You know something is happening to Jewish denominations when Orthodox Jews (who pray in gender-segregated prayer services) are calling women up to the Torah for honors (aliyot), while many Conservative congregations that have mixed seating still prohibit women from being called up to the Torah. But the crisis in Jewish denominational life extends well beyond ritual. What does it mean that the most recognizable Jewish face in America at-large is not a Reform rabbi but a man wearing a pointy hat and a scraggly beard exclaiming, “We want Moshaich now”?
The truth of the matter is the greatest divide between Jews is no longer Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. Rather, it’s Engaged versus Disengaged.
The denominations were founded around the fear of heresy and deviancy and the belief in certain dogmas. Orthodox Jews followed ortho-doxa–correct beliefs. Many attended Orthodox synagogues not because they kept kosher or even Shabbat but because they believed in the tenets and principles of the movement. Reform Jews believed in ethical monotheism. The average Reform and Conservative Jew differed more in ideology and sentiment than in practice (neither went to synagogue much).
For a variety of reasons, dogma and ideology no longer determine synagogue affiliation. People want to be serviced. For many it does not really matter if that service is being offered by a 30-something woman who thinks that feminism is the new messiah or by someone who thinks the Messiah is coming tomorrow.
Today, those Jews who belong to a congregation do so more based on location, lifestyle, and attention than anything else. As a congregant of mine once said, “all I care about is that I feel people care about me and that they are there for me, that is what matters most.”
Simply put, in an age of Jewish apathy, heresy is just not that important. The big question today is not so much which synagogue you attend but whether you attend at all. Some have been attracted to other forms of Jewish experience, such as the revolution and renaissance happening in the world of Jewish learning. For example, the Me’ah adult learning program at the Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, and The Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York both offer strong adult-education programs, with teachers and students ranging from across the denominational spectrum. These initiatives are part of what many claim is the emergence of a post-denominational learning movement.
Nonetheless, denominations still have great currency for Jews. Like all human beings, Jews constantly find a need to define themselves. In doing so they will use different labels to express old ideas and employ old labels to express new ideas.
“The Big Three” denominations will continue to exist as long as they service a critical mass of Jews. If they fail to meet that need, they will be replaced or supplemented by other groups or movements that better express what people are doing or thinking. A good example of this is the Reconstructionist movement, which arose because its founders felt that “The Big Three” did not speak to American Jews’ needs.
Yes, people are less intoxicated by religious labels than they were 50 years ago, but the need for community and a place that one can call home are still part of the human condition.
Contrary to popular belief, Moses was not a Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox Jew. In their current form, the three major denominations are only 150 years old. Each of these movements will have to revamp itself; otherwise, new ones will emerge and one day we will be debating whether or not they have outlived their lifespan.