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Caught In The Middle

America may be fascinated with Joseph Lieberman's brand of Judaism--Modern Orthodoxy. But it's endangered

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David Gottesman lives in Beachwood, Ohio, a town with a Jewish majority. This demographic fact is largely the result of a 1952 court ruling that ordered Beachwood's leaders to allow the building of a Reform temple. So naturally Gottesman assumed there would be little objection to a plan in 1996 to open two more synagogues, one for his own brand of Orthodox Judaism and another for a Hasidic group. He was mistaken. A majority of Beachwood's Jews, mostly Reform and Conservative, have fought his cause at town meetings, at the polls and in court with an obstinacy outstripping their own tormenters' 48 years ago. Gottesman realized that he was not their problem. A successful gastroenterologist who didn't wear his skullcap on the job, he looked and acted much like them. It was the ultra-Orthodox Hasids they despised, with their side curls and apparent self-righteousness. Neighbors warned that the Orthodox wanted to turn Beachwood into a medieval "ghetto."

The tale is a typically dispiriting take on American Jewish dysfunction from Samuel G. Freedman's new book Jew vs. Jew (Simon & Schuster; 384 pages; $26). But to the initiated, its message is more specific: the angst of belonging to the group so often stuck in the middle of such rifts. Gottesman is a Modern Orthodox Jew. Just like Joe Lieberman.

It's been a good week for American Jewry. Freedman recalls stories his mother used to tell of Bess Myerson's selection as Miss America, "how thrilled they were that a Jewish girl was seen as pretty enough to be chosen. In a more profound way, this touches the same chords." But to those familiar with Judaism's internal fault lines there is an irony in Al Gore's embrace of--and America's fascination with--Joe Lieberman's style of observance. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy has taken a drubbing from its left and its right. Many were convinced it was doomed to speedy disappearance.

Numerous writers (and ordinary Jews) have bemoaned observant Judaism's diminishing American ranks, noting that 52% of Jews marry Gentiles, and 50% do not belong to any synagogue. The Columbia University journalism professor offers only a terse aside. "It is hard to work up any optimism" that such people will continue as real Jews, he writes. Rather, he asks, once they have drifted off into a Seinfeld-and-bagels ethnicity, how will American Judaism be defined?

His grim answer: through a "civil war" already in progress. "I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It has torn asunder families, communities and congregations," he writes. He describes the embarrassment and rage felt by more liberal Jews at Yale University when some Orthodox students sued to avoid living in co-ed dorms; the dismay of the alumni of a secular Jewish summer camp in New York State upon discovering that their alma mater had been supplanted by the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey; and the pressures that drove a troubled Orthodox gas-station cashier in Jacksonville, Fla., to plant a bomb (nonoperative, he claims from prison) in a Conservative synagogue attended by members of his own family.

Freedman is a masterly storyteller. His thesis may be a bit exaggerated: for all his vignettes' power, he fails to prove that the majority of Jews feel themselves on a real war footing. But the tensions that inform his dramas are universal, and painful enough. And a key element in their exacerbation has been the decline--in numbers and authority--of Modern Orthodoxy.

Orthodox Jews of all kinds make up at most 10% of America's 5.5 million Jews. The majority belong to the two large branches to their left, the Reform and the Conservative movements. But Orthodoxy is increasingly influential. Liberal Jews who have stayed in synagogue are ever more interested in meaningful ritual, and Orthodoxy operates as an informal gold standard --something to measure oneself against even if one has no intention of duplicating it.

Orthodoxy itself is divided, however. When Modern Orthodoxy arrived here in the 1920s and '30s, its motto, Torah Umaddah ("Torah and worldly knowledge"), reflected the belief that one could both fully commit to the Jewish Commandments and fully engage the world at large. For decades the Moderns enjoyed an Orthodox monopoly in America. Even in the 1940s, as a competing, more inward-looking philosophy was arriving from Europe's ruined shtetls and academies, "any Jew in the world," says Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee, "would have said Modern Orthodoxy was the wave of the future."

Any Jew would have been wrong. The new arrivals, known as ultra-Orthodox to outsiders and haredim ("those who tremble" before God) among themselves, did not believe in full mixing with the outside world. They employed higher education only insofar as it facilitated Torah study, wore black hats (and sometimes side curls) and engaged in painstaking observance. They had more children than the Moderns and came to control the Jewish day schools that serve all Orthodoxy. Ultras now make up half the Orthodox population, and with the exception of stalwarts like Norman Lamm, president of Manhattan's Yeshiva University, the Moderns have suffered a confidence crisis. Says haredi spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran: "Modern Orthodoxy is like a shadow. It doesn't really exist as once it may have."

This shift to the right has unnerved the non-Orthodox. Members of the more liberal branches, says Bayme, now tend to see an undifferentiated Orthodoxy of "black hats [and] ayatullahs." A 1997 declaration by several hundred haredi rabbis that Reform and Conservatives were "outside Judaism" did not help matters. Such polarization suggests that in addition to losing the unaffiliated, American Judaism could one day split into two mutually incomprehensible and antagonistic Judaisms. If so, says Bayme, they may rue the demise of the Moderns, the one group that can "translate" the two sides to each other. "The community," he says, "is on the way to losing a very important bridge group." At least it was as of last Monday.

"Vindication would not be a bad word," says Lamm, with something like glee. Lieberman's Modern Orthodox affiliations are impeccable. More to the point, says Freedman, he is a "shining example" of the movement's positive ideal, "that you can immerse and be made stronger; that you are enriched and society is enriched by the dynamic encounter." Will the haredim buy it? Not likely. Says Bayme: "Modern Orthodoxy's future will not be decided by who gets nominated Vice President. But this represents an enormous opportunity for the movement to find its voice again." It will also remind more liberal Jews that there is an Orthodoxy with which they can rationally converse. And perhaps Freedman's civil war will cool down a bit.

Al Gore, Jewish peacemaker. Not a title he sought, but it's not chopped liver. --With reporting by Josh Tyrangiel

JOSTLING FOR JEWISH SOULS

As a Modern Orthodox Jew, Lieberman is on contested ground--between the left and the right

REFORM

Introduced here in 1824, this movement revised traditional Judaism severely, dropping skullcaps, most Hebrew and kosher rules and giving the faith's moral laws priority

CONSERVATIVE

Some Jews were perturbed by Reform's reforms. They brought Hebrew back into the liturgy, wore skullcaps and reasserted the primacy of all 613 Commandments

MODERN ORTHODOX

Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, above, planted this strain of Judaism here in the 1930s. Joe Lieberman practices it. It combines strict observance of the Commandments with the belief that a Jew may also play a full role in the outside world

ULTRA

Shmuel Bloom leads a haredi ("those who tremble" before God) umbrella group. The best-known haredim are Hasids. Ultra-Orthodox believers are ambivalent about outside contact

For George W. Bush, Dec. 25 doesn't come quickly enough. Last spring he and nine other Governors proclaimed June 10 Jesus Day and urged citizens to "follow Christ's example by performing good works in their communities and neighborhoods." People in 450 cities across the U.S. held parades, ran food drives and ministered to the sick as part of the event organized by March for Jesus USA, an evangelical Christian group. At the time, little notice was paid to Bush's support. Yet with the presidential election nearing, Bush's office has received nearly 200 letters criticizing the act. "He is promoting a particular religion and doing it while speaking in the name of the state," says Michael Weisser, a Jewish cantor in Lincoln, Neb. Bush's spokesman counters that the Governor signs thousands of such acts, recognizing everything from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Fire Safety Day.


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Cover Date: August 21, 2000

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