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"The Great Schism Is Already Upon Us," States Hillel Halkin of "Jewish Unity"

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 1998

In the wake of the Israeli chief rabbinate’s refusal to take part in the "conversion institute" with Reform and Conservative rabbis as proposed by the Reform Commission, there is widespread concern that "Jewish unity" has been shattered.  

Author Hillel Halkin, writing in The Forward (Feb. 13, 1996), argues that "Jewish unity" is largely a myth. He writes: "The crux of the matter is that, whatever tactical mistakes and improprieties both Israeli Orthodoxy and its opponents have committed (and the list is long on both sides), it is absurd to blame either for destroying the unity of the Jewish people. You cannot destroy what does not exist, and the Jewish people, never a totally unified body in any period of its history, has long ceased to be an even partially unified one in modern times."  

In Halkin’s view, "The curious thing...is that a formal schism between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy, like that which took place in the Middle Ages between rabbinic Judaism and Karaism, did not take place already early in the last century, when Reform Judaism first came into being...After all, although the Karaites, like Reform Jews, rejected the binding nature of rabbinic tradition, they remained far closer to Orthodoxy in their religious practice than Reform Jews—yet nonetheless the rabbis excommunicated them wholesale and placed a complete ban on all social and religious contact with them. By contrast, Orthodoxy’s behavior toward Reform and Conservative Jews has been, until now, a model of tolerance."  

Today, when hundreds of thousands of non—Jews have been converted to Judaism by non—Orthodox rabbis, and hundreds of thousands more would like to do the same in Israel, the Orthodox rabbinate has, Halkin notes, drawn a line: "Orthodox Jews can no longer assume that Reform and Conservative Jews are, by Orthodox standards, Jewish and soon will not be able to pray with them or marry them. Who is to blame for this is irrelevant, as it always is with grand historical processes. We are living no longer with a Jewish people but rather with Jewish peoples, which will proliferate in the years to come, and, de facto if not de jure, the great schism is already upon us."  

The proposal for a pluralistic conversion institute which has been rejected by Orthodox Jews in Israel, is now being tried in California’s San Fernando Valley.  

There, reports The Forward (Feb. 20, 1998), "The rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, Harold Schulweis, has assembled 14 rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism in what he calls a ‘pluralistic outreach’ for unaffiliated Jews and potential converts. The ‘outreach’ is a 17—week lecture course...At its end, the non—Jews will be directed to conversion courts in the denomination of their choice while the Jews will be invited to learn about various synagogues."  

Gary Tobin, the director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Jewish Studies, believes that "for Judaism to prosper in the marketplace of America’s religions, it must actively promote conversion."  

Rabbi Schulweis says: "My feeling is that pluralistic outreach will spread." He said he is organizing the outreach effort to show that Judaism has something to offer spiritual seekers. Four Orthodox rabbis are speaking in the lecture series.  

Although they did not express any qualms about participating, Schulweis said, "It is an act of tremendous courage on their part."  

The Orthodox rabbis themselves disputed this assertion. "What’s controversial about this?" asked Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA. "It’s teaching Jews." Rabbi Levi Meier of Cedars—Sinai Medical Center, said, "It’s a privilege to share Torah with people who are searching and hungry. I’m trying to help people where they are."  

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