On Yom Kippur, let us heal the rifts that separate U.S. Jews

The central message of Yom Kippur is that we can move from the path of sin, failure and destruction to the way of life and healing — through repentance.

Nowhere is this challenge more urgent than in the area of communal divisiveness.

For two decades now, polarization has grown apace in the American Jewish community.

The number of patrilineal Jews and converts accepted as Jewish by only one part of the community has risen sharply. The interdenominationally organized Synagogue Council of America has been allowed to die of financial and programmatic inanition. Each movement is now training and using its own mohelim.

Polarization is reflected in political and communal policy choices. The Republican sweep was greeted with apocalyptic rhetoric and anathema by liberal Jews; the Orthodox stood out, indeed were dominant, in the groups that hailed Newt Gingrich.

There is overwhelming support for the peace process in the liberal rabbinate; the handful of Orthodox rabbis who have sought to uphold the Rabin government's stand have been under enormous pressure.

In the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, there has been nary a challenge to viewing homosexuality as an equally valid alternate lifestyle; in the Orthodox movement, there has been hardly a voice to criticize homophobic excess.

In short, the movements increasingly are governed by internal consensus-seekers that evade complexity and are impatient with disagreements. They act as if they have nothing to learn from the views of the others.

Yet, perhaps now there are signs of openness to one another. There has been a changing of the guard of the rabbinic leadership of American Reform.

Further, modern Orthodoxy seems on the brink of reasserting itself; this could shift the equilibrium of Orthodoxy toward Clal Yisrael (the people of Israel).

The key to reversing the tide of polarization lies in repentance. Repentance is not about blaming. Rather, the heart of a person turns to the partner (God or human) in a new way. Such a turn, done sincerely, inevitably evokes a reciprocal movement in the Other.

Maimonides says there are three critical elements in repentance: regret, expressed openly (vidui or confession); resolution, a determination to walk on a new path; and rejection, the past behavior is not repeated when a similar (tempting) situation arises again.

If I were Reform, this is how I would repent:

Regret: We were feeling our oats, perhaps carried away by the surge of third-generation Jews from Conservative and Orthodox homes to us. We were angry at delegitimation and thought that we would be rejected no matter what we did. We are genuinely sorry that we have contributed to polarization. We do not want to change the past, but we want to change the future. We understand that you can go too far with modernization and that tradition and learning are essential for a viable Reform movement.

Resolution: We will work with Orthodoxy and Conservatism to strengthen the whole community and to upgrade our lay people as well. We will take no further steps that affect personal status in Clal Yisrael without full consultation and cooperation with the traditional movements. If the traditional sector can show us a way to reach out to congregants and deal ethically with children of intermarrieds, equivalent to patrilineality, then we are open to change. Any turning of traditional and Orthodox toward us will be reciprocated by us.

If I were right-wing Orthodox, this is how I would repent:

Regret: We were feeling our oats, perhaps carried away by the surge in our numbers from large families and from modern-Orthodox crossovers. We were angry at liberal criticism and a bit threatened by the growth and dominance of liberal Judaism. Fearing that people might be attracted away by the pleasures of modern culture, we sought to put any alternative beyond the pale. Yet we recognize that we cannot save ourselves alone.

Resolution: We will bracket issues of recognition and work with the whole community to increase observance and learning everywhere. We will try to understand what demands you are responding to when you make anti-halachic decisions and see if we can come up with approaches from within the tradition that meet some of those needs. We will vigorously pursue our alternate policies (vouchers, government aid, social conservatism) with other like-minded Americans, but any turning toward us will be reciprocated.

If I were modern Orthodox, this is how I would repent:

Regret: We regret that in moving to protect our children from radicalization in American culture, we moved rightward and broke the connections and joint policies that link us to Clal Yisrael. We regret that we lost our nerve and backed away from modernity and change.

Resolution: We will rebuild our alliances and strive to find halachic ways to meet the needs of all Jewish groups. We will try to play our historical role as mediators between Jews and the tradition and between Jews and Jews. Our learning must be deepened and modernized; our modernity must be deepened and sanctified. We are prepared to undergo the self-criticism and spiritual growth needed to accomplish this goal.

If I were Conservative, this is how I would repent:

Regret: We regret that we were so caught up in our internal conflicts that we weakened the center. We regret that we have allowed Conservatism to define itself as less than Orthodoxy and more than Reform; by drift, we established learning standards lower than the Orthodox and response standards slower than Reform.

Resolution: We will invest resources beyond our movement to bring the groups closer together to resolve the issues. We will shape ourselves up to shift Conservative Judaism from a passive to an active voice and to make our spirituality worthy of emulation. Clal Yisrael needs both tradition and change in tandem to keep it from assimilation. We will resist being subsumed into liberal Judaism alone.

Such declarations could turn the hearts of all of Israel toward each other. Then we can pass the final test of true repentance, rejection. Maimonides defines this as encountering the same temptation, feeling the same urgency, but refusing to repeat the sin. Then we will stop blaming each other for the inroads of assimilation.