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Are religious labels past their sell-by date? A defence of denominations in a post-denominational world

I’m about to head out to Limmud conference, where literally thousands of Jews of every conceivable stripe spent five days learning, debating, celebrating and socialising together. Coming hot on the heels of that other winter highlight, Hanukah, Limmud set out a particularly fashionable message about contemporary Jewish existence.

By Matt Plen

The Hanukah story is a narrative of cultural tension and ultimately civil war within the Jewish people.  Sectarianism threatened their existence whereas unity brought salvation.  So too, the Limmud version of Judaism preaches the values of coexistence, mutual respect and learning from each other as vital for the Jewish future.  In recent weeks, this message has had a galvanising effect: those Orthodox rabbis who called for a boycott of Limmud have been roundly criticised by most mainstream communal leaders.

This welcome support for better relationships among different kinds of Jews, however, reflects a more radical, controversial view: the idea that denominationalism is necessarily destructive.  In the face of exciting new cross-communal initiatives, traditional institutions such as Masorti, Reform, Liberal and the United Synagogue often seem to be on the back foot – if not actively softening at the edges.  Perhaps this explains the development of multi-denominational community centres in Oxford and Hatch End, the emergence of alternative, ‘partnership’ minyanim within Orthodoxy, or the fact that for the very first time, the Chief Rabbi felt the need to attend Limmud.

In the United States, denominational Judaism also seems to be in retreat.  The recentPew Research Center’s survey, ‘A Portrait of Jewish Americans,’ shows that whereas 75% of Jews aged 50+ affiliate with particular denominations (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or ‘other’), in the 18-29 age bracket that number shrinks to 59%, with the remaining 41% identifying as Jews of no denomination.

While there is much to celebrate here – Jews getting along better with other Jews is certainly no bad thing – the post-denominational trend has a more troubling side.  The Pew figures show that as American Jews assimilate, they tend to switch allegiance from the traditional to the progressive strands of Judaism, from there to non-denominational affiliation, and finally to identifying as ‘Jews of no religion.’  This is not to say that you can’t be a committed Reform or post-denominational Jew – plenty of those certainly exist.  But the emergence of non-denominationalism seems primarily to reflect a process of disengagement from Judaism.

But does assimilation leads to the loss of denominational identity, or is the relationship the other way around?  In a recent article, Daniel Gordis (a Conservative rabbi who has moved towards modern-Orthodoxy) blames the synagogue movements – and Conservative Judaism in particular – for failing to stem the tide of assimilation through their inability to articulate a compelling message for modern Jews.  Gordis believes that too much compromise and the abandonment of principles has driven people away.  Yet we’re all too aware that very few contemporary Jews want to engage with a Judaism they see as dogmatic or intolerant.

So what are our options?  Here and there in the Jewish world there are exceptions to the sectarian/assimilation polarity.  Chabad Hasidim, for example, are well known for combining passion and commitment with genuine love and openness.  But while Chabad’s outreach strategy reflects tolerance of all Jews, it does not imply a fundamentally accepting attitude towards different expressions of Judaism.

My own movement, Conservative/Masorti Judaism, provides a different twist to this model.  A slightly cynical Masorti rabbi friend from Israel recently commented to me that our problem is that we invest all our energy in the future of the Jewish people, while neglecting our own movement.   It’s true that in the States, at a time when official Conservative Judaism is undergoing a period of organisational decline, hundreds of independent minyanim, educational projects and social change initiatives are being led by people who’ve grown up in Conservative synagogues and summer camps and who are now expressing their values in the wider Jewish world.

In this country too, Masorti Jews are disproportionately represented in the leadership of cross-communal Jewish institutions of all kinds.  On a personal level, I’ve recently been part of the initiative to set up a new Jewish school – Alma Primary in Finchley.  Although many of the initial founders were members of New North London Synagogue, we took the decision to make Alma a cross-communal school, not a Masorti one.

And, unlike Chabad, this commitment to diversity goes all the way down into Masorti theology.  Our rabbis are committed to the idea that halacha, Jewish law, is inherently pluralistic.  Masorti synagogues are well known for combining a clear, recognisable ethos with a remarkable tolerance for difference – often within the same community.  My own shul, New North London, has both traditional (separate seating, male-led service) and fully egalitarian minyanim, with very little tension between them.  And all this takes place in a synagogue community where people meet week in week out for prayer, Jewish learning and the building of meaningful relationships.  Are there any post-denominational frameworks in the country that can offer the same?

It turns out that there is a third option beyond intolerant sectarianism and the abandonment of specific ideological commitments.  The kind of ‘soft’ denominationalism represented by Masorti and other like-minded communities might be our best way forward.  Certainly without it, the post-denominational institutions we’re so proud of will have very little to sustain them.

Posted on 21 December 2013

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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