Category Archives: denominationalism

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.


Rule Makers or Rule Breakers? An Iron Cage of Our Own Making

After a hiatus of about four years, I’ve returned to my course on Ritual Studies. I love this course, which has grown to become a synoptic understanding of the major currents in western thought since the nineteenth century. Every time I teach it, I become enamored anew of the geniuses who dissected the realities of modern life so brilliantly. This time round, I have rediscovered Max Weber, who so trenchantly predicted the institutional malaise that threatens the quality of Jewish life today.

This malaise substitutes managers for leaders. Weber predicted it as part of modernity’s transition from traditional and charismatic authority to authority that is rooted in the calculus of institutional rationality.

Traditional authority is best illustrated by royalty, where rule passes automatically from father to first-born son. You get what you get: monarchs whose competence varies with chance. Charismatic authority depends on the gift of personal magnetism: Ghandi or Churchill (on one hand), Hitler or Stalin (on the other). Again, you get what you get, a “great man” cult, but no guarantee of what the “great man” will represent.

By contrast, said Weber, the modern world seeks rational predictability. Financial markets thrive on “no surprises.” Corporate efficiency requires process and protection from tyrannical whim.  People move up systematically to inhabit roles that are hedged with rules. To be role-defined and rule-driven, institutions expand bureaucracies and bureaucracies spawn managers.

Bureaucracies abhor novelty; they like rule makers, not rule breakers; they squeeze out individualism and chase out eccentrics. The managers risk imprisonment in what Weber called an “iron cage” of their own bureaucratic making. They mistake rules for reality, and then, seeing the intricate interplay of one rule with another, they live in mortal fear of precedents that might plague them later. They play it safe by multiplying meetings and erecting committees to make choices which they then merely implement.

While market-based organizations have a bottom line — sleepy bureaucracies get put out of business — not-for-profits survive as long as they retain monopolies on basic services that people require. But how long will monopolies last? How long will people still want what their parents and grandparents did? How long will they settle for services that are not spectacularly delivered?

All our institutions face these questions. As I said in my last blog, for example, synagogues that collect dues through the primary promise of life-cycle moments and pastoral care are discovering that they cannot maintain the monopoly. Granted, they usually promise community too — but in practice, that sense of community reaches only a tiny proportion of the members who are insiders: the people who like study and prayer but who generally have no exceptionally high standards for what study and prayer should become.

I may seem unduly harsh because I overlook synagogues that do much more (and do it much better), but the synagogues that I describe do exist, and they exist in large numbers — run by managerial rabbis who care deeply for people and for Jewish tradition, but who substitute management for leadership. Overworked and undersupported by institutions that barely make their threadbare budgets, these rabbis have little time to grow, to study, or to think.

Their synagogues remain stable, orderly, and predictable. The small coterie of regulars come and go to services, classes and meetings, complaining on occasion about their inability to interest more people, develop new leaders and raise more money. They are congregations in stasis – managed well and smoothly run, but limited, because managers rarely shake up well oiled systems. Congregational greatness requires rabbis with enough dissatisfaction to risk change. They need rabbis who are more than managers.

Appreciating bureaucracies for what they can do but knowing their limitations, Weber himself wondered how leaders might push management into being less risk averse. He put his faith in holdovers from charismatic authority. Charismatics dislike stasis. They thrive outside the system. They champion visions of alternatives.

These visions arise from what Weber called “ends derived from values” rather than assessments dictated by purely managerial reasoning. Only leaders who are value-driven will risk challenging bureaucratic steadiness despite the uncertainty attendant upon unsettling the status quo. Boards need to be challenged to go beyond custodial and fiduciary responsibility and develop what has been called “generative thinking” about the mission that makes what they do worth doing.

What goes for congregations goes elsewhere as well. The days of monopoly rule are over. Our institutions need to know more than how to do business with fiscal probity and managerial efficiency. They need to make sure the business they are in is responsive to a new era; and then do it creatively, nimbly, and with excellence that questions the rules as much as it honors them.

The Myth of Denominational Demise

The world is filled with certainties that aren’t – like the myth that religious denominations are dead. We will eventually have three inchoate pools of people, it is said: Orthodox, “Other,” and Unaffiliated. Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than a way of life rooted in halakhic observance, community consciousness, and synagogue centrality. “Other,” presumably, will feature the very opposite, synagogues as “limited liability communities” that collect dues in exchange for rabbis on call, life-cycle ceremonies, and occasional events like High Holidays. The growth market will be “a pox on both your houses” — the unaffiliated altogether.

Evidence for this sorry denouement includes the documented decline in religious affiliation generally, the generational replacement of the baby boomers (who joined things) with their children (who don’t); economic conditions that allow little luxury for supporting synagogue movements; an internet era that provides programming for free; the declining numbers of Conservative Jews, once the majority denomination; and the stagnation of Reform Jews who maintain their numbers only because of the in-migration of Jews by choice.

So why are denominations not necessarily on their way out?

Denominational obituaries assume that organized religion in general is a thing of the past, but it is equally arguable that religion is just changing, not disappearing. Religion, as we know it, is a post-World- War-II response to the Cold War era, baby-boomer children, and suburbia. Synagogues insulated Jews against latent anti-Semitism, and provided safe spaces to rehearse ethnic identity and support of Israel. Plenty of post-war money paid denominational offices to provide the programs that a synagogue needed to ramp up and reach out.

Denominations back then had bureaucracies that churned out personnel and services; what they did not have is a clear ideological mandate to justify the personnel and services they churned out.

No one will join that kind of denomination. But denominations are what we make of them. They can define what religion is becoming not reflect what it used to be.

Precisely this ability to evolve with the times is what makes religion in America so exceptional. Indeed, one explanation for its robustness, relative to the anemic state of religion in Europe, is America’s separation of church and state, which has prevented state support and conditioned religion instead to fend for itself. Static churches, sociologists say, die out; creative ones succeed. Denominations that hunker down with old ways of thinking are indeed doomed. But denominations that think differently have a future.

This different denominational thinking must acknowledge the fact that, unlike the Cold War era, ours is a time of spiritual search. The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member. And who needs denominations just for that?

But assume our synagogues respond to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves. Assume they deliver purpose, meaning, and a reason to be alive. Assume further that they ritualize these higher human goals by connecting people to each other, to their past, and to God. Assume also the existence of rabbis who have something deep to say – rabbis, that is, whose intellectual acumen is equal to whatever society offers elsewhere at its thoughtful best. Assume, in a word, that synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter.

Suppose all this, and you get synagogues that need denominations.

A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas. Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere. Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.

I write this after attending the latest biennial of the Reform Movement, which certainly didn’t look dead or dying. It reaffirmed its commitment to the marriage of modernity and tradition; the courage to take moral stands; an inclusive vision for Jewish Peoplehood; and a compelling portrait of Judaism at its moral and spiritual best. It was religion as it just might be, religion that only denominational greatness can provide.