Are religious labels past their sell-by date?

Synagogue movements are facing an increasing challenge from ‘post-denominational’ Judaism


By Matt Plen, December 27, 2013
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Pupils at the new Alma Primary School, which reflects a growing commitment to cross-communalism

Pupils at the new Alma Primary School, which reflects a growing commitment to cross-communalism

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

The Chanucah 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, could be taken to imply a more radical, controversial perspective: 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.

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 recent Pew Research Centre’s survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, shows that whereas 75 per cent of Jews aged 50-plus affiliate with particular denominations (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or “other”), in the 18-29 age bracket that number shrinks to 59 per cent, with the remaining 41 per cent identifying as Jews of no denomination.

While the breaking down of barriers has much to commend it, 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 perhaps the decline of strong denominations is also a catalyst for assimilation. 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 even Gordis is 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 Chasidim, 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.

Yet I see this tendency in a more positive light. It’s true that in the United 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. 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 halachah, 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 cross-communal institutions we’re so proud of will have very little to sustain them.

Matt Plen is chief executive of Masorti Judaism

Matt Plen is chief executive of Masorti Judaism

Last updated: 2:52pm, December 27 2013