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Further Observations on the "Ten Principles"

Paul Gottfried
Winter 1999

The drafting of a new statement of belief for the Central Conference of American Rabbis by its president Richard Levy has occasioned growing controversy. Intended to break decisively from the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which dismissed Jewish nationalism, presented Judaism as a universal ethical religion, and accepted the "providential mission," of other monotheistic faiths, the preliminary draft of the "Ten Principles for Reform Judaism" is seen by its critics as a retreat into Orthodoxy and Zionism. The initial draft, which has already been modified, calls for a strict observance of Kashrut (Rabbinical dietary laws) and for the use of the Mikvah, a place of purification by immersion for women after menstruation. Though a later draft backs away from such Orthodox practices, the project thus far, as indicated by the ACJ’s Special Interest Report reveals a striking departure from classical Reform Judaism.  

My one reservation about its critics is the charge of "creeping traditionalism" leveled against the statement of belief. With due respect to one Union of American Hebrew Congregations — trustee quoted in Special Interest Report about "an ever-widening chasm between the Reform rabbinate and American Jewry," there may in fact be overlap between the current direction of the CCAR and many self-identified American Jews. Today one of the fastest growing segments of American Judaism is modern Orthodoxy, a movement on which my own life has skirted for about forty years. As a graduate of Yeshiva University who has known prominent modern Orthodox leaders, Emanuel Rackman and (if one can place him entirely in this category) Moses Tendler, and as the father and father-in-law of enthusiastic modern Orthodox Jews, I can address this spreading urban and suburban Jewish phenomenon with inside knowledge.  

Though unsympathetic to its tenets, I nonetheless understand why it speaks to the present generation of committed Jews. The vast majority, unlike the authors and adherents of the Pittsburgh Platform, are at most only two to three generations removed from Eastern European ghettoes. They have no special respect for the patrician Protestant world (which by now hardly exists) that served as a social model for pre-World War Two American Jews of German and Sephardic descent. The Jewish society featured in Our Crowd was and is despised as inauthentically Jewish by the modern Orthodox of my acquaintance. Such hyphenated Jews ran around with high-toned goyim and, with few exceptions, allegedly did nothing to save Jews from the Holocaust or to help found the state of Israel.  

Anxiety of Reform Leaders  

The point here is not whether such charges distort or oversimplify. More importantly, they are believed and contribute to the present anxiety shown by Reform leaders about appearing insufficiently Jewish. Significantly, German Jewish and Jewish Reform-dominated organizations worked tirelessly, as documented by Kevin MacDonald in A People that Shall Dwell Alone, Volume Three, to bring Jewish refugees from tsarist Russia and Hitler’s Germany. MacDonald criticizes these organizations for trying to reinvent America, to make room for persecuted Jews.  

But noteworthy here is the way self-conscious American Jews wish to view themselves. To the extent they see themselves, unlike the Jews of the Pittsburgh Platform, as marginalized or as proud victims of gentile prejudice, modern Orthodoxy holds certain attractions (It clearly does for the authors of the initial draft of the "Ten Principles."). The appeal is, first of all, nationalist, and not surprisingly many of the West Bank settlers, including Baruch Goldstein, have had modern Orthodox upbringings or conversions. Rackman and Tendler, both Rabbinic legal experts long associated with Yeshiva University, were cited in the New York Times (February 27, 1994) as eulogists for Goldstein. They have also been conspicuous in praising Meier Kahane and opposing any retreat by the Israelis from the West Bank. The modern Orthodox are integral nationalists; and despite their absence of the aesthetic flair associated with these groups, they bear some family resemblance to interwar European ultranationalists. This observation applied to interwar Zionists by their critics is all the more true of the modern Orthodox. But curiously most of them do not live in the land they worship and in defense of whose extended borders they would gladly send others into war. This is not simply hypocrisy or cowardice, which my Israeli friend Leon Hadar complains of in discussing the "Jewish hawkishness" exhibited by Commentary and the New York Post.  

Nationalism At A Distance  

The nationalism-from-a-distance typical of the modern Orthodox points to the challenge to their identity posed by a gentile country that actually accepts Jews. Fearful of losing their cultural and genetic character and still coming to terms with the memory of the Holocaust, these modern Orthodox have tried to create a certain kind of juste milieu. It allows them to stay in the U.S. and benefit from its peace and prosperity while remaining securely separate from others. As in the preliminary draft of the "Ten Principles," their statements suggest the high value placed on Aliyah. This is particularly true of those modern Orthodox who, like Rabbi Rackman, have officially moved to Israel, while continuing to spend time in the New York area drumming up support for the Israeli far Right. A high proportion of modern Orthodox divide their time between the U.S. and Israel, and even those who set up residence baeretz invariably come back to Galuth, for extended visits. Perhaps this suggests among other things an unacknowledged emotional attachment to a gentile society they treat dismissively.  

As for Orthodox practice, degrees vary by community, although two generalizations may apply. One, most modern Orthodox position themselves legally and behaviorally somewhere between the conservative and traditional Orthodox, albeit a bit closer to the latter. They observe Rabbinic dietary and family purity laws (both mentioned in the original draft of the "Ten Principles") with relentless care. Moreover, the men almost always wear kipos, which by now are more closely associated with the Zionist Right than with Rabbinic custom. Two, the modern Orthodox have no perceptible interest in general ethical questions, even those that are biblically based. Unlike the Christian Religious Right, they are not drawn to moral questions that affect society as a whole, and most of their religious life is focused on notions of ritual purity and ethnic interest, quite narrowly defined. While the ritual focus is characteristic of the Orthodox traditionalists, nationalist passion combined with a fixation on the Holocaust is far more characteristically modern Orthodox.  

Moral And Theological Values  

My picture of modern Orthodox society is drawn from extended personal experiences but is by no means definitive. It offers a body of perceptions that I have tried to gather with detachment. Clearly my sympathies are with the middle-class German Jews of the last century who despite their naive faith in progress nurtured many of my own moral and theological values. But neither the Jewish nor Christian world which shaped the Pittsburgh Platform is any longer our own, and for today’s self-identified American Jews, including Reform ones, the modern Orthodox model may be compelling.  

The treatment accorded to the modern Orthodox by my mentor Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1959) has lost relevance for our own situation. According to Herberg the modern Orthodox, then identified principally with Yeshiva University, were helping move Eastern European Jews into the American mainstream. They were part of the "Jewish division of the three great American religions," all of which "taught Americanism." Though some identification between modern Orthodoxy and America as the land of the New Deal did characterize the modern Orthodoxy of my youth, its adherents nonetheless viewed the U.S. as a gentile land, with convenient Jewish enclaves. This was the view I found among modern Orthodox teachers, some of whom are now celebrating the martyrdom of Baruch Goldstein, who in February 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. At Goldstein’s funeral, Rabbi Yaacov Perrin declared that "1 million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail."  

Continued Alienation  

The modern Orthodox achievement was not to provide a respectable Jewish vehicle for developing bonds with Christian fellow-Americans. It furnished a framework for expressing continued Jewish alienation from a Western, predominantly Christian society. That Jewish Reform leaders are now absorbing this ritual and attitudinal framework is hardly astonishing. It shows they too are afflicted with Angst, of an entirely nonreligious kind. Such Angst is expressing itself simultaneously in two related phenomena, the radical, anti-biblical liberalism embraced politically by Reform Jews, on the one side, and, on the other, modern Orthodox ethnocentricity.  

Predictably, these phenomena are now combining in a Reform movement that would shock the authors of the Pittsburgh Platform. This fusion of the byproducts of Jewish alienation may be socially inevitable but, like Allan Brownfeld, I do not believe that all Americanized Jews will buy into it. Some will drop out of Jewish life completely; others will become Christians; and still others may work toward the time when something like classical Reform Judaism can be brought back into existence.

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