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September 3, 2015 | 19th Elul 5775

Movements' Differences Not Avoided: A Response to Dr. Jack Wertheimer

This appeared as an op-ed in The Jewish Week on May 6, 2005.  


The recently released study by Dr. Jack Wertheimer entitled “All Quiet on the Religious Front?” is a bizarre document. Commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, the Wertheimer study argues that there is far less overt religious friction among American Jewry’s religious denominations than existed twenty years ago.  The religious movements have softened their rhetoric, focused on internal concerns, and made an effort to maintain a measure of public amity.  The dominant mood is one of “live and let live.”  And yet for Dr. Wertheimer this is bad news.


Why?  Because, according to Wertheimer, the movements are engaged in an act of avoidance, papering over their differences on matters of fundamental principle—such as conversion, intermarriage, divorce, and patrilineal descent.  What might seem as an embrace of “pluralism” is actually a fear of painful debate and an intellectually dishonest attempt to refrain from articulating the basic truths that underpin their religious worldview. 


Wertheimer believes that replacing ideological exchange with a false façade of cooperation may have fearsome consequences for our community.  In effect, the movements are each putting their own well-being ahead of the well-being of the Jewish collective.  By not dealing with issues of boundaries and personal status, they are imperiling the unity of the Jewish people.  Simulated calm will not help us if one group of Jews does not recognize the legitimacy of another group and marriage between them becomes impossible.  Unless a real effort is made to confront differences and rebuild connections between movements, the inevitable result will be two Jewish peoples and not one.


To Wertheimer’s credit, the problem that he identifies is real enough.  To some extent, we are already two peoples.  The key personal status issue that confronts us as Jews is conversion.  Orthodox authorities have never accepted the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, but until very recently, it made little difference.  Throughout the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, there was virtually no demand by Christians for entrance into the Jewish people, and the number of Reform and Conservative conversions of non-Jews was tiny. In the last quarter century, however, with the explosion of intermarriage in America and the arrival of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel, large numbers of Christians are seeking to become Jews for the first time since antiquity.  The implications of this change are far-reaching.  In the past, whatever their disagreements with their Reform and Conservative counterparts, Orthodox authorities had no reason to question their halakhic status as Jews.  But the rapidly increasing number of conversions means that Orthodox rabbis can no longer assume that Reform and Conservative Jews are Jewish by Orthodox standards, and thus they may forbid their flock to marry them.


Where Wertheimer is wrong, however, is his assumption that American Jews are avoiding the problem because they find conflict distasteful or hesitate to proclaim their own values.  Exactly the opposite is true.  These issues have been discussed endlessly, publicly and privately.  Jewish leaders have not been the least bit shy about engaging in blunt ideological debate, confronting the opposing views of others, and seeking possible areas of compromise.  The relative quiet that now prevails is the result not of avoidance but of exhaustion and the recognition of a sad but inescapable reality:  agreement is simply not possible on conversion or other personal status issues. 


The Reform movement has welcomed rising interest in conversion to Judaism; at the same time, those undergoing Reform conversion have been required to accept more demanding requirements of study and observance.  Still, as my Orthodox friends remind me, without an expression of kabbalat mitzvoth (acceptance of the Law as defined by Orthodox authorities), Reform conversions cannot be recognized by the Orthodox world. Every time I discuss this matter we are left with the same impasse:  they see the acceptance of kabbalat mitzvot as they define it as a sacred principle and a religious obligation that is literally an expression of God’s will, while I am not prepared to impose on would-be converts requirements that I do not accept for myself and that I do not see as consistent with my view of Jewish tradition.  No amount of ideological jousting is going to resolve this issue.  I do not agree with my Orthodox colleagues but I understand and respect their views, and it is for precisely that reason that I have no desire to continue the debate that Dr. Wertheimer wants to resume and that the Orthodox world has no interest in anyway.  Instead, as an expression not of avoidance but of realism, I prefer to see my movement devoting its resources to promoting the study of Torah and deepening commitment to Jewish belief and practice; this is our real challenge and the area where we might hope to make a meaningful difference. 


Does this mean that a divided Jewish people is inevitable?  I honestly do not know.  I am far from sure that this will happen, simply because the common sense realism of the laity will act as a break on the schismatic tendencies of the rabbinate.  In the final analysis, the terms of communal interaction will be shaped by the will of the Jewish people, the great majority of whom will have little patience for rabbinic decrees that tell two Jews that they must not marry each other.  And in most instances, a sane and sensitive rabbinate will respond to the will of the people.  I do not dismiss the weighty concerns that are involved here, but Jews have always been reluctant to exclude other Jews from the family of Israel, and such will be the case in the future. 


And if schisms do appear?  I will deeply regret this. But since there is no way at the moment to resolve pivotal issues such as conversion, we will just have to live with our differences. And we can live with them, if only because we are too busy to be diverted by what separates us.  After all, we are all immersed in the struggle against Jewish ignorance and against our external enemies.  And as we wage this struggle, I remain an optimist.  I believe in the totality and interdependence of the Jewish people as an idea rooted in covenant, Torah, and faith.  And until broader agreement is possible, I believe that all religious groupings need to relate to each other with respect, hope for a measure of civility, and do everything that they can to promote a common sense of Jewish destiny.


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