March 26, 2019

In Praise of Denominations

One of the cool and fashionable expressions in modern Jewish life is to say you’re “post-denominational” — that is, you’re a Jew who doesn’t fit into categories and doesn’t need labels. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg captured this notion with his memorable, biting line, “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”

Greenberg, who is Modern Orthodox and made that statement during a 2006 interview, was dramatizing the sentiment that labels are inherently divisive, since they put more emphasis on our differences than on what we have in common. I’ve always had sympathy for that critique. When I started a spiritual magazine many years ago to promote Jewish unity, we had a T-shirt that said “I’m an ashkephardicultrarefoconservadox Jew and proud of it.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to balance my idealism with reality, and the reality is that human beings enjoy belonging to like-minded groups. In the Jewish world, these like-minded groups go far beyond the Big Three denominations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

Even within denominations, there are plenty of variations. Under the broad Orthodox label, for example, you will find variations such as Open, Modern, Yeshivish, ultra-Orthodox, Chasidic and so on. All of these groups and subgroups have things that distinguish them — from davening style to rabbinic leaders to interpretation of Jewish law to specific traditions based on their ancestry. 

The point is this: The Jewish community is and always has been splintered around myriad factors that go way beyond the broad religious denominations. 

“Given the differences among Jewish groups, how realistic is it to envision a ‘post-denominational’ future for American Judaism?”

Choosing a synagogue is a key point of distinction. In Los Angeles, for example, Jews who belong to the IKAR community are different from Jews who belong to Sinai Temple, just as members of Young Israel of Century City are different from members of The Happy Minyan. Yes, they are all Jewish and have plenty in common, but there are different tastes, different flavors, different priorities.

The same applies to my Sephardic community — there are many flavors. I get the goosebumps when I hear prayer melodies from my Moroccan childhood. I don’t feel the same way about melodies from other places, which is normal. We have a unique connection to the traditions we grew up with, especially when they trigger our nostalgia.

Here’s the larger question: Given the differences among Jewish groups, how realistic is it to envision a “post-denominational” future for American Judaism? I know Greenberg was speaking in jest, but is belonging to a denomination or specific group really something to be embarrassed about?

In our cover story this week, we go in the opposite direction. Our book editor Jonathan Kirsch reviews the latest book by American Jewish University professor Elliot Dorff, “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice,” that proudly makes a case for the Conservative denomination. 

“For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism,” Dorff writes, “I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.” 

Ironically, one of those teachings is the embrace of dissent within Dorff’s own denomination.

“Conservative rabbis and lay leaders reveled in the diversity of opinion and practice within the movement,” he writes. “They did not want to squelch its creativity and liveliness, and, furthermore, they believed it would be Jewishly inauthentic to adopt a rigid definition of what a Conservative Jew must believe or do.”

“Denominations, and all the movements within and around them, are just another expression of a 3,500-year-old work in progress. The Jewish journey itself feels like a never-ending procession of breakaway minyans.”

In an interview with Kirsch, Dorff endorsed the very notion of denominations: “I am a pluralist,” he says. “I don’t think that the major problem in Jewish life is that we have too many denominations.”

Neither do I.

Denominations, and all the movements within and around them, are just another expression of a 3,500-year-old work in progress. The Jewish journey itself feels like a never-ending procession of breakaway minyans. Some Jews think they have something new to add, so they go off and try it out. For all we know, that dance between stability and restlessness may be the key to our continuing survival.

At its best, Judaism provides a refuge of meaning from the emptiness and uncertainties of life. Denominations provide ideological homes, just as synagogues provide communal homes. It’s natural that we gravitate toward a specific place within that refuge that is more familiar to us and appeals to us the most.

Of course, there is plenty of room in all of these nooks and crannies for wandering Jews who feel like experimenting with different flavors. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say they’re “post-denominational.” It’s not that they don’t believe in groups or denominations, they just want to be free to try as many of them as they like.

After all, what is “post-denominational” if not a group you enjoy belonging to?