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  • On Jewish Denominationalism (Are We In a Post-Denominational Era?)
  • Jack Shechter (bio)

We hear of late pronouncements that the Jewish community is entering an era of "postdenominationalism" where the religious groupings are no longer sources of loyalty for many Jews. Indeed, the claim goes, the denominations are declining, losing their valence, and are not as important to large portions of Jewry as they have been in the past.

This essay presents a set of observations prompted by the above claim. In aggregate they argue that the assertions about the decline of the denominations are largely inaccurate, to wit:

  1. 1. The contention that the relative absence of polemics and the periodic cooperation among the denominations, as well as external factors, are causes for their decline hardly reflects reality.

  2. 2. In addition to ideology and religious practice, there are other determinants that make for separate denominations—factors that students of the history, sociology, and anthropology of religion have long known. These factors are in play at present.

  3. 3. Examination of the realities on the ground—the programs and varied activities in place within the religious groupings—attest to their continued predominance in American Jewish life.

  4. 4. There is compelling reason why the denominations need to be distinctive, strong, and assertive.

We examine these arguments in turn.

1. The Absence of Polemics and the Conservative Movement

The absence of polemics among the denominations often means tolerance of differences, since little can be done to change the others' minds—and the differences [End Page 58] remain real. Further, much of the increased interaction is more often than not attributable to the participants involved seeking to enhance their own denominational ends. Examples of this are Orthodox day school leaders who seek financial support from federations and foundations, and those who work with communal Bureaus of Jewish Education because the Bureaus establish pay scales and continuing education for teachers in the denominational schools.

But most significant: little of this communication and cooperation along transdenominational lines has diminished the strident, consistent, and emphatic particularism of the ever-expanding and self-confident Orthodox group. Indeed, when one observes the Orthodox stream in Jewish life with its striking contrasts with the Conservative and Reform streams, it seems quite difficult to claim that post-denominationalism characterizes contemporary Jewish life.

Though less emphatically so, this is the case as well with the Reform movement which reminds everyone who will listen of its own strong emphases on matters Jewish, religious, communal, and Israel-related. Indeed, Reform leaders are quite protective of and insistent upon their group's decidedly Reform approach in its powerful infrastructure, in its own schools, camps, and youth movement, in its publications, services to its congregations, in the ways of its clergy, educational, and in its administrative personnel.

It is only the Conservative movement that itself mutes its own denominationalism. This is not because it does not, in fact, have distinctive approaches to Jewish life different from the other groups, and not because it does not still have a strong (though admittedly declining) constituency. In fact, as Jack Wertheimer has told us,

On quite a few measures, the population of affiliated Conservative Jews stands out in its levels of observance, interest in Jewish education for Jews of all ages, commitment to Israel, and investment in the causes of klal yisrael, Jewish peoplehood. In the aggregate, Conservative Jews exceed Reform, Reconstructionist, and non-affiliated Jews by wide margins in their Jewish commitments, but are surpassed by Orthodox Jews, especially on matters of religious observance and synagogue attendance. The Conservative movement continues to insist on a traditional conversion ceremony, maintains the principle of matrilineal descent as defining who is a Jew, requires a Jewish bill of divorce (a get), and in other ways departs from Reform and Reconstructionist [End Page 59] practices. . . . (Jack Wertheimer, All Quiet on the Religious Front

(New York: American Jewish Committee, 2005), p. 21).

Rather, the movement's diffidence about its particular denominational character (and the general weakness it is currently experiencing) is rooted fundamentally in its dysfunctional structural architecture. This condition is caused by the Jewish Theological Seminary serving as "titular" head of the movement, a position it has tenaciously claimed for itself throughout the...


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