Friday, March 05, 2010

Beyond Denominationalism

An editorial in this week’s FORWARD newspaper cites Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the need for raising levels of observance among Conservative Jews—“too many Conservative Jews can’t read Hebrew, don’t keep the Sabbath and other central Jewish observances, and don’t find synagogue prayer meaningful or attractive.”

I doubt this is a problem unique to Conservative Judaism. Most Jews don’t read Hebrew for the same reason most Jews don’t read French—they don’t need it. The reason most Jews fail to observe Shabbat or keep kosher is that these traditions no longer speak to them. The reason they don’t find synagogue services meaningful or attractive is that 1) the liturgy reflects a medieval worldview that most 8-year olds have outgrown, and 2) because we have become used to theatrical production values that synagogue services cannot match.

What most Jews want—what most postmodern, postindustrial first worlders want—isn’t more tradition but more meaning and authentic encounters with reality. We live in a world of contrived meanings faux reality fed to us by advertisers and reality television. Even real disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are turned into soap operas by the infotainment media. Synagogue is just another faux reality where Jews are asked to believe in a god and worldview that most do not take seriously.

Liberal Judaisms as a whole rarely offer their members anything truly deep, challenging, existentially compelling, or spiritually transformative. And most of their congregants wouldn’t get involved even if they did.

Why? Because deeply transformative spiritual work is, well, work. And most people aren’t interested. This is true in any religion. The truly devout are always a minority. If liberal Jews wanted to be more observant they would be more observant. They just don’t want to.

What should be done? Stop thinking in terms of competing denominations and start thinking in terms of a spectrum of community offerings. Every decent sized Jewish community ought to have a JCC where rabbis from Chabad to Neo-Hasidic/Renewal to Humanistic Judaism are on staff, serving the needs of different kinds of Jews. These rabbis wouldn’t have to worry about building private communities to support themselves and their families. They would be paid by the Federation and hired to teach the theory and practice of their denominations.

Shabbat and Holy Day services of different kinds would be offered around the JCC campus, and the community would come together for Kiddush and, perhaps, dinner. No one would join a separate community; rather they would pay dues to the Federation or JCC to be registered as a member of the Jewish community at large. Membership would entitle you to access to all Jewish services, educational programs, and rabbis.

Denominations are draining our resources, financial and intellectual. Rather than retreat into our respective shtetls, let’s create new forms of belonging and learning.


Rabbi Joshua said...

"Liberal Judaisms as a whole rarely offer their members anything truly deep, challenging, existentially compelling, or spiritually transformative. And most of their congregants wouldn’t get involved even if they did. Why? Because deeply transformative spiritual work is, well, work."

Rabbi Rami-

I agree with your critique that we need to move beyond denominations and offer compelling reasons to be Jewish.

However, at the same time, as a progressive Jew, I also think we often offer watered down answers that no one can believe in. Example - just below this post you speak out against the chosenness of the Jewish people or any special particularity about the Land of Israel.

So which is it? Something compelling or not. Even as a progressive Jew I recognize there are certain things that when lost result in our doom. If there is no divine initiative to be Jewish, I'm sorry, then I'm out. Being Jewish is hard. It's so much easier to just be like everyone else. If we are going to offer a vibrant Jewish spirituality as you mention in this post - we cannot offer watered down, half-baked truths.

For far too many Jews in the modern age, the question of why be Jewish has not adequately been answered.

Rabbi Rami said...

Great comment, Joshua! I wasn't thinking about ideas such as the Chosen People, but about serious contemplative practices. The Chosen People notion certainly isn't compelling to me. I just cannot imagine God in this way, not even when we water it down to say that God chooses everyone for something.

So you would really give up being Jewish if you stopped believing in the Chosen People? I know lots of Jews who say this, so you are in good company. Being Jewish to me is more tribal. I'm Jewish the way another person is Navaho. I can honor and even engage in the traditions of my people without having to buy into the theology.

But this is my problem, and I'm glad you aren't burdened with it. Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Joshua said...

Rabbi Rami-

Thanks for your response. I also understand your position. And of course I am proud to be Jewish. And even with theology aside, I would still choose to participate in certain "cultural things." However, for me, and most Gen x'ers and Millenials - tribal affiliation alone is no longer enough to keep us Jewish. We now live in a day and age where Jewishness is perceived by most Jews as an option.

As such, I agree with your original sentement about providing serious answers to those deep seated spiritual issues. Or as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg recently put it, young Jews are looking for the "high octane stuff."

For me, a "Bagels and lox" cultural Judaism is not complelling. I need the high octane stuff. I want to wrestle with HaShem, the Torah, and my place within thirty centuries of Jewish history.

Good Shabbos!

Anovagrrl said...

There's nothing wrong with tribal identity as long as it doesn't get in the way of contemplating one's place in the evolution of the cosmos. Tribal identity (one's denomination)should be a ground on which to expand the borders of one's tent. The more solid the ground, the more it is able to accommodate.

Marcos said...


Thank you so much for you blog on Beyond Religion. I believe in your position on beyond religion. I was born and raised as a reform jew but changed to a conservative congregation before eventually deciding humanistic judaism was ideal for me. The backlash that I get from "religious" jews has been harsh. I've been called everything from a non-jew to a hypocrite. Well, for me, being jewish is very much a tribal thing. One doesn't have to believe in a deity to be jewish. I was born a jew and will die a jew. I didn't leave judaism or the jewish people. I simply changed how I choose to worship.

Having members from the various religions in Judaism at a local JCC would help a lot.

I do disagree with Rabbi Joshua on liberal judaism not offering truly compelling or spiritually tranformative. Clearly he is a conservative and has his point. However, I feel more spiritual and connected as a humanistic jew then I ever did as a reform or conservative. So, on that, I'll say thanks again for this topic. I do believe that people need a place where they can find answers. Having a member from each jewish religion, who can answer important questions is critical for this age of Gen X'ers.

I will be sure to point others to your blog and to this particular discussion.



Rabbi Rami said...

I would like to make a distinction between being tribal and tribalistic. Judaism is clearly tribal, and I think that identifying as a tribe is one of the best ways to explain what Jews are to people who aren't Jewish. My friend and teacher Sister Jose Hobday, a Catholic nun and Native American elder always made of point of saying that Jews are tribal and if you don't get tribal you don't get Jews.

Being tribal honors our family, being tribalistic elevates our tribe above all others. The Chosen People is tribalistic, being part of a people is simply tribal.

As to Rabbi Joshua's notion of the high octane stuff, I'm not sure that is what young Jews want. I assume that as a follower of Yeshua, Joshua's notion of high octane is Jesus Christ. But I don't think they are looking for messianic Judaism either. Jews are not flocking to Chabad or Christ. It may be that Judaism no longer speaks to most Jews. At least the numbers seem to suggest as much.

The recent Pew poll on millennial spirituality suggests that religion may not be all that important to young people. I really don't know.

Rabbi Joshua said...

I did not post my original comment to be confrontational or with an agenda. Rather, it was simply a response to this blog post.

In fact, my comment related to the "high octane" stuff was from a recent article on by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (a Conservative Rabbi). My point actually has nothing to do with Jesus.

Rather, although many of us Jews engage our Jewishness in different ways, there are underlying questions I am not sure if we are answering any more.

Rabbi Rami is correct that the recent Pew poll suggests young people may not be so drawn to "religion." Yet other studies, including ongoing studies by UCLA ( suggest that young people are deeply interested and care about spirituality (just not necessarily 'religion').

Although this may not reflect all young Jews, many of them are indeed flocking to Orthodoxy and more traditional forms of Judaism. If I'm wrong, then why the recent explosion in the last 10-15 years of succcessful Orthodox outreach programs and yeshivas like Aish, JAM, JLIC, Ohr Somayach, etc.

Obviously, not all of these young Jews who affiliate with these outreach groups become Orthodox (although many do). In my own personal experience they are looking for traditional anchors on key issues, and adapting it to their own Jewish forms of spirituality.

Post-denominationalism is indeed a wave of the future. There has been an explosion in recent years of unaffiliated minyanim sprouting up across the U.S. and Israel. The minyanim tend to be lay led AND tend to be more traditional (yet with a 21st cent twist).

There is a shift amoung young Jews in two directions - either away from Judaism all together, OR toward more traditional practices. BUT these traditional practices are not the "traditions of our grandparents." Hence, new movements in eco-Kashrut, green synagogues, increased participation of women, etc.

My only response to these moves within the Jewish world is my original point. We progressive Jews (of all stripes) may not be providing the deepest answers to these spiritual yearnings.

Unknown said...

I share Rami's idea of Judaism being tribal in terms of identity as well as a method of connecting to my past without necessarily sharing the narrative that the Divine chose one people over another as being superior.. That doesn't make sense to me, either. I can respect that this is the way it allows for people to live a particular ethics in their lives, but that's about it.

Philip Setnik said...

Marcos: I will always extend my sympathy to any Jew who has been told they are not Jewish because of their practices. That is, in my opinion (and in my limited scope of knowledge), simply incorrect. If you are born a Jew you are a Jew. Even people who were born Jews and try their hardest to evade the fact are still Jews. And we are here for you when you return.

I have to say, however, that it amuses me to no end when people use the excuse that "[insert mitzvah here] doesn't speak to me, therefore I won't do it." Because, my brothers and sisters, that's what it is: an excuse - especially when we are talking about mitzvahs from the Torah. Hashem speaks to all Jews through the Torah. Forever and always. The real answer is that you choose not to listen. The Torah says "Na'aseh v'Nishmah" - "We will do and we will hear." The order is important. We agreed to do what the Torah says; and to hear - that is, listen, and learn, and investigate, and question, and probe - after that. "When will redemption come? It will come today, if you but hearken to My voice." Hashem, through the Torah, speaks to everyone. Open your ears. Listen.

Rabbi Rami said...

Phil makes a good point. What gives any Jew the right to pick and choose among the demands of Torah and HaShem? The answer is, "nothing." The idea that I choose not to do a given mitzvah because it doesn't speak to me is in and of itself not Jewish. And yet most Jews do exactly that.

What to make of this widespread heresy? Judaism has, for most Jews, become a choice, and one among many. The authority of HaShem and Torah is absent for most of us. We are our own authority, something Judaism does not allow.

The only way this works is if you imagine new Judaisms such as Reform Judaism, and imbue them with the same level of authenticity one gives to Orthodoxy. But the this only masks the problem for it is still the individual who gives Judaism its power. Whether we choose Orthodoxy, Reform, secular, etc. it is always we who choose (even if we deny choosing). Choice is the problem and I don't know if it can be overcome.

Of course Orthodox Judaism itself isn't monolithic. There are competing orthodoxies with Orthodoxy, and what we call Orthodox Judaism was itself an innovation of the 19th century.

But my problem is greater than all of this. I just don't believe in a god who chooses Jews, reveals Torahs, dabbles in real estate, worries about foreskins and mixing fibers in our clothes or, for that matter, has a son who dies for my sins. I don't need an excuse not to do the mitzvot; I need a compelling reason to do them.

Anyway, I am always happy to supply someone with amusement, and amusement to no end is even better. And it is good to know that Orthodox Jews are there when I need them, so thanks for that as well.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

You wrote:

"And it is good to know that Orthodox Jews are there when I need them, so thanks for that as well."

And why or for what do/might you need them?


Forum Administrator said...

Dose not the Hebrew Scriptures state:
(Genesis 22:18) And by means of your seed all nations of the earth will certainly bless themselves due to the fact that you have listened to my voice.’”
(Isaiah 2:2) And it must occur in the final part of the days [that] the mountain of the house of Jehovah will become firmly established above the top of the mountains, and it will certainly be lifted up above the hills; and to it all the nations must stream.
(Isaiah 60:3) And nations will certainly go to your light, and kings to the brightness of your shining forth.

And the Greek Scriptures State:
(Revelation 15:4) "...For all the nations will come and worship before you, because your righteous decrees have been made manifest.”

Fact is, according to the Torah itself, the seed was going to bless all nations. If Jews are still God's people, then they should be more focused on taking the scriptures "outside" themselves to "ALL" the nations. But, are they? If not, why not? Its in harmony with the Torah itself.

Of course the Jewish Nation (singular) was God's nation for which the seed was going to come through. And have you Rabbi's ever stopped to comtemplate, that is the Hebrew scriputres are being taken out to the "Nations" and "Peoples" and to "Tribes" and in various "Tongues", you might not have God's approval? For the according to Daniels statue interpretation, the Iron legs were the Roman empire. Well, the Roman empire in itself is gone. This means that according to Daniel, we are at the feet in which there would be divisions - and are you not more divided than ever? Are there not more Political divisions amongst the Kings of today?

He states the Rock cut no by hands comes down and smashes (destroys) the statue. Is it not so, this rock if the Kingdom of God and his Messiah as given rulership in Daniel 7:13, 14,..and his rulership was over the peoples, national groups and languages should all serve even him.

You might want to stop and contemplate these things, for you alone are not, "that the peoples, national groups and languages..." And this means, you might want to start looking to "who is".

And just possibly, the fulfillment of the scriptures have passed some Jews by...The Messiah, came and is now seated.

Next time you see someone write a check, as yourself why most of the worlds calendars reflect the date of life and death based on the Jewish man - Jesus.