Orthodoxy. The article was rejected. “They don’t want to criticize certain rabbis. They won’t publish anything that could be offensive to the non-modernist yeshiva world,” said Yuter. “We criticize the Conservative movement but Jewish Action is not going to respond to The Jewish Observer. “Why are these people privileged?” he asked.
Charlotte Friedland, the editor of Jewish Action, explained the publication’s decision by saying, “Our feeling was that if YU has been attacked, then YU should defend itself. It’s not our place to do that.” During his lifetime, despite ultra-Orthodox opposition, Rabbi
Soloveitchik gave tacit approval for Orthodox rabbis to participate in local and national rabbinical boards that brought together religious leaders from all the major denominations. In fact, many Orthodox rabbis saw the forums as opportunities to establish valuable relationships with other leaders and to address shared concerns. That is no longer the case.
While young Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis are generally eager to join the boards, Orthodox rabbis are staying away in droves. And although there are communities in which Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis develop informal personal relationships, formal liaisons are increasingly viewed by the Orthodox as untenable.
Perhaps the most significant such group to fail was the 68-year-old Synagogue Council of America. Before its demise last year, the Synagogue Council had been the community’s sole national religious umbrella organization. It died, said all but the Orthodox participants, because the Orthodox partners in the endeavor were no longer willing to commit the funding necessary to continue the coalition.
Though in its waning years the organization had become a forum for political grandstanding as much as true progress, its fall was received with great sorrow by most of its participants. “It is a real loss,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, who is among those organizing a successor to the Synagogue Council one which will include the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, but not the Orthodox.
In another recent illustration of Orthodoxy’s shift away from tolerance of the other denominations, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America last February ousted Rabbi Mark Kunis for his involvement with the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ). Kunis’ leadership within the group, which defines itself as representing “traditional” Jews some of whom also call themselves modern Orthodox and others who called themselves Conservative before that movement began ordaining women as rabbis was deemed problematic because UTJ includes non-Orthodox rabbis in its ranks. Kunis and UTJ plan to file suit against the RCA, said Rabbi Ronald Price, the group’s executive vice president.
Two years ago, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg also found his membership in the RCA threatened because his organization, the Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), includes non-Orthodox rabbis. In the end the RCA dropped the matter. “People stepped back from the brink,” said Greenberg. “There was a perception that [ousting me for pluralistic activity] would be very destructive for everybody involved.” But, Greenberg says, he has clearly seen the Orthodox community shift from criticism of pluralism to a virtual exclusion of anyone who dares engage in dialogue with rabbis from other movements.
Each year CLAL convenes one or two seminars for top graduates of each denomination’s rabbinical seminary, bringing them together for a few days of Torah study. It is an elite group and most invited jump at the opportunity. Recently, though, an increasing number from YU have turned the invitation down. One newly minted rabbi who had accepted the offer reneged after receiving a call from a YU administrator warning him that attending the CLAL seminar could imperil his career. Another young Orthodox rabbinical student accepted an internship at CLAL but wouldn’t tell YU for fear of the professional consequences.
“It really chilled us,” says Greenberg. “What are you accused of? That you sat and learned Torah with Reform rabbis? It’s insanity.”
Of course, not everyone sees the shift as a cause for concern. Those on the right, and representatives of organizations which have historically defined themselves as modern or centrist Orthodox, welcome the change. “If [the shift] means that elements of the
Orthodox spectrum are moving to the right, then that’s a really happy development for Jewish continuity,” says Agudath Israel’s Zwiebel. “Maybe something is lost” without dialogue and pluralism, “but a whole lot is gained,” he says. “There’s more of a reason to think that continuity will be assured and that the next generation will be more faithful Jews.
“The sense among most Orthodox people is that on balance it’s probably a better strategy and a more principled decision to avoid those types of affiliation” with non-Orthodox Jews, he says. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the polarization of the community is that Israel, a cause which has long united American Jewry, has also become a
significant source of division.
The problem came explosively to the forefront in 1985 when Orthodox groups sought to amend Israel’s Law of Return to deny citizenship rights to new immigrants who had been converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis.
In the United States, where about 90 percent of affiliated Jews are Reform or Conservative, the outcry over the “Who is a Jew?” question was deafening. Reform and Conservative groups charged that the amendment would not only have denied the Jewishness of their converts, it would have undermined the legitimacy of their movements. The bill was narrowly defeated but the issue of religious pluralism in Israel did not die.
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What price does such polarization exact? What will be the ultimate cost of narrowed perceptions of “the other” within the family of Jews? Those involved point to several concerns, including a mutual stereotyping that, in some cases, turns off unaffiliated Jews who might otherwise be inclined to seek out more connection to Jewish life. “It also prevents us from working on common agenda items and combining our resources,” says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. Instead of working together to create one viable Jewish high school, for example, some smaller communities may struggle to sustain two schools, or wind up with none at all.
Political influence can also be a casualty of divisiveness, says Greenberg, as is the internal strength gained from what each side of the religious spectrum can teach the other. “[Polarization] leads to ex-tremes in each movement which are not correctable without the presence of the other,” warns Greenberg. “The long-term effects will be disastrous,” he says. “It’s a weakening of the Jewish people. “The bonds are fraying and anger is growing steadily,” he adds.”Polarization has clearly won out.”
Canada’s Rabbi Bulka warned of what may ultimately happen. “This type of alienation can lead to a situation similar to the break between Judaism and Christianity,” he says of such shifts as the patrilineal descent decision. “The issue today is not whether” a similar schism can happen again, “but when it will,” he says.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Jewish Telegraphic Agency staff writer and has been published in The Village Voice and New York Magazine. She often speaks about the changing Jewish world. From October-November 1995, The International Jewish Monthly