Why Movements are Still Our Best Way Forward
By Shai Kamin
Denominational vs. Post-denominational
Judaism is a religion of community. Minyan, kosher food, formal education, all these necessitate working within a communal construct. Many different Jewish communities exist, however, and in general, the coincidence of a person’s ideology and practice with that of a community is often the main impetus for membership. All over the world, and especially in America, Jewish communities have, in the past century, formed movements or denominations. Through ideological progressions and reactions, practical concerns, and interpretational disputes, these movements have been formed and changed over time.
Now, in only the last fifteen years, America Jews have seen the rapid rise of post-denominationalism, the rejection of these movements in favor of a more harmonious and unified Jewish people. Often, the motivations behind the embrace of post-denominational Judaism are laudable. It is often the result of denominational failures: such as failure to engage committed Jews or to create viable Jewish communities. While these motivations are praiseworthy, the disillusionment that people feel toward the established denominations can lead to rashness – and post-denominational Judaism too hastily rejects a necessary, albeit struggling, system in favor of an untenable one.
Denominations can be central to one’s religiosity, and are often necessary qualifiers of the vague concept that is Judaism. Could a Reform Jew feel comfortable praying in an Orthodox shul? Would an Orthodox Jew send her child to a Conservative day school? Would a Modern Orthodox Jew move to an entirely Hareidi neighborhood? From my experience, I perceive the answer to each of these questions to be a resounding “no.” The concept of “Judaisms” is not a post-modern abstraction; our communities, our ideologies are as much a part of us as our shared history and culture. They may divide us, but this type of division and categorization is required in order to create communities and to try to teach the values that we espouse. These denominations are by no means perfect. When irreconcilable differences arise between an individual and his community, he must either turn to a different community or create a new one; so it is for denominations as well (see, for example, the origins of Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Humanistic Judaism).
Because these groups are so vital to Jewish experience, post-denominationalism is a problematic ideology, both because it is a pipe dream and because it rejects and fails to compensate for the real benefits of the denominational system. To be clear: the difficulty with these individuals and institutions is not that they feel alienated or insufficiently served by their former denominations, but rather that they—and their choice of name serves only to reinforce this—seem to favor a deconstruction of the entire system of denominations. Post-denominational Judaism is founded on the commendable premise of unifying Judaism, but the idea of attempting to break down these ideological “barriers” may serve only to cause more strife within the Jewish community than it will cure.
Defining Post-denominational Judaism
The major difficulty in trying to approach the concept of post-denominationalism is that it means many different things to many different people and is thus hard to pin down. What does this deconstruction of denominations mean, and what kind of Judaism do the proponents of such an ideology envision? There seem to be three main types of post-denominationalism. The first is “non-denominationalism.” Non-denominationalism is a sort of anarchistic ideology, a rejection of groups and labels in general as being insufficient to describe or define everybody’s entirely unique ideology and individual practice, all of which have equal status. Such a viewpoint rejects permanent, unchanging leadership structures or ideological bounds; any communities formed, whether minyanim or day schools, are done so on an ad hoc and temporary basis. Non-denominational Jews believe that most of the denominations are false, blurred categories that do not actually apply to the vast majority of Jews. On the subject of denominationalism, Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg argues:
“Who knows if it’s going to exist 200 years from now? …There seems to be a lot of bridging of the gap… Among the purists, there may be some ideological differences. There are a lot of people who have jobs at stake in maintaining these denominational differences. But honestly these terms have been five percent of Jewish history and most Jews want to go to the closest synagogue… Most Jews are not denominationally motivated.”
Another form of post-denominationalism I will term “uni-denominationalism.” This type of post-denominationalism does not believe that all ideologies and practices (“Judaisms”) have equal status, but rather that there is one best movement, whether it is best simply because it is the least bad or because it is the sole Truth. Such a conception of Judaism wants all the other denominations to eventually crumble away as people recognize the true way to be Jewish or think that less-religious movements will eventually be lost to assimilation or intermarriage. It does not oppose the idea of a group or of a leadership hierarchy, but thinks that Judaism only needs one of each, and that the members of this group will be ideologically alike enough to fit under the one system. Such a viewpoint is not limited to Haredim or other ideologically conservative Jews; there are plenty of Reconstructionist and Reform Jews who think not only that their idea of Judaism is the best form of Judaism, but wish that all of those other Jews would just “go away.” The prime example of a uni-denominational mentality is Rav Soloveitchik’s famous psak that it is better not to hear the shofar than to hear it in a Conservative synagogue. This psak implies the uni-denominational mindset that it is better to abandon all of ritual (though probably not ethical) Judaism than to practice outside of Soloveitchik’s Orthodoxy.
The final version of post-denominationalism I will term “hyper-denominationalism.” If, as illustrated above, new denominations form because of alienation and differences between members of certain groups, then the logical extension of that construct is a post-denominational world of tiny, independent, self-contained communities, each with unified beliefs and practices. These communities are limited to single places, and do not extend themselves so as not to alienate their core constituencies. In a way, non-denominationalism is just the most extreme version of hyper-denominationalism, where every group breaks down into individuals because of ideological clashes. One type of hyper-denominationalism has manifested itself in America as the Havura movement. According to the National Havurah Committee:
“There is no unifying consensus among havurot about the specifics of Jewish belief and practice. Havurot are unified instead by a participatory ethos of Jewish community, in which everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn, and everyone has a role in creating the community.”
The independent minyan movement, on the other hand, is not necessarily post-denominational. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the author of Empowered Judaism, notes that “a key difference is that the havurah movement wanted to replace Jewish institutions, while independent minyanim aim merely at gaps that have appeared in Jewish life.” It is when these independent minyanim seek to replace the denominations as opposed to supplementing them that they are post-denominational.
Non-denominationalism appears to arise out of a few considerations. The first is that the concept of a denomination or group is too rigid to define the fluidity in people’s actual beliefs and practices. The second is the anarchistic notion that fixed authority is a negative thing and that the hierarchy and bureaucracy imposed by such authority stifle organic growth. The third is the concept that groups are bad, not because they do not describe their adherents, but rather because they exclude others. The last is the point made by Rabbi Ginsburg, that these labels and divisions are meaningless and do not affect the majority of Jews.
The first line of argumentation – that defining people by denomination is too limiting – is the most difficult position for a denominationalist to advocate against. Anyone who takes even a cursory glance at adherents of a certain denomination can see that within every denomination there are people who differ significantly in their ideology and practice. Take Modern Orthodoxy for example. In terms of ideology, there are (self-identified) Modern Orthodox Jews who accept without question that the Torah was originally written by multiple separate authors, and those who say that such a notion is kefira (heresy). In terms of practice, there are Modern Orthodox Jews who will eat a salad in a non-kosher restaurant and those who would not set foot in one. However, these different types of Modern-Orthodox Jew are tied together by more fundamental beliefs, like the authority of halakha and the importance of not confining oneself to a community that rejects all external influence.
Denominations may not be perfect little boxes into which all of our ideologies and practices are confined, but when they are small enough that they contain some similar basic understandings about Judaism and the world, the conversation can become constructive instead of combative; true intellectual growth arises out of Hegelian dialectic, not secession. Hareidim and Reform Jews cannot come to the table to discuss gay rights; the divide is just too big and the dialectic will never lead to growth. But Reconstructionist Jews who hold different opinions on the importance of tradition and text versus making people feel welcome in shul can have a constructive debate about God-language in the siddur because their differences are not irreconcilable.
The second argument, that authority and hierarchy are bad for Jewish communities, is a disingenuous one. There is no Jewish denomination with such at rigid, restrictive authority. There are no longer single authority figures or unified authoritarian bodies in Judaism—the idea of machloket (argument) extends from Talmud to arguments between Humanistic Rabbis about whether the Torah should play a part in their prayer services or sit in the library. The idea of authority is essential to pedagogy, but to equate it to a monolithic, hierarchical voice is to misrepresent it. Even the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards does not represent such a monolithic voice because of its respect for minority opinions, halakhic pluralism and the mara d’atra (local authority). In the few cases where movements are over-reliant on authority and bureaucracy, the response cannot be to completely dissolve the institutions, because that would preclude any sort of reliable structure in our communities. For example, without authority, the edifice of education (a necessarily top-down process) would crumble. When we designate people as teachers, we necessarily grant them some authority—not to do so would make education impossible.
The third reason for non-denominationalism, the argument that groups are inherently bad because they invariably exclude those who are external to the group, is an ongoing philosophical debate. Supporters of groups with distinct boundaries of inclusion or exclusion stress that divisions are necessary to create a caring community and that universal inclusion would destroy the sense of togetherness and empathy between members of the group. Detractors from the group paradigm argue that divisions and exclusion breed dislike between people. In relation to Judaism, they argue that denominations create unnecessary and detrimental boundaries between Jews. However, the debate about groups is entirely irrelevant to the issue of post-denominational Judaism or any post-denominational group. To esteem inclusion and abolish exclusionary groups may be commendable, but to use this as a reason to abolish groups while maintaining a larger, even more exclusive group is pure hypocrisy. Saying, “I am a non-denominational Jew” instead of “I am a Conservative Jew” fixes the denominational group paradigm, but leaves the far more exclusionary “Jew.” To continue to espouse unity while maintaining the biggest barrier between groups—established religion—is surely a great contradiction.
Finally, Rabbi Ginsburg’s argument – that denominational labels are meaningless and do not affect the majority of Jews – reflects not these Jews’ openness to many ideologies, but rather the apathy that the majority of American Jews feel about their Judaism. Wanting to go to the nearest synagogue, whether or not it counts women in the minyan, is more an indication of laziness than of people’s ideological attitudes toward self-identification.
Uni-denominationalism arises out of entirely different considerations. It does not reflect an anti-group or anti-authority sentiment, but rather says that the divisions in Judaism are detrimental to it because Judaism is in actuality only one group, and that the denominations can and should be merged into one relatively uniform ideology. Uni-denominational Jews see their form of post-denominationalism as a return to the “good old days” of pre-denominationalism, before sectarian divisions.
To argue, however, that there ever was a unified Judaism is ridiculous. If we travel backward in time before the Haskalah and the creation of Reform Judaism, we must still consider the split between Mitnagdim and Hasidim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the Karaites, followers of the different Gaonim, conflicting rabbinic schools of thought (Beit Hillel versus Beit Shammai), Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, the split kingdoms of Israel and Judaea, and the inter-tribal civil war that inspired the name of this journal, to name just a few. Many of the differences between these groups dwarf the different opinions between denominations, such as Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism. So while one might be able to argue that we are moving towards a unified, better Judaism than before, it is wrong to portray it as a return to our roots.
One could respond to this characterization of Jewish history by saying that although there were some divisions, especially among the varying practices of certain sects, there were certain basic understandings that all Jews shared, such as the divinity of Torah, the authority of the Rabbis, and the binding nature of halacha. While this ideological unity was still certainly not true for some sects, like the Karaites, it was probably the case for most Jews until the Enlightenment.
Even if there was unity with respect to such core beliefs, was such unity a good thing? This type of ideological unity is not something to which modern Jews can subscribe, because its “one way-ism” is not compatible with the modern world. Humanistic and Reconstructionist Jews are not going to start believing in the Biblical God just because doing so would provide Judaism with more unity. This is the fundamental issue with Soloveitchik’s psak against the Conservative movement. He would obviously have been angered if a Haredi scholar had made a similar psak against studying with him because of his leniencies in teaching women or working in non-religious settings with non-Orthodox Jews. The question then always becomes, “whose Judaism?” Anyone would love it if everyone simply adopted her fundamental beliefs and joined a unified movement based upon them, and though she might think that they should, it is utter chutzpa to think that they will.
Any type of Judaism that hopes to survive in the world without closing itself off to modernity will have to allow for divergent beliefs. Aspects of unity should exist, but they do not necessarily need to involve compromising on fundamental principles or whitewashing differences. Ultimately, it is a matter of vanity when one thinks that everyone will eventually adopt her beliefs.
Hyper-denominationalism and Arguments for Denominational Judaism
The first two post-denominational systems are thus untenable. The one that is left, hyper-denominationalism, works better, allowing some fluidity in belief and practice, while not abandoning the necessary group paradigm. And, theoretically, it may be the fruition of these two conflicting factors. The problems with it have much more to do with praxis, especially the issue of economies of scale.
First of all, hyper-denominationalism is a pedagogic nightmare. Each community’s ability to educate its children is contingent on its ability to find and afford teachers. Small, independent denominations have an economy of scale problem when seeking the resources necessary to build a school. Similar problems include paying for clergy and other staff members, a building, large scale programming, or even a Torah. To argue that communities of similar ideologies can come together to form and pay for these entities is to argue for denominations under another name. A good friend of mine, a passionate advocate of the independent minyan movement, once dismissed this problem, arguing that any independent community worth its bones can survive on the grants it receives from donors. This system is by no means appealing to those who wish to insure their communities with more than the hope of being helped by others, not to mention the fact that it is potentially discriminatory against poorer communities.
Other problems with the small scale are issues of location and standardization. Location is one of the big problems that plagues independent minyanim and havurot across America; these self-contained communities are often restricted to specific places, creating situations in which people cannot leave the place they live because they can never find as good an independent community in other places. But it is rather improbable to expect people to remain stuck in one area for their entire lives, not to mention unfair to create a situation where they cannot move for fear of not finding another good Jewish community at their destination. Larger denominations help solve this problem, because when a Reconstructionist Jew moves from New York City to Indianapolis, the fact that he can find a Reconstructionist shul is a major relief, because he knows that he has found a community that shares his same basic understanding of Judaism. Different communities do exist within large movements, but if one denomination contains two communities that are so different that members of each could not endure the other, then it is probably time for the movement to split up.
The problem of standardization can be thought of as a problem of trust. For adherents to kashrut, the fact that large-scale bodies like the Orthodox Union exist is an immense relief. Because of it, you can trust that the meat you are eating when you visit your cousins in Omaha is kosher. Such large-scale kashrut supervision is made much more difficult in a hyper-denominational system, both because of the problem of economies of scale and because of the likelihood that each community will have their own separate kashrut supervision. When Orthodox Jews already do not trust Conservative hashgacha (kosher supervision), what will be the case when there are many more ideologically distinct groups with their own separate kashrut supervision? This is the case as well with rabbinic ordination. Leaving aside the pedagogical issues associated with economies of scale, the question still remains: who will trust which rabbis and which providers of smicha (ordination)? Will everyone be limited to trusting rabbis from only one small school? Denominations help solve these problems by providing some measure of standardization, so that members of movements can trust the kashrut standards and rabbinic ordination of the movement, as well as other standards (see the myriad issues with the Rabbinate in Israel as to which Rabbis are given conversion authority).
Further issues of scale that plague hyper-denominations are that they fail to provide some of the large-scale institutions that make movements so useful, like summer camps, youth groups, trips to Israel, and other programming and networking possibilities. This might be either because of the cost-barrier, or because of the confinement and locality of these hyper-denominational communities. The response to this argument is posed by the National Havurah Committee (NHC), which offers retreats and large-scale events for independent havurot. However, the NHC also describes itself on its website as “egalitarian,” thereby alienating many potential non-egalitarian havurot and creating what is essentially a pseudo-movement, because even though they give lip service to the idea that “there is no unifying consensus among havurot about the specifics of Jewish belief and practice” they have essentially given a large framework that none of their constituent communities can escape.
This leads to another major argument in favor of denominationalism—that it is inescapable. Even the havurot, which, as Rabbi Kaunfer said, “wanted to replace Jewish institutions” have become the havurah movement and have a national organization that represents and organizes them. Thus, they simply have become another denomination whose core principle is just that they are “unified… by a participatory ethos of Jewish community.” This relates to the independent minyan movement as well, which arises out of the “gaps” between the denominations. Though “movement” is less of an appropriate term with respect to independent minyanim, this is what they most likely will become, because they face the same problems of scale that other hyper-denominations face and will be forced to find ways to create pseudo-denominational structures to sustain themselves, or else just fade away.
The final argument against hyper-denominations, as stated earlier, is that disagreement within a community is healthy, as long as the disagreements are not so great that the members of the community cannot survive together without disruptive discord. Taking hyper-denominationalism to its logical extreme would involve communities entirely uniform in their beliefs, making such intellectual growth nearly impossible. Again, growth comes out of dialectic, not secession, and such growth derives from movements large enough to contain multiple conflicting viewpoints.
The “We Tried It Already” Argument
Having refuted the three main post-denominational Jewish frameworks, I wish to finally address one major challenge to denominationalism that is often posed by many advocates of Post-denominational Judaism: put simply, we tried denominationalism, and it failed. These Jews take a look at the American Jewish landscape, and accurately perceive the fact that the framework of denominations is struggling. They conclude from this fact that it ought to be struggling, a line of reasoning characteristic of Social Darwinism. The movements ought to be failing for a variety of reasons, which we know because we see them failing. The descriptive/prescriptive shift that is still made in such an argument is still troubling to me, but more depressing is people’s readiness to throw off a system just because it has hit a rough patch. Instead of fixing the ailing structure, they too readily abandon it. As a friend once put it, everyone wants to be a rebel. Our desire to start a revolution, to be original and change Judaism from the bottom up may have blinded us to the good things about the current system and the fact that the alternatives are ultimately unsustainable.
This paper is not meant to be a display of how great denominational Judaism is. It is wholly evident that we are working under a flawed system. What I have attempted to show are the weaknesses of the proposed alternatives. The current struggling system is the lesser of two evils, though it needs to be improved in many ways – for example, the bureaucracy, lack of vibrancy, and lack of “Jewishness” in some movements. Most importantly, though, we need to stop thinking in the three-denomination mindset. While one thousand hyper-denominations is not a reasonable solution, having only three is, if anything, worse. It is up to creative Jews to find the happy medium without forsaking the important value of pluralism, so that Judaism can continue to thrive without us having to divide it too finely or whitewash divergent opinions.