Denominations: The Final, Moral, Test

In response to my blog decrying the premature obituary of religious denominations, I have received several emails that deserve response. Some readers charge me with unfairly championing Reform Judaism as the only successful merger of modernity and tradition. Others think I unfairly dismiss Orthodoxy as a monolithic premodern whole. Still others persist in thinking that denominations necessarily limit creativity. At the very least, others say, why not argue for a single denomination outside of Orthodoxy, giving us Orthodox on one hand and non-Orthodox on the other? These are very important critiques that require clarification. Let me take each in its turn.

1.      “I unfairly champion Reform Judaism as the only successful merger of modernity and tradition.”

I never said it and don’t believe it. All denominations today arose as responses to the challenge of remaining Jews in a modern world. So too, did Zionism and Jewish socialism, the strategies that were favored in eastern Europe where religious reform did not dominate Jewish consciousness as much as it did in the west. All Jews have had to wrestle with modernity and either affirm it or (at some psychic cost) deny it. I cited today’s Reform Judaism an exemplary instance of merging modernity and tradition, but there can be others.

2.      “I unfairly dismiss Orthodoxy as a monolithic whole that is inherently premodern.”

Not so. Modern Orthodoxy is exactly what its name implies: modern and Orthodox. Its preeminent German founder, Samson Raphael Hirsch shared a great deal with the reformers, including the conviction that he was at home in Germany, the desire for modern aesthetics in worship, and the conviction that chosen peoplehood implies a Jewish mission. To be sure, Hirsch faulted his likeminded Reform colleagues on other counts, but is he modern? Of course. Modern Orthodoxy has moved on significantly from its Hirschian origins, just as modern Reform has from its parallel German starting point, but by no means do I dismiss modern Orthodoxy as inferior, even though I, myself, have chosen to identify as Reform.

3.      “We would be better off with untrammeled creativity on the congregational level, but without denominations which limit it.”

It is not true that institutions necessarily protect the status quo. Renaissance art and Baroque music (for example) were supported by the establishment. Great inventiveness has arisen out of corporation-sponsored think tanks. Denominations can catalyze greatness by encouraging brilliance, supporting genius, and rewarding excellence.

4.      “Why not opt for a single denomination outside of Orthodoxy, so that we have Orthodox on one hand and non-Orthodox on the other?”

We live in a time of enormous personal choice and if denominations offer real options, people are more likely to identify with a particular type of Judaism than with Judaism in general. Jews insistent on traditionalist worship and a halakhic life-style will be drawn to Orthodoxy. Jews who care deeply about egalitarian worship, a tradition of prophetic ethics, and spirituality will be happiest in Reform. Other denominations can and should make their own claims to specificity. Because we cannot predict the kind of Judaism that any given person will seek, we need strong denominational addresses all along the Jewish spectrum.

I am, you see, very much a pluralist. I think we need pluralism to keep us sharp and competitive. Respectful denominational competition can be healthy. But as much as we should champion everyone else’s right to practice Judaism as they wish, we also have an obligation to identify deeply as our own kind of Jew. We should allow for many options but be passionate in supporting our own favored option.

5.      The moral argument

I say “everyone else’s right to practice Judaism as they wish.” But there are limits. Some interpretations of Judaism are beyond the pale, offensive to the point where we must say so. When, for example, a rabbi in Israel refuses to rent to a Muslim on prejudicial, even racial, grounds, we must all denounce his message as a kind of Judaism we will not tolerate. We should stand together in respecting the licit interpretations of Torah while denouncing the illicit ones.

That is another reason for denominations. In the normal course of things, be it politics, religion or life in general, the crazies always shout the loudest. How much impact can the reasoned opposition of several scattered synagogues have? Denominations, however, speak with the accumulated voice of many; they command attention in the press and media. We need their voice of sanity when Judaism is wrongly represented as other than it is.

Indeed, the moral test of denominations is precisely this. Are they willing to make their voice heard? Given the disturbing news from Israel of torched mosques, abused women, and trampled human rights, we are at the point where we are about to find out.

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5 responses to “Denominations: The Final, Moral, Test

  1. Former Reform Jew

    What standard do you use for distinguishing between “licit” and “illicit” interpretations of Torah? Why is that standard the correct one?

  2. I was one of those who had a few nits to pick with the earlier “premature death of denominations” post. But I am inching much closer to what I can only identify as outrage with this post. Reform Judaism is not the only or best example of egalitarianism, and to even suggest that is deeply troubling to me as a Jew who spends time in Reform and non-Reform worship and learning all the time.

    Conservative Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Havurah Jews, Secular/Humanist Jews, Renewal Jews, and non-denominatnional Jews are strongly committed to egalitarianism. And many of the most strongly committed and outspoken Jews on a range of moral issues, including egalitarianism, identify as non-Reform Jews. And there is also a strong movement of orthodox Jews who are doing their best, within the system that defines their Judaism, to effect egalitarian change. Politically, the URJ and the RAC are strong proponents on many gender issues, but they’re not alone.

    At this juncture, I am confused about what point you’re trying to make. If it IS that Reform Jews are somehow more moral or more egalitarian, I beg you to reconsider.

    PS — to your final point: since the time of your blog post, the website for Religious Ethical Zionism — https://sites.google.com/site/religiousethicalzionism/ — has been launched and is being endorsed from many walks of Jewish life…. Please notice how many call themselves “other,” “unaffiliated,” “non-denominational” or “post-denominational.

    • Well, I will try again. I said clearly that I did NOT mean to say Reform was the ONLY success story. I said clearly (I think) that I was using it as ONE EXAMPLE.

      My position on denominations is that 1. we need them; and 2. we need them all to be vibrant.There is more than one kind of Jew and it helps to have movement addresses all along the spectrum so that people can find a Jewish home that is akin to their own inclinations. This is not a zero sum game. Strong movements here do not reauire weak movements elsewhere.

      At any rate, I was writing to say that people who declare the movements moribund are jumping the gun regarding evidence for what is, and making a mistake regarding desirability of what ought to be. You may disagree with me, but if so, you ought to demonstrate why, rather than mistakenly charge me with claiming that Reform alone is a movement that matters — a position I do not hold.

  3. Thank you Rabbi Hoffman for your thoughtful responses. Another problem with the idea of have only two Jewish groups, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, is the impaction that groups who identify as “Orthodox” are right (as the name implies) and the most authentic link to the “tradition”. I beg to differ. What we call Orthodoxy was itself a reaction to 19th century Reforms. Judaism has evolved and adapted over centuries in many ways depending on the region of the world and conditions faced by the community/group. The “Orthodox” reaction was essentially a halt in the natural growing, evolving, and adapting of the living Jewish civilization. Jewish Orthodoxy whether ultra or Modern can be considered like the rest of us as an authentic expression of Judaism, but should be considered the infallible “voice of the tradition”. Moshe Rabbeinu did not ordain on Mount Sinai that Jews should dress like it is 18th century Poland. The choice to do so is an authentic minhag and not the “voice of the tradition.” Therefore, I am mindful to be careful about what I call “traditional” and whose tradition it is.

  4. I meant to say “implication” not “impaction” and that Orthodoxy should NOT be considered the “voice of tradition”. Sorry for the typos.

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