In recent months, observers of the American Jewish community are finding a steady deepening of divisions among the various groupings, especially the Orthodox.
Rabbi Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary writes in Commentary magazine (February) that the numerically smaller Orthodox (totaling just over 6 percent of Jewish households) are making a significant impact on the religious practices of the larger Reform (38 percent) and Conservative (35 percent) communities. The Orthodox are likely to exert greater influence in the future because they are having larger families. They give maximum attention to maintaining the larger Jewish infrastructure, through their observances, such as keeping a kosher diet, and ritual baths (mikvahs), as well as through day schools and philanthropic and volunteer activities for Jewish causes.
Much of the Orthodox revival is being fed by young adults in their 20s and 30s–often including “returnees” from liberal Jewish branches — who are strongly observant and enthusiastic in their faith and more critical of the “accommodationist” stance of their parents’ generation. The more confrontational stance is seen in the case now in the courts of Orthodox students enrolled at Yale University who refused to accept the Yale requirement that all first and second year students live in mixed-sex dormitories.
At the same time, there is a strong push for liberalization in Orthodox Judaism, at least in its “modern” wing, as compared to the right wing or “haredim” movement. A group pressing for liberalization known as Edah held its first international conference in New York in early February. Edah emerged out of the current push for women’s rights in modern Orthodox Judaism, although the group has a broader agenda. At the conference attended by RW and 1,500 participants, Edah director Rabbi Saul Berman said the group wanted “maximum integration with American society while preserving observant Judaism.”
Modern Orthodox leaders, such as those represented by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, criticized the formation of Edah as adding to the polarization in the Orthodox community. Feminist concerns occupied much of the conference’s program, such as the formation of women’s prayer groups; the more contested issue of women rabbis is supported by some participants but not officially by Edah. Historical criticism of the Torah was also the subject of several sessions. It seems that scholarly questioning of authorship of the first five book of the Old Testament and a literal creation account may prove as controversial and divisive in Orthodox Judaism as in conservative Christianity.
But, unlike many greying liberal and progressive movements in Christian denominations, there was youthfulness evident at the conference that suggests that Edah may have a strong future; about 30 to 40 percent of the attendees were under 40. Other sessions dealt with the growth of right-wing Orthodoxy. At one session on Orthodox day schools, scholars and Jewish leaders bemoaned the fact that the teachers are increasingly right-wing, partly because modern Orthodox Jews are opting for more lucrative careers than teaching.
Both Wertheimer and speakers at the conference noted that the divisions and tensions extend even to synagogues, where rabbis are castigated for approving of such innovations as women’s prayer groups by ultraorthodox members.
(Commentary, 165 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10022)
— Erling Jorstad contributed to this article.