Beyond the streams of Judaism? Denominationalism, post-denominationalism and the Jewish future

Jewish culture By Matt Plen 10th Sep 2015

Denominational Judaism is going out of fashion. The dominant Jewish movements – Orthodox, Masorti/Conservative and Reform – are accused of being rigid, insular and unappealing to contemporary Jews. Sometimes they are blamed for accelerating assimilation and disengagement from Judaism; more often they are accused of doing nothing to address these powerful phenomena. With increasing frequency, post-denominational solutions are held up as a panacea for the problems of the Jewish people. In my own work, I have repeatedly encountered non-denominational Jewish organisations who have refused to collaborate with Masorti Judaism, out of a concern that their pluralist credentials might be tainted by association (or from a fear that working with us will mean that others, less committed to diversity, will refuse to do business with them – a strange position for organisations committed to cross-communalism to take). In this article, I will argue against this one-sided view and suggest that the boundary between denominational and non-denominational forms of Judaism is unclear and certainly unhelpful. I will attempt a more sophisticated analysis of the relationship between denominationalism and its non-denominational counterparts, leading to a nuanced understanding of how this dichotomy might be reconceptualised, for the benefit of the Jewish community as a whole.

Recent research has shown that in the United States and here in the UK, fewer and fewer Jews identify with a particular denomination. But it is unclear what this tendency means. Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen has pointed out that two distinct trends are discernible in American Jewry: non-denominationalism and post-denominationalism. Non-denominationalism is when Jews decline to identify themselves with one of the established streams of Judaism, preferring to label themselves, for example, as secular or ‘just Jewish.’ Non-denominational Jews, Cohen notes, score lower on all measures of conventional Jewish engagement than those who identify as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. Similarly, historian Jack Wertheimer has argued that rather than representing a new form of identification, the ‘just Jewish’ are largely unaffiliated Jews on their way out of the community.

In contrast, post-denominationalism is a new phenomenon embracing only a very small number of mainly younger Jews. Cohen applies the term to Jewishly-committed communities and individuals who have consciously chosen to abandon denominational labels, whether as a result of ideological or ‘stylistic’ differences with the established denominations, or in order to reach out to a more diverse constituency. In the United States, some examples of post-denominational institutions are community day schools, the rabbinic training programme at Hebrew College, Mechon Hadar – a traditional-egalitarian Jewish learning institution, and the independent minyan movement. In the UK, we have seen the rapid growth of a family of pluralist or cross-communal Jewish schools, the emergence of small numbers of post-denominational minyanim and community groups such as Grassroots Jews and Moishe House and, most prominently, Limmud, an organisation which prides itself on working with people of every denominational affiliation and none, and aims to take thousands of individual Jews ‘one step further on their Jewish journey,’ without making any comment on where that journey should lead them.

The decline of the denominations – if that is what we are witnessing – and the rise of non- and post-denominational alternatives raises important questions about Jewish continuity. These questions are less relevant for people who are ideologically committed to a particular denomination – Orthodox Judaism, for example. For them, declining denominationalism in general has one clear implication: the decline of Orthodoxy. The solution can only be a redoubling of efforts to bring people in to their particular stream by making their communities more welcoming and compelling and by communicating their message in a more powerful way. It is irrelevant to the denominationally committed whether the erosion of the denominations is a cause or an effect of declining Jewish engagement. For them, the survival and success of their denomination (as they see it, the best or truest conception of Judaism) is an end in itself.

But for leaders and educators who see value in Jewish diversity, are committed to a broader conception of Jewish peoplehood, and who seek to build a community in which a wide variety of Jews can live together, the non-and post-denominational phenomenon is extremely challenging. This is true for those who function within a denominational setting, while seeing their denomination as a pragmatic means to a broader end, as well as those who operate outside it. What is the relationship between the decline of the denominations and the acceleration of assimilation? Is there a causal relationship between the two and, if so, in which direction does it operate? Or is the question of denominationalism simply irrelevant? Programmatically, if we want to put the brakes on disengagement and reinvigorate the Jewish people, is this best achieved by strengthening the traditional, denominational movements and forms of identity, or by striking out in a post-denominational direction?

But before trying to answer these questions, it is important to establish whether the divide between denominational and post-denominational is in fact as significant as many have suggested. This requires a certain degree of analytical clarity. I would suggest that there are three features of denominational Judaism which notionally set it apart from its post-denominational cousins. These are ideological (focusing on ethos), institutional (affiliation) and sociological (self-definition). We would expect any denominational institution to have a well-defined, distinctive ethos or ideology and a certain degree of exclusivity regarding its members’ identification with this ethos, to be organisationally and financially affiliated with an umbrella organisation which subscribes to these same values, and to use this denominational connection as part of its brand or identity. In reality, however, many notionally denominational institutions do not fit all three of these criteria, while other, post-denominational ones tick at least one of these boxes.

New North London Synagogue, for example, is a clearly identified with and affiliated to Masorti Judaism. But on a Shabbat morning, the community boasts three different services, one traditional and two egalitarian, and is proud of the diversity of approaches to Judaism among its rabbis, lay leaders and members, most of whom grew up Orthodox or Reform and some of whom do not particularly identify with the Masorti label. Here, denominational affiliation and self-definition are not necessarily accompanied by what would usually be understood as a denominational ethos. Pardes, a Jewish learning institution in Jerusalem, does not self-identify or affiliate with a denomination. However, its ethos (as reflected in the profile of its faculty and the way they teach) is demonstrably modern Orthodox. One final example: Limmud. Limmud flies the flag of non-denominationalism, resisting not only denominational affiliations but also any attempt by denominational institutions to use its space for self-promotion. Yet Limmud itself is reminiscent of many denominational structures: it is an international network of affiliates which share a common ethos and a clearly defined set of practices – for example, an ideological, almost dogmatic commitment to volunteer leadership – and which enjoy the support of a central organisation. Limmud is clearly not Orthodox, Reform or Conservative, but it seems to have slipped into several of the characteristic tropes of a Jewish denomination.

If the denominational/non-denominational distinction is hard to pin down in practice, the same is true on a theological level. The work of David Hartman, for example, provides a deep challenge to the dichotomy. For Hartman, pluralism does not conflict with his denominational identity; it is ingrained in his conception of Orthodox Judaism. He notes rabbinic Judaism’s insistence, embodied in the Talmud, on recording and preserving minority opinions. He writes that in a religious tradition based on scholarship and reasoned argumentation rather than fundamentalist faith, ‘you cannot escape the haunting uncertainty of knowing that alternative ways are religiously viable and authentic.’ He goes on to claim that the grafting of rabbinic onto biblical Judaism achieved the feat of attributing diverse, uncertain views to the will of God. ‘To the contemporary Jew, God’s word at Sinai is part of a two-thousand-year-old human discussion. If one cannot accept a spiritual way of life mediated by limited, finite human beings, then one cannot live within an Orthodox halakhic tradition.’ Hartman not only combines loyalty to Orthodox Judaism with a commitment to pluralism, but derives the latter from the former. The commitment to diversity and openness, often the indicators of a post-denominational approach, here stems from denominational ideology.

This analysis is challenging for anyone who wants to blame denominationalism per se for the decline in Jewish engagement. Jewish institutions and ideologies are defined by more important categories than whether or not they define themselves in denominational terms. There are often more similarities between institutions on either side of the divide than within each camp. Moreover, two of the ingredients of denominationalism – self-definition and affiliation – are unlikely by themselves to be responsible for turning people off Judaism.

What about ethos? Perhaps tightly defined ideological positions and overly exclusive approaches to membership are indeed unappealing to increasing numbers of contemporary Jews. This possibility needs to be treated with caution, as the reverse might also be true: perhaps a lack of ideology and low expectations are responsible for the decline in Jewish engagement (this argument has been forcefully if somewhat inconsistently made by Daniel Gordis in the context of his attacks on the Conservative movement ). These possibilities, taken together, suggest a third approach, which is that institutions fail to be attractive or compelling because their ethos is either excessively prescriptive and demanding, or insufficiently so. Perhaps the negatives of coerciveness, exclusivity and dogmatism which blight certain institutions can be corrected with the positives of being open, non-judgemental and self-critical. Similarly, the positives of ideological definition, clear expectations and integrity might help guard against the dangers of wishy-washy, undemanding and ultimately meaningless expressions of Judaism.

I believe that the problems faced by the Jewish people are not caused by denominational approaches as such and I reject the idea that post-denominationalism is an easy panacea. I see denominational expressions of Judaism as an essential piece of the Jewish ideological and institutional puzzle, which need to exist alongside post-denominational ones – all the time bearing in mind that the division between these two phenomena is by no means clear cut. All Jewish institutions – and the community as a whole – will have to manage the tension between the denominational and post-denominational aspects of their ideological and organisational lives if they hope to provide compelling responses to the needs of contemporary Jews. However, this work needs to be anchored in one inviolable principle: the value of collaboration between communities and institutions, however they choose to define themselves. I hope to live in a Jewish community where no-one will refuse to work with me because of their denominational – and especially their post-denominational – principles.

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism.

Related articles

  • Jewish culture
  • 09th Jun 2021

Celebrating LGBT+ Jewish History

  • Jewish culture
  • 01st Jun 2021

Watch: Masorti Thinks – LGBT+ Rabbis

  • Jewish culture
  • 27th May 2021

Watch: Remote to Relational: Rekindling Relational Community with Dr Ron Wolfson

  • Jewish culture
  • 26th Apr 2021

Israel’s elections: what comes next?