Why We Need Denominations

[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.

7 responses to “Why We Need Denominations

  1. Marilyn Price

    As usually I agree. We need different avenues for strength and creativity like artists drawing the same model. I do believe that there are many duplications in program we could share and wouldn’t the discussions be great, well moderated and what an advantage to learn from each other!

  2. Denominations are obsolete, what we have is whatever is the spiritual leadership personality and desires for how he/she want their congregations to look.

  3. rosanneselfon

    How eloquent Larry. Thank yoU for trying to Explain what our Movements actually represent…there are significant differences than add spectacular diversity to the understanding of Judaism. As you said, that diversity is like painting styles…more is better and leaves us open to so many interpretations and understandings. Would that more people understood that. Be well and stay safe! Rosanne Selfon

    Rosanne M. Selfon Rosanne.selfon@gmail.com (717) 413-4900 cell (717)285-3910 home 3232 Grande Oak Pl. Lancaster, PA 17601


  4. Larry, I love the analogy. As usual, you describe it in your particularly artistic manner. Thank you.

  5. Alicia Stillman


    Alicia Stillman “Singing is Praying Twice”


  6. Excellent thought as usual, Rabbi. I’m curious whether you think choosing one denomination or another is as important for lay people as it is for the rabbinate. Is it a good thing for our Jewish community that many people float between denominations and don’t want to choose just one, or is it ultimately a detriment to Judaism as a whole?

  7. Dear Larry,

    I am catching up on a crazy backlog of emails and just read this piece now. This is probably the best and certainly the most artful argument for Jewish pluralism I have ever seen. Brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing it!

    I hope you are well and staying safe.

    Fondly, Arnie

    On Mon, May 25, 2020 at 3:46 PM Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D. wrote:

    > lawrenceahoffman posted: ” [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 denom” >

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