The Reform and Conservative movements are disappearing, the chancellor of New York’s Yeshiva University said this week during a visit to Israel.
“With a heavy heart, we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
“The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking,” he said during an interview a few days before receiving an honorary doctorate May 12 from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
Then Lamm added, pointedly, “The Reform Movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do OK.” He was referring to the Reform movement’s policy, starting in 1983, of recognizing patrilineal descent.
The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 found that of the 46 percent of U.S. Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, 33 percent were affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, a 10 percent fall from the 1990 survey.
The Reform movement had 38 percent of those belonging to a synagogue (up from 35 percent), with Orthodox affiliation checking in at 22 percent (up from 16 percent). Two percent were affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement and 5 percent with “other types” of synagogues.
Lamm’s conclusion: “Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture … The future of American Jewry is in the hands of haredim and the modern Orthodox. We have to find ways of working together.”
Lamm said he supports outreach to Reform and Conservative Jews, “but not by watering down what we believe.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Lamm was appointed president of Yeshiva University in 1976; he is credited with saving that flagship institute of American Modern Orthodoxy from financial demise. He is considered a representative of “centrist” Modern Orthodoxy.
In an wide-ranging interview, Lamm also spoke about his feelings on homosexuality among Orthodox Jewish men, drawing a distinction between those who “kept it to themselves” and those who “proselytized.”
He said, “Everyone should be made to feel comfortable” and “I would never exclude a person because his wife does not cover hair or because he does not adhere to the laws of Shabbat or because he is a homosexual.”
But, he added, “I am opposed to saying publicly that homosexuals are welcome, or accepting people who are openly gay and who campaign for a gay lifestyle, just as I would oppose someone who openly campaigns to desecrate Shabbat or to speak slanderously.”
As for the ordination of female rabbis, Lamm said his opposition is “social, not religious.”
“Change has to come to religion when feasible, but it should not be rushed,” he said. “Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later? — I am not a prophet.”
Lamm expressed dissatisfaction that Orthodox Jews historically have refrained from interfaith dialogue with the Church.
“The people who have normally been speaking on behalf of Jewry have been secular and are not concerned with the Jewish religious point of view,” he said. “It was a mistake for religious Jews to shy away. As a result, the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] and the American Jewish Committee, who don’t always have believing Jews on their staff, have dominated.”