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Non-Orthodox Not Jews, Rabbi Group to Claim

March 22, 1997|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In a dramatic escalation of a divisive debate over who is a Jew, the nation's oldest body of Orthodox rabbis will formally declare that the two largest branches of Judaism in the United States are not Jewish.

The unprecedented declaration by the 600-member Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, its officials said, is intended to prod American Jews to withdraw from Conservative and Reform temples.

It is estimated that between 80% and 90% of affiliated Jews in the U.S. are members of either Reform or Conservative congregations.

"This declaration is a clarion call to all that, despite their brazen usurpation of the titles 'Judaism,' 'Jewish heritage,' 'Jewish tradition' and 'Jewish continuity,' Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all. They are outside of Torah [Jewish law] and outside of Judaism," said a rabbinical union statement.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 24, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Rabbinical declaration--A headline on Saturday mischaracterized an upcoming declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada. The 600-member organization said the nation's two largest branches of Judaism--the Conservative and Reform movements--are not Jewish. The declaration refers to the movements, not their adherents.

Reaction from Reform and Conservative leaders, as well as a moderate Orthodox rabbi and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, was one of alarm. They called it an attack on Jewish unity.

"Those are fighting words," said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the moderate Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. He added that it is unlikely that the Rabbinical Council of America--the more moderate Orthodox rabbinical body with more than 1,000 members--would endorse the declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

Nevertheless, leaders of the Orthodox union said they hope to lend strength to Orthodox Jews in Israel, who are exerting pressure on the Israeli parliament to deny legitimacy to all but Orthodox conversions to Judaism.

Many Orthodox rabbis have long refused to recognize Reform and Conservative denominations, including the legitimacy of their ordinations, divorces and conversions. But the rabbinical union said that its formal declaration, scheduled to be announced March 31 at a New York news conference, will mark the first time that an Orthodox rabbinical body has made such a declaration as a ruling in Jewish law.

The union said it decided to move now in the face of concerted efforts by moderate and liberal rabbis both in Israel and the United States to defeat an Israeli bill that for the first time would ban all non-Orthodox rabbis from performing marriages, burials and conversions in the Jewish state.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have never accepted the more liberal interpretations of the Torah by the Reform and Conservative movements.

While some characterized the Union of Orthodox Rabbis as a "right-wing" group that is out of the American Jewish mainstream, they said its declaration must be quickly answered with a forceful denunciation by the majority of the Jewish community.

Jewish leaders in the U.S. say unity among the country's estimated 5.8 million Jews has never been more important, particularly at a time of growing violence and political tension in the Mideast over the status of Jerusalem.

At the same time, all sides saw the declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada as an attempt to influence the outcome of the highly emotional debate in the Israeli parliament over the bill to prohibit non-Orthodox rabbis from performing marriages, burials and conversions in Israel.

The conversion issue is especially sensitive because under Israel's "Law of Return," any Jew is eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. But under strict Jewish religious law--which Orthodox rabbis in Israel want codified in the state's legislation--only a person born of a Jewish mother or a person converted to the faith under Orthodox standards can be considered a Jew.

American converts, for example, who adopted the Jewish faith in a Reform or Conservative temple would not be eligible to become Israeli citizens.

The dispute has placed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu squarely in the middle of a fight among Reform, Conservative and ultra-Orthdox rabbis in the U.S., as well as in his own nation.

In an interview from his home in Brooklyn, one of the Orthodox rabbis behind the upcoming declaration against the Reform and Conservative movements said he hoped the declaration would drive Jews from Reform and Conservative temples.

"The hope in America is that the many Jews now affiliated with the Reform or Conservative movements will . . . rethink their continued associations," said Rabbi David B. Hollander, a member of the executive board of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

They are being told they are being taught Judaism. . . . It's a deception of innocent Jews," Hollander said.

Rabbi Paul Dubin, a prominent Conservative rabbi and executive vice president of the interdenominational Board of Rabbis of Southern California, worries that the declaration could have just the effect that Hollander wants. He said it might also prod some Orthodox rabbis to quit their memberships in interdenominational groups like the Southern California board.

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