What ‘Divergent’ can teach us about post-denominational Judaism

Disclaimer: Having only seen the movie, I won’t speak about the other two books of the trilogy. This article contains spoilers.

Picture a society that subdivides its members into factions, each of which has a unique virtue, and then enforces a separation of those groups so strict that it hunts down any person who would dare blur the boundaries. 

This is a brief plot summary of “Divergent,” a new hit film adaptation of a dystopian young adult novel that frequently has been compared to “The Hunger Games.” But with a few — admittedly significant — tweaks, the same story could also describe the landscape of contemporary American Judaism. 

“Divergent” is set in a world that has divided itself into five factions in order to “keep the peace.” Each faction has its own unique virtue. There’s Amity, the peaceful; Candor, the honest; Erudite, the intelligent; Dauntless, the brave; and Abnegation, the selfless — the faction our heroine, Tris, is born into.

At age 16, people are given the choice to pick the faction they want to be in for the rest of their lives. This choice is largely based on an aptitude test that indicates which of their personality traits is most dominant. It’s rare that test results show more than one trait; those whose results do just that are labeled “Divergents,” and they are hunted, because society believes that they pose a threat to its very fabric. 

Tris is a Divergent. And even though she chooses to become a Dauntless, she never quite fits in there. She must keep her identity secret, or risk facing death.

The lines are cut differently in Judaism; there’s no perfect analogy between, for instance, Reform and Abnegation or Orthodox and Erudite. And yet, we similarly divide ourselves into “factions.” 

We’ve heard dismissals of members from one faction by those in another: The arrogant Orthodox sneer at anyone less meticulously observant; the Conservative are kidding if they think they can sustain halachic lifestyles balanced with an ever-demanding focus on secularism; today’s Reform Jews are tomorrow’s unaffiliated Jews — and don’t even start on so-called “fringe” movements such as Open Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Renewal, etc.

That line of thinking will only continue to tear us apart, not only because of its inherent baseless hatred, but because strict denominational thinking leaves no room for Divergents. And, unlike in the fictional world set forth in “Divergent,” Divergents are anything but rare in our reality.

I belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, but I feel comfortable davening in a minyan without a mechitzah, where men and women sit together. I won’t eat a bite of food that isn’t certified as strictly kosher, but you’ll almost never find me wearing a skirt below my knee.

And it’s not just me. I heard the wife of a Chabad rabbi give a lecture — to a co-ed crowd, with her proud husband present — about the halachic inconsistencies regarding the mechitzah. I’ve known numerous friends to bounce from rabbinical school to rabbinical school. I’ve known Orthodox people who watch TV on Shabbat and Reform friends who wouldn’t dare.

We don’t all fit squarely along denomination lines. Some people are comfortable pretending: Choosing the denomination that fits closest, learning the rules of that space and acting accordingly. But some of us can’t. In one moment, we might be focused on tikkun olam, in another eschew davening, and in another, boil a “dairy” ladle for use in chicken soup. And when someone asks what kind of Jew we are, we don’t know. We pick an answer that’s half-true, and the inevitable follow-up “But you do X …” — is inevitably painful.

But there is a remedy: post-denominational Judaism. Contrary to interdenominational groups that largely serve only “left-wing” populations, I’m referring to a place where whatever stringencies one needs for halacha are found, as are all the loopholes. Maybe it’s not a synagogue — it’s difficult, for instance, to have women lead services and not have women lead services and still all be together. 

It might not be a place at all, but rather an understanding — that the synagogues and schools we do or don’t attend, the rabbis we do or don’t adhere to, don’t define us. It’s an understanding that we can perhaps attend a Conservative rabbinical school and pray in an Orthodox synagogue and send our children to a Reform summer camp without any one of those organizations questioning our loyalty, devotion or commitment. Because at the end of the day, our loyalty, devotion and commitment are not to a denomination, but rather to a religion, a faith, a people.

The search for identity in a sectarian world is tough, as Four, another Divergent that Tris falls in love with, illustrates. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four tells her. “I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest, and kind. Well, I’m still working on kind.”

There are important values in each Jewish denomination that are missing from the others, values that many of us want to embody — or at least, like Four, try to. But instead of having the freedom to explore, to work together and round ourselves out, American Jews have created a system wherein we succumb to boxes and labels and confine ourselves to simply being one thing. 

In doing so, we’ve created a space where Divergents have to hide. But if life imitates art — spoiler alert — they can’t keep hiding.

Cindy Kaplan is a comedy writer who has written for Disney, Yahoo!, Electus, VEVO, and G-dcast. She studied American Studies, Journalism, and Creative Writing at Brandeis University.