Principles Not Programs: The Resurrection of Denominational Religion

Denominational religion is not yet dead, to judge by the biennial of the URJ (the Union for Reform Judaism) that took place last week in Orlando, Florida. It wasn’t only that it attracted some 5,000 attendees from all over the world. Nor was it just the superstars it attracted to its stage: actor Michael Douglas and Vice President Joe Biden, for example. Nor, even, was it the media mastery with which its message was delivered. It was the message itself, a message that demonstrated the transformation of Reform Judaism for the computer era.

Denominationalism’s very raison d’etre was irreversibly altered when computers transferred power from the center to the periphery. In the print era, synagogues (to take the Jewish case) required a denominational center to produce and distribute such necessities as programming guides and religious-school curricula. Computers offer these things on line – cheaper, quicker, and customized to boot. Denominational headquarters thus devolved into inefficient bureaucracies creating materials that could not compete with the internet’s ever-expanding and abundantly creative open market.

Had money been no object, the old denominational order — like General Douglas Macarthur’s fabled old soldiers — might not have died, but simply faded away. The economic collapse in 2008, however, hastened the near demise. What does a denominational headquarters do when it has spent half a century gearing up to disseminate what member synagogues no longer need?

The answer came clear last week. To begin with, the biennial caught up with the long-term trend from a “service” to an “experience” economy, by becoming a massive and spectacular experience itself; and then highlighting the need to understand how people experience the synagogue, rather than what concrete services they get from it. The call for “audacious hospitality” was everywhere, stretched to make attendees sympathetic to what people actually experience as they walk through the synagogue doors.

But attention to hospitality was just the sidebar story. The headline news was the Reform Movement’s decision to offer a message that matters. We live in an era of anxious identity. On the one hand, we must increasingly choose our own identity mix; on the other hand, everything is up for grabs, even motherhood and apple pie, all the more so the inherited Jewish identity of one’s youth, not to mention choosing Judaism anew if you find yourself in a Jewish orbit but were not born or raised that way. If Judaism is a choice, it better be worth choosing, and the old ethnic draws (Holocaust memories and Israel loyalties, not to mention Jewish food, jokes and nostalgia) are insufficient nowadays. The biennial broke new ground in its call to embrace Reform Judaism as a proper continuation of an age-old tradition and a profound statement of the human condition.

Over 50 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs: food, shelter, and safety; then honor and respect to salve our egos. But higher up the ladder – the perch we mostly occupy – we need also to know that we matter. We strive in the end to count for something, not just in the eyes of others, but in those mirror moments when we contemplate who we have become, and who we might yet be. We imagine one more workweek, one more vacation, one more dinner out; and we wonder if that is all there is.

The Reform biennial offered a proud and joyous vision of a mirror image that might matter. It gave a rationale for choosing Judaism in its Reform guise.

In times past attendees left biennials with best practices. This year, they departed with best principles, reasons to believe that the world itself requires the amplified voice of progressive Judaism. Already the largest Jewish movement in America, and worldwide, Reform Judaism (it was said) can yet double or triple its influence – not by programs but by these principles:

  1. Absolute commitment to the State of Israel, but modified by the right — even the obligation — to critique and to oppose any immoral governmental policies;
  2. The recovery of the prophetic call for justice, righteousness, and compassion;
  3. Eliminating barriers to full participation by all who seek what Reform Judaism is;
  4. Serious grappling with the vast library of Jewish classics, to access their wisdom for our time;
  5. Responsibility to the Jewish People and its universal mission to add light to the world; and
  6. Striving, along the way, to enrich one’s own life, personally, through spirituality, community, and commitment to what God asks.

If denominational movements champion messages like these; if they celebrate their promise, in a world where promise is sorely lacking; if they call adherents to become their highest selves, in synagogues that exemplify the principles that will make them so; if they do all this, denominational identity will thrive.


12 responses to “Principles Not Programs: The Resurrection of Denominational Religion

  1. Thanks for a great message!

    Sent from Outlook

  2. ​As always, Larry – good piece. I wasn’t there, but it’s good to know that these principles are being promoted. John

  3. Nice! Clear and strong. Like you.

    Love, your fan Marilyn

    Sent from my iPhone 847.274.6486

    ‘Don’t mistake activity for accomplishment!’ ALM


  4. People have been asking about the Biennial, “What’s the takeaway?” Thank you for articulating it so clearly and accessibly.

  5. hi Larry i found this piece very provocotive the issues inumerrated were not, interestingly enough, issues of faith or emunah.  Rather they were issues of social relevance after reading the pew report and Jonathan Sachs im not sure if social relevance is the way to a denominational future yet perhaps we in the URJ world are unable to respond to issues of faith as we have lost the will to discuss ritual and study responsibilities.  i would be facinated to read what a member of the reconstructionist seminary or even a member of JTS would write as to their priorities Thanks again for making an old mans grey matter work I hope you are well and healthy Steve

    L’Shalom, Steven Garten rabbi emeritus, temple israel 613 791 5491

    • I am not sure I agree entirely. To be sure, when we argue for this or that means of tikkun olam, we are discussing social relevance. If, for example, we argue for inclusivity, one might call that social relevance. But equally, I consider that a particular instance of the faith on human dignity. What matters in the end is not a particular program but the principle behind the program. The URJ came down strong on the old prophetic virtues of human dignity, optimistic hope for the future, and the universalist premise (and promise) of classical Judaism. At the same time, it reinforced commitment to approach the universalism through Jewish peoplehood, while also not shrinking from the need to have a strong voice wherever Jewish Peoplehood is possible. The universalism per se is a recapturing of what made Reform great in its classical era. The addition of Israel and Peoplehood is what made it not just a restatement of the past but a bold insistence for the future.

  6. There has been an unparalleled positive response to this Biennial as compared to the last 10 that I attended. In addition, the social media vibe took it even higher. Those who envisioned, organized, programmed, and executed deserve the highest praise.

    • Yes, agreed. The rise in optimism and commitment was patent. I was worried about numbers, afraid that all the negative hype about non-affiliation would drive down attendance. To my surprise, it didn’t, a sign of healthier congregational engagement than we had been led to believe. Had the biennial not shifted from program to principle — or, equally, program to purpose — we might have faced a severe drop-off in two years. Reform Jews need to see the URJ differently than we have: we are not consumes but investors. Our dues are not fees for services, but investments in a Jewish future that single congregations alone cannot accomplish.

  7. Absolutely brilliant! It is an honor to call you our rabbi and teacher. Thank you for summarizing this fantastic experience we all shared last week!

  8. Brilliant! Your analysis was like a tall glass of water. Thank you Larry!

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