Tag Archives: denominationalism

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.

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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.