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United State

A recent contretemps in Israel served to underscore the surprising and recent cohesion among the branches of U.S. Judaism

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(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

A funny thing happened this summer. In June, a Jewish member of Israel’s Knesset brought up legislation that sought to change the country’s conversion law. One might have expected that the bill would result in yet another example of Jew vs. Jew in the United States, pitting the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox against one another. That has certainly happened before when questions of “who is a Jew” arose: In 1988, for example, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik—younger brother of the preeminent Modern Orthodox leader, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik—traveled to Israel in a wheelchair to urge its Orthodox parties to continue to press for an amendment to the Law of Return, limiting its application only to those who were converted under Orthodox auspices. “I am a stroke victim,” he told The New York Times at the time, “but I cannot remain silent.” Similar divisiveness was evident time and again in recent decades, whenever issues concerning the place of women and gays in Jewish life hit the front page—think, most recently, of the battles over the right of women to hold prayer services and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.

When the conversion bill was proposed, however, American Jews of all persuasions came together to voice an opinion that, while nuanced, was still unanimous: The bill was bad news. Even the Rabbinical Council of America, the leading organization of Orthodox rabbis, felt ill-at-ease to support the bill, publishing instead a tepid statement declaring that “as far as we are concerned there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation.” The very fact that the council had to make this announcement reveals how hard dissenting voices were to hear.

For many observers, this unity was a most unexpected, if welcome, development. Remember all those frightening titles of yesteryear? Jew vs. Jew; A People Divided, Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000? All now seem dated, as if American Jewry has moved on.

“The dire predictions of an internal Jewish schism have proven wrong,” wrote Jack Wertheimer in an important 2005 American Jewish Committee pamphlet titled All Quiet on the Religious Front? Jewish Unity, Denominationalism, and Postdenominationalism in the United States. “If anything, overt religious conflicts have either eased or have been pushed into the background.”

It’s a sea change worth pondering in depth. This Rosh Hashanah, as we are each urged to reflect and repent, we would do well to reflect on the myriad of processes that helped nudge the American Jewish community beyond bickering and division and toward a more harmonious existence. If we understand the causes of this newfound unity, we can strive to strengthen it.

First, we must acknowledge the role American Jewish religious movements play in focusing more on what unites Jews than what divides them. Communal concern over “continuity,” the reluctance of wealthy donors to support those who promote Jewish divisiveness, and a strong desire among young Jews to move beyond denominational labels have resulted in an increased focus on the importance of just getting along. A revealing indicator of this trend was the first-ever North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, a collaboration among Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and community day schools held earlier this year. Organizers cited it as proof “that working across ideologies is possible and desirable.”

Second—and perhaps not unrelated—the Israeli chief rabbinate, whom the conversion bill would have empowered, has become deeply unpopular in American Jewish circles, even among many Orthodox rabbis. The politicization of the chief rabbinate, its unwholesome ties to Israeli politics, and its unwelcome intrusion into American Jewish religious life, granting recognition to some rabbis and denying it to others, has cost the chief rabbinate dearly. American Jews have come to appreciate the wisdom of a religious free market, where religion is separated from the state, no chief rabbinate exists, and rabbis are free to make religious decisions based on their own best judgment and conscience. The vast majority of American Jews would not advocate for a chief rabbinate in the United States, and they are understandably disinclined to increase the chief rabbinate’s power in Israel.

Finally, the past decade’s focus on community-wide adult Jewish education has promoted much greater public unity among Jews. Transdenominational adult Jewish education programs, such as Melton Mini-School, Wexner Heritage, Me’ah, and now Limmud, as well as Orthodox educational outreach programs sponsored by Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and an array of so-called community kollelim, liberally extend the welcome mat to all self-identifying Jews, including, inevitably, non-Orthodox converts to Judaism and patrilineal Jews, whom the Reform and Reconstructionist movements recognize as Jews on the basis of their Jewish fathers and their identification with the Jewish religion. The results of these educational efforts, by all accounts, have been highly gratifying, introducing Jewish adults from different movements to one another and teaching them much that they did not know about their heritage. Nobody involved—not even the most fervently Orthodox—wants to risk alienating their new students, supporters, and constituents by reopening divisive questions.

Whether American Jewry’s recent spell of unity serves as a precedent remains to be seen. Still, when compared to the situation in Israel, where the gap between religious and secular Jews seems ever to be widening, the evidence from America offers a measure of hope. When American Jews stop fighting with one another and focus on their common interests, it is amazing how much they can accomplish.

Jonathan D. Sarna is Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His book When Grant Expelled the Jews is forthcoming from Nextbook Press in 2011.

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Is Jonathan Sarna certain that the Rotem Bill has been finally squashed? Do all the Chabad and Jewish outreach programs he mentions really indicate a welcoming to other (Reform and Masorti) Jewish flavors — or is it more jockying for a dominant position as American Judaism continues to move to the right.

David – don’t be a clown. Chabad and similar organizations have always been incredibly welcoming to any and every Jew regardless of observance, knowing full well that very often their attitude would result in a stronger Reform community as a result.

Easy, Jon. No name-calling, please.

As a non-chabadnik, I can tell you that in my limited experience, Chabad has always been welcoming & open, in spite of my less than perfect observance. As we approach this holy time, may we all be inscribed & sealed for a sweet year.

Irene Ostroff says:

Wonderful positive article. Happy to see mention of Melton schools and North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference. Judaism has always been pluralistic. Everyone needs to acknowledge that.

Nobody here in the US wants to live under Ovadiah Yosef’s brand of Sharia. That is a Judaism of a sort I am embarrassed even remotely represents anything I could believe in and is an embarrassment to me. That the haredim are so politically powerful is the most divisive element in the Zionist project and needs to be fixed for the long term health of Israel and Judaism. Their political power is unsustainable.

Ra'anan says:

Dearest Randy, B”SD

I’m actually a NEIGHBOUR of RABBI ‘Ovadiyah Yosef (it’s a terrible affront for you to lose his title because you happen to disagree with him). The good rabbi represents quite the opposite of Sharia’ which can be seen in his fierce fight to HALAKHICALLYL recognize Beta Israel of Ethiopia as Jews and likewise so with the Burmese-Indian Bnai Menashe. Your ugly use of the term Sharia’ makes it sound like R. Yosef has ordered the whipping & stoning of adulteresses, but is that so? Exactly what are you embarrassed of? In the 1950′s over 90% of Jews from Middle Eastern countries came to Israel as ORTHODOX Jews, but very shortly after the Zionist Enterprise tore them from their holy traditions, irradiated around 100,000 of these children w/x-ray (google “ringworm children” for an expose) & kidnapped over 6000 mostly YEMENITE children from their parents. If you really want to be embarrassed, I suggest you start w/the Zionist treatment of Middle Eastern Jews.
As for Middle Eastern Jewish sustainability, the ZIONISTS in the kenesseth already label the present era as “POST-Zionist,” meaning that not only was Zionism not sustainable, it’s now passe. There are now 100,000 CHAREDI students in Jerusalem alone. Even if you come to Jerusalem & have a big family, the vast majority of secular Jews are far too decadent to do so. The struggle is over, you lost. Like I ask visiting American nonorthodox Jews “when was the last time you even HEARD of a nonorthodox wedding in America between two nonorthodox, native born Jews?

“Reform Judaism” is not a Judaism, despite of the fact that many members (most likely – majority) of reform congregations are Jews. The wrong name creates confusions and misunderstandings. If any one disagrees with me – please explain why “Reform Judaism” should be called Judaism.

Ra’anan,

First, a happy and sweet new year to you and yours. Second, I should have used the term Rabbi in connection with Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. I did not mean to give offense and apologize if I did. The rest of your argumentation is confusing. What are you trying to say? That Israel is doomed? You do not address the fundamental problem which is the extreme political control held by the Haredim over Israel’s religious affairs. In the end, your position leads to two sets of Jews, not one People. The Haredi monopoly over Israel’s state Judaism must end.

Gene, you should read Professor Sarna’s book on American Judaism and draw your own conclusions about Reform Judaism. L’shana tova.

S. Heilman says:

Are we really one people. Look at the lack of intermarriage between the Orthodox and and the non-Orthodox, and particular between the so-called haredim and other Jews. And how successful has Chabad and other such groups really been in their outreach? How is that success measured? And are Jews still giving to Jewish causes? If so, why are the donations down? The Conservative Jewish population is dropping radically, and are those drop-outs still part of the same Jewish people their parents were? As for the closeness between American Jewry and Israel, the data is not at all clear (see the current issue of Contemporary Jewry). I am glad that Jonathan Sarna is optimistic; optimism is sometimes infectious. But a hard look at the facts leaves me wondering is the optimism is based on reality.

In order to evaluate our state of affairs we need to make a clear distinction between the notions of “Jew” and “Judaism” since they are not the same. Many Jews do not practice Judaism and, at the same time, many non-Jews practice it, particularly if you want to include members of the, so called, “reform movement”. So, who are we talking about: about Jews or about members of different congregations which define themselves under the general name of “Judaism”?

It is too bad that Gene expresses his ignorance about Reform Judaism in tones of sinat chinam. Reform Judaism recognizes the principle that eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim, and thus does not cast aspersions on the authenticity of Jews who fail to recognize that the root word of halacha is to walk, to move forward. We believe that living as Jews in the modern world is a more reasonable approach to what Torah and thousands of years of Jewish history teach us than is isolationism, self-ghettoization, and an excessive devotion to ritual minutiae so characteristic of our quasi-cultic brethren. I ask that Gene explain why an approach to Judaism that has replaced halacha with chumra deserves to be called Judaism.

I have nothing against Reform Judaism except I don’t understand why do you call it “Judaism”? Judaism is based on Torah. You may change many things but you cannot change Torah and still call your religion “Judaism”. It is like a constitution. You can make different laws but none of them should contradict constitution. And if any one of them does then, in order to accommodate it, you must change your constitution or in our case – your religion. It does not work other way.

Gene, the Torah contradicts itself in numberous places. There are three different versions of the Ten Commandments in the torah. Which one do you follow? Besides, this tangent is off topic! Sorry to take the bait

Howard, when Torah contradicts Torah – it is one thing. When human contradicts Torah – it means that he or she believes in something else and in his opinion – more correct, more rightful than Torah. In turn it means that his/her religion is not a Judaism. Don’t understand me wrong: I have nothing against other religions or against Jews who practice other religions. Just please call objects their real names. Reform “Judaism” is not a Judaism

brynababy says:

Gene’s attitude is exactly why there is disension amongst Jews. How dare he tell me that my Reform Judaism is not Judaism! That’s as bad as the Muslim’s who say their way is the only way! Save us from the ‘annointed’.

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United State

A recent contretemps in Israel served to underscore the surprising and recent cohesion among the branches of U.S. Judaism

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