Friday, June 05, 2009

What Rabbi Lamm Said

It’s obviously okay to criticize people for what they say or do. That’s what disagreement is about and disagreement is a factor in all social relationships. What isn’t right is to criticize people for what they haven’t said or done or to distort their words, as this newspaper did last week in a sharp editorial criticizing Rabbi Norman Lamm for what he said about the Conservative and Reform movements in a Jerusalem Post interview.

I admire Rabbi Lamm, a man whom I have known but not well for forty years. We correspond from time to time – many years ago at great length – and we have had our disagreements. He is a man of great intellect who has produced significant writing and he became president of Yeshiva University at a time when it was at the brink of bankruptcy. Yeshiva became stronger under his leadership, notably the Beth Medrash or seminary where he oversaw the extraordinary transition in the post-Rabbi Soloveitchik era as eminent Torah scholars who were born and educated in Europe were succeeded by an impressive group of young American-born and educated scholars. Rabbi Lamm ensured that the seminary would have the resources to attain its present stature.

None of this gives him a free ride. Did his interview merit the strong editorial rebuke? He said that the Conservative movement is in “a mood of despondency and pessimism” as Solomon Schechter schools are closing and the movement is in general shrinking. As for the Reform, their numbers, he suggested, are inflated by the inclusion of persons who are not Jewish by any standard. These words, the editorial declared, “are not only hurtful,” they are “at odds with the notion of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Lamm’s comments are sociological and not theological observations and they are on the mark. His theological position was expressed perhaps twenty years ago in a remarkable speech at a Clal event, it being the transdenominational organization established by Rabbi Irving Greenberg. The speech, a major document in the post-Holocaust American Jewish experience, acknowledged the spiritual dignity of the Reform and Conservative movements, while denying their halachic legitimacy. At the time, many Orthodox criticized Rabbi Lamm.

In the interview, he spoke “with a heavy heart.” Is this “triumphalism,” as the editorial and Jonathan Sarna have claimed? The term is silly and false, used regularly when the Orthodox speak about American Jewish life. Of note, on the page preceding the editorial there is an interview with the new director of the Metropolitan Region of United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. Four questions were asked, the first being, “Is the Conservative movement here dying?” The last is: Some Conservative shuls have suffered a serious drop in membership. How many are dying?” Who is saying Kaddish?

The Conservatives’ problems are real and intensifying. The movement has an abundance of officials with titles but is essentially leaderless. Arnold Eisen, JTS’s chancellor and the movement’s presumed head, has not yet left his mark. Solomon Schechter schools have closed and others are at-risk. For the record once more and despite criticism from other Orthodox, I am concerned about the fate of these schools.

The Reform aren’t closing schools, although there are now several fewer than the twenty they had a few years back. In the event, day schools are not in favor. However, Reform membership statistics are swelled by dubious statistics. In his history of American Jewry published about five years ago, Jonathan Sarna noted that in large Reform congregations, as many as twenty-five percent of the participants are not Jewish by Reform criteria. I imagine that the statistic rises by a point or two each year. Last week’s editorial cited “statistics showing that nearly eighty percent of American Jews” are Reform and Conservative. This is baloney although in line with much of what passes as Jewish demography. Jews who scarcely, if at all, identify themselves as Jewish and are not affiliated with Reform or Conservative congregations should not be identified as belonging to these movements simply because they cannot be Orthodox.

This means that those who do not observe, are not congregational members, rarely if ever attend services, do not visit Israel and scarcely care about the Jewish State must be Reform. If so, let us pray for the future of American Jewry.

This touches on another editorial misstep, the claim that “despite our differences in observance and identity, we share and treasure the same Torah” including the 613 commandments, the weekly observance of Shabbat and more. Sadly, this is far from the truth. Among the Reform and Conservative, there are core traditionalists, a term that refers to the religious standards of their movements and not to what tradition has meant throughout our history. Even with a diluted notion of what our religion mandates, the traditionalists have been losing ground, primarily because of the realities of American Jewish life which incessantly impel Jews away from even atrophied religious moorings.

I recently received two documents from the Solomon Schechter School movement, each expressing a sincerely religious view of the mission of these schools. I read them with much sadness because I know what is happening at many of these schools. It serves no good purpose for us to be in denial, to fail to recognize the losses that we are experiencing.

When Rabbi Lamm was interviewed, he expressed concern about developments within Reform and Conservative life and sadness that so many would be lost to Judaism. This is the Kaddish that he was referring to and unless we acknowledge the truth of his observations, there will be even greater losses.