Why There Will Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000 and Beyond
Publication Date: January 1989
Author(s): Steven M. Cohen
Special Collection: Berman Jewish Policy Archive
Keywords: American Jews; Religious Denominations; Jewish Identification
Coverage: United States
Only that tenth of American Jewry that is Orthodox or traditionalist Conservative are deeply perturbed by Reform's position on patrilineality. If the number of problematic Jews continues to grow, and I agree it will, then it seems to me that the maximum number of Jews who will retreat from interaction with the modernized majority will amount to no more than 10-15 percent of American Jewry. The public-opinion data also imply that the sharpest ambivalence and the deepest tensions over how to deal with issues like patrilineal Jews, nonhalakhic converts, and mamzerim reside primarily with two ideologically proximate groups: Modern Orthodox Jews and committed Conservative Jews. The others, to their left and right, have pretty much made up their minds about these issues. The most traditional already shun social intimacies with the non-Orthodox. The modernized majority accepts as Jewish almost all who say they are Jewish, even if their mothers were gentile or if they converted under Reform auspices. Moreover, if it did develop that halakhic Jews were indeed confronted with large numbers of problematic Jews, they would have at their disposal numerous conflict-resolving mechanisms.
Instead of raising the specter of two Jewish peoples, why not speak about the more immediate dangers of denominational sectarianism, or of Orthodox insularity, or the collapse of Modern Orthodoxy? To me, all such developments seem far more realistic and, as a result, far more dangerous, far more mobilizing, and, ultimately, far more worthy of the Jewish people's limited spiritual and capital resources than the remote possibility of two Jewish peoples. Moreover, a focus on these sorts of problems would generate far more helpful and practical steps than a fanciful speculation about the fracture of the Jews into two separate organisms.
By identifying the potential for Orthodox sectarianism as the critical danger of Jewish unity, by placing the location of that potential schism in the region of the Jewish-identity spectrum embracing Modern Orthodoxy and committed Conservatism, we can think more easily about effective ways to enhance the unity of the Jewish people. By being realistic rather than fanciful, and cautionary rather than alarmist, we can present a more compelling depiction of the true nature of contemporary threats to Jewish unity. In so doing, we will generate a greater readiness for Modern Orthodox and committed Conservative Jews to undertake the type of actions that will not only reduce conflict but, paradoxically, will also thereby prevent a rupture of the Jewish people into two separate segments, as unlikely as that eventually may be.
In Conflict or Cooperation: Papers on Jewish Unity. CLAL & American Jewish Committee, 1989, p.1-80.