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Orthodox Group Denounces Reform and Conservative Movements as "Not Judaism"

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 1997

The Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States and Canada has issued a statement declaring that the Reform and Conservative movements are "not Judaism" and urging Jews not to attend synagogues affiliated with these movements.  

The association, which reports a membership of more than 500, has long held these beliefs. The New York Times (March 24, 1997) reports that Rabbi David Hollander, a member of the association’s executive board, said the statement was timed to counter efforts by Reform and Conservative leaders to gain official recognition for their movements in Israel.  

Referring to religious law, Rabbi Hollander said: "We’re formulating a Halakhic ruling that will give the Parliament in Israel very strong, irrefutable arguments" against Reform and Conservative efforts.  

The Times notes that, "Israel’s founders gave the Orthodox authority over religious affairs, including marriages, divorces and conversions. But in the early 1990s, the Israeli Supreme Court opened the door for Reform and Conservative rabbis through a ruling suggesting that conversions in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis could be legally recognized. The three Orthodox political parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition Government are working to pass a bill t hat would reverse that ruling, an effort that has provoked an outcry from Reform and Conservative leaders."  

A prominent Orthodox figure, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, said that the statement by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis represented the beliefs of Orthodoxy’s right-wing, whose influence is growing at the expense of the "modern Orthodox" wing. Rabbi Greenberg, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said: "It does not represent the consensus of the whole community. I think it reflects the extremism that is growing." In general, he added, Orthodox Jews lack a theology that affirms a pluralistic view of religious Judaism.  

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents about 1,000 Reform congregations, called the statement "terribly patronizing" and "desperate." He declared: "In a sense, it’s not important, because the Reform movement and the Conservatives don’t look to someone else to confer legitimacy on us."  

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, writing in The Washington Jewish Week (March 27, 1997) called the statement by the Orthodox rabbis "a hollow political gesture which, by the Union’s own admission, is intended simply to influence the current debate in Israel over conversion." He declared that, "It brings into sharp relief the dangerous trends discernable among some segments of the Orthodox community...These groups are right about one thing — we do have different goals. Their goal is clearly one of divisiveness; ours is one of unity....Through its strident outburst, the Union claimed it was trying to strengthen those parties in Israel who are currently seeking to render non-Orthodox conversions treif. It is our job to offset these efforts by supporting those religious groups in Israel that are fighting for religious equality...Perhaps the Union will have done us a favor if their fundamentalism serves to energize all those who support religious pluralism and are ready, and willing to speak out in its defense."  

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