"With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” said Orthodox Rabbi Norman Lamm in an interview with the Jerusalem Post earlier this year. “The Conservatives,” he noted, “are in a mood of despondency and pessimism… and in general shrinking. The Reform Movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do okay.”
I rarely respond to attacks by Orthodox leaders. Given their frequency and fury, it is a waste of time. That such derogatory comments come from Rabbi Lamm, however, makes this an exception.
When I was a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in the early 1970s, Rabbi Lamm addressed my class—a welcome visit that would never happen today. While he affirmed his Orthodox beliefs, he also called for dialogue, understanding, and respect among all the Jewish movements. He went on to become president of Yeshiva University, and throughout his 27-year tenure he has been a voice of moderation in the Orthodox world.
The era of mutual respect is apparently over. In Rabbi Lamm’s view, “the future of American Jewry is in the hands of haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and the modern Orthodox.”
Rabbi Lamm might want to be a bit more modest in his predictions.
For the first time in memory, large numbers of non-Jews are looking to formally embrace the Jewish tradition. Some are open to conversion; others, through their involvement with their synagogues, have demonstrated a strong commitment to link their fate and that of their children to the Jewish people.
Our Movement’s response has been to welcome converts and to embrace intermarried families in the hope of drawing them to Judaism. In contrast, most Orthodox institutions make conversion practically impossible and reject intermarried couples altogether. I am content to let history judge which course of action better serves the Jewish people. The arc of Jewish history will, I believe, bend toward Reform, for the vast majority of Jews are likely to reject the Orthodox path of excluding converts and the intermarried from the Jewish community.
For now, I would urge all Jewish leaders to exercise a measure of humility. Let us focus on our own Jewish convictions and refrain from questioning others’ motives and integrity. Let us banish triumphalism from our midst. And let us consider the upcoming High Holidays as an occasion for each movement to focus on its own shortcomings; to reaffirm the virtues of a vigorous pluralism; and, in the spirit of klal Yisrael, to call for civility and mutual respect.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism