[Last week, the Forward invited reactions to the news that the financial crunch is already forcing our movements to downsize. Rightly or wrongly, I took the invitation as a suggestion (once again) that denominational Judaism has had its day. Aren’t denominations divisive? Aren’t people increasingly “just Jewish” — rather than Jewish in a denominational way? I so strongly disagree that I used my 300 words to say why we need denominations more than ever. Some colleagues were represented in the on-line forum; I was proud to be associated with them. My remarks are reproduced below:]
Think of Judaism as a grand work of art spanning the centuries, the Jewish people’s glorious experiment in the mysteries of life, the purpose of existence, a full and spacious vision for this grand gift of God that we call the human condition. Art evolves, mutates, surprises: baroque is not romanticism; impressionism is not cubism. Artists take their stand in a given artistic tradition, not in “art” as a single generalized ideal.
As its own work of art, Judaism supports independent schools of religious artistry: these are our “denominations.” All Jews share a common heritage of historical memory, textual tradition, calendrical cycle, and so on. But we share them differently, and that is all to the good. Music needs Bach, but also Tchaikovsky; museums are richer with Monet in one room and Picasso in another.
At their best, denominations are not just programs and shared best-practices: they are evolutions of Jewish artistry in the making. You cannot combine, erase, or homogenize them any more than you can combine, erase, or homogenize Vincent Van Gogh, Henry Moore, and Andy Warhol. Denominations need to flourish as what they are. Losing any single one is like lopping off the museum room with Rembrandt or with Chagall.
It has often, and properly, been said that whether born as Jews or not, we are all Jews by choice. But no one chooses Judaism as a whole – it is too big for that. Implicitly, at least, we are attracted to some particular Jewish artistic school in the making, one denomination rather than another. In an age of choice, we need strong Jewish addresses all along the spectrum of Jewish life. Losing any single one would be catastrophic.