Towards a Common Judaism

By Daniel Polisar

Though sharp differences of opinion among Jews are hardly a new phenomenon, Jewish public discourse has become preoccupied in recent years with the fear that mutual hostility among the competing streams of Judaism is spiraling out of control, and that the Jews, as a people, no longer possess a shared outlook capable of uniting them. Paving the way to what is fast becoming the conventional wisdom has been a wave of prominent books making the case that the life of Jewry is one of internal discord.
This point was made most tellingly in Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (2000), by Columbia University professor of journalism Samuel G. Freedman, which went so far as to insist that “civil war” was at hand. As he wrote:
From the suburban streets of Great Neck to the foot of the Western Wall, I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It is a struggle that pits secularist against believer, denomination against denomination, gender against gender, liberal against conservative, traditionalist against modernist…. It is a struggle that has torn asunder families, communities, and congregations.… This civil war, while building for nearly a half-century, has reached its most furious pitch in the final years of the millennium.
The sense that Jews of different denominations hold irreconcilable worldviews was strengthened by the publication of One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them (2002), an exchange of letters between Ammiel Hirsch, head of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and Yosef Reinman, a talmudic scholar associated with the Lakewood Yeshiva. For more than eighteen months, the two rabbis tenaciously sought out the points of disagreement between them, in the process filling more than three hundred pages with disputes on the possibility of discovering truth, the nature of God, the competing claims of divine command and human autonomy, the authorship of the Bible, the extent of flexibility in Jewish law, and the proper role of women. Though the joint effort was intended to highlight the possibilities for dialogue, its effect was to overwhelm the reader with the degree to which these two men—and by extension, Reform and Orthodoxy more generally—hold opposing viewpoints on virtually every matter of significance. Reinman, who wrote of “the vast and unbridgeable ideological chasm that separates us,” drove this point home in his concluding letter: “On a personal note, Ammi, I feel that in you I have gained a friend, even though we disagree on just about all the basic tenets of Judaism.”
Even less optimistic was What Shall I Do with This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism (2002), in which journalist and historian Milton Viorst set out to discover the roots of Jewish divisiveness. Reaching across more than three millennia, he produced a tour de force of internecine warfare, featuring accounts of clashes between Moses and the children of Israel, Maccabeans and Hellenizers, rabbinic pragmatists and supporters of Bar Kochba’s revolt, medieval rationalists and mystics, hasidim and mitnagdim, Reform and Orthodox, and Zionists and anti-Zionists. The book culminates with the contemporary struggle pitting religious backers of territorial expansion against secular advocates of peace, leading Viorst to conclude: “The Jewish people are today deeply riven. Not only do they attend different synagogues, dissimilar in fundamental ways… they also hold violently hostile views, which they often claim to be divine commands, of how Jews should relate to one another and to their neighbors.” As a result, “Our present disputes may be apocalyptic, tearing apart the fabric of our four-thousand-year-old civilization.”
Most recently, Noah Efron’s Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel (2003) posits that alongside Israel’s war with the Palestinians, “another battle has been declared. It is sometimes called a Kulturkampf, a culture war, sometimes a civil war, sometimes a war over the character of the state, sometimes, as one activist described it to me, the war of light against darkness.” Efron, a lecturer in history and philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, sought to understand the depths of secular hatred for haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox,” Jews. Writing after the 2003 elections, in which one-quarter of the seats in the Knesset were divided between the secularist Shinui party and the parties representing haredim, he averred that the die was cast: “However the politics play out this time, Israel’s other war is now irrevocably, probably tragically under way.”
These works faithfully reflect the fact that mutual animosity remains a feature of Jewish life, and strike a warning note that is worth heeding. Nonetheless, there is good reason to challenge the overly gloomy view they articulate: Though “fractious politics” continue to be a part of Jewish public life, the most significant developments of the last several years point to a narrowing, not a widening, of differences. Jews of different movements have begun to draw together on many of the central issues that have been sources of division for nearly two centuries. Taken as a whole, these developments offer an unprecedented opportunity for cooperation and for a renewed effort to forge a unified Jewish people.
Perhaps the most striking example is the shift towards traditionalism undertaken by the Reform movement, which culminated in 1999 with the approval by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (ccar) of a new set of principles intended to express the fundamental beliefs of Reform Jews. Such comprehensive programs had been adopted on only three previous occasions in the history of American Reform: The Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, the Columbus Platform in 1937, and the Centenary Perspective in 1976. Best known was the first of these, which announced a radical departure from the tenets of traditional Judaism, and the ccar’s decision to return to Pittsburgh in 1999 was therefore symbolic: As the official commentary on the new principles explained, this step was taken “in the hopes that the name ‘Pittsburgh’ would now be permanently associated with a document that showed how much the movement had changed since 1885.”
To understand the significance of this statement, it is important to recall that the original Pittsburgh Platform, which Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise termed a “Declaration of Independence” for liberal Judaism in America, had gone remarkably far in breaking with Jewish particularism and embracing a cosmopolitan, rational universalism. Its key provisions abandoned the traditional Jewish concept of God and replaced it with an abstracted “God-idea”; accepted “only the moral laws” of Judaism and rejected on principle practices such as kashrut, whose “observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation”; asserted that Reform Jews “recognize in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great messianic hope”; and declared that “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and, therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine… nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
Over the next century, Reform would moderate some of these positions, but none of the movement’s subsequent statements came close to the tectonic shift registered in 1999. Most significantly, the new platform replaced Reform’s commitment to personal autonomy, which had accorded the individual free rein to choose among Jewish beliefs and practices, with the affirmation that “the Jewish people is bound to God by an eternal covenant (brit).”The importance of this shift was explained in the official commentary:
If “autonomy” was the key word of the Centenary Perspective, “dialogue” is the key word of the Pittsburgh Principles. While Pittsburgh 1885 relied on the language of… Kant (exalting a “God-idea” and the binding nature only of the moral laws), the Pittsburgh Principles uses the language of dialogue (inspired by the early-twentieth-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig).

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