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Virtual Talmud

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, sees the collapse of social groupings, from fraternal organizations to bowling leagues, as symptomatic of the modern desire to relate on one’s own terms and schedule with like-minded and demographically similar people. What is true for communal organizations is true for religious congregations and even national denominations.

Among my Christian neighbors, more and more belong to non-denominationalist churches. The funny thing is that these churches share an amazing amount of similarity in their religious philosophy and political perspective. There are well-funded national organizations, publishing houses, and media ministries that service them and reflect their interests in public discourse. I would suggest that what we are seeing is not post-denominationalism but a restructuring of Christian denominationalism in response to social and technological change. These unaffiliated churches are attractive because they harness these waves of change.

What we rabbis wouldn’t give to be so attractive to the largely unaffiliated Jewish masses.

On second thought, though, there are things we would not give–give up, that is. As Conservative Jews, we wouldn’t give up our commitment to faith without fundamentalism, expressed in our open approach to text and its intersection with science, as well as our commitment to the equal participation of women. We wouldn’t give up our commitment to Torah as an expression of how to live our lives in the presence and under the authority of God.

However, we don’t need to sacrifice any of these core values to reposition our movement to successfully attract the Bowling Alone generation. Just the opposite: we need to identify, advocate, and live our values all the more clearly and consistently. This is the position of Tom Bandy, an ordained minister who has helped transform numerous churches into dynamic, synergetic, inspiring, and usually growing faith communities.

There are significant theological differences between the Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, and the Reconstructionist movements, but those differences don’t mean a thing if they are not linked to the personal beliefs and practice of their adherents (in addition to their rabbis).

The implications may be threatening, because we will have to change our assumptions and practices so that what we do is consistent with what we say we believe. It also means we have to come to some consensus. This is particularly difficult for the Conservative movement, which prides itself on its pluralism. However, the disconnect between belief and practice has perhaps been the Conservative movement’s greatest albatross.

Change may be costly, but the rewards are priceless: a revitalized movement boasting egalitarian congregations who welcome the Sabbath Queen Friday nights and don’t let her go until the following evening.

This is not about raising our expectations of our congregants as much as cultivating communities that share a common set of values that can then attract like-minded individuals. The rejuvenation of the Orthodox movement is, in large part, a result of a such a dynamic.

Such a process is also possible for the Conservative movement. Last spring, Bandy met with Conservative rabbis to kick start this process. A symposium on “Conservative Judaism and the Future of Religion in America,” edited by Jack Wertheimer, in the recent issue of Judaism will broaden the conversation and move it forward.

We are in an exciting time of retooling and redefinition in the Jewish community. The Reform movement certainly is redefining itself and its expectations for its members. The Conservative movement is doing the same.

Denominationalism is not dead. It is just in the midst of a transformative resurrection.

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