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Needed: a New Language to Transcend Denominational Differences


The language of denominational Judaism is much too limited to capture the rich variety of Jewish life. Both within and across the denominations, the labels obscure as much as they reveal. They also exclude more than they include, for where do self-described secular and atheist Jews find their place within this schema?

Some clearly feel pride in denominational affiliation because they identify with that ideology and with what their denomination has accomplished and aspires to accomplish. But we need a new language to talk about ourselves, an overlay on top of categorization by denomination, one that promotes greater collective action and reduces the polarization that often results when we analyze events exclusively through a denominational lens.

For example, the word “Orthodox” spans the spectrum, from individuals who will not use the Internet based on their interpretation of Jewish law to those who are incredibly worldly. An Orthodox synagogue may have a balcony mechitzah or separate women’s prayer services. There are perhaps as many differences within Orthodoxy as there are similarities.

The situation is no less confusing with the other denominations. In the same Reform synagogue, one rabbi may officiate at an interfaith wedding while another will not. In one neighborhood with two Conservative congregations, one synagogue may permit the use of music on Shabbat while the one several blocks away does not.

Some Reform Jews are complaining that the new Reform prayer book is “too Conservative,” while others in Conservative congregations lament that Conservative Judaism is becoming “too Reform.” “Independent” and “post/transdenominational” minyanim and synagogues are further proof of the constraints of categorizing active religious Jews by denomination only.

I believe there is another way to define ourselves — by our orientation toward the Jewish, general and global communities of which we are a part. For lack of better terminology, we’ll call these orientations “tribal, “covenantal” and “personal.” All three types have a clear love of being Jewish, but their orientation toward both the Jewish community and the wider world is markedly different. (Note: I am not referring here to the majority of Jews who have opted out of active participation in the Jewish community, which is a different discussion and one that requires the collective action that we are currently unable to muster.)

The first group places near-exclusive emphasis on the Jewish community, and only a narrow slice of it at that — think Lakewood Yeshiva in the United States and Mea Shearim in Israel. Their lives are centered especially around the mitzvot of Jewish learning and ritual, and they intentionally limit their contact with other segments of the Jewish and broader communities. We’ll call these Jews “tribalists.”

The second group understands that while their commitment to the Jewish community consumes more of their energies, they are also mandated to actively involve themselves in the broader community and in global concerns. They don’t just balance the “perat” and the “klal,” the particular and the universal. Rather, the wellspring for activity in the broader community flows from their understanding of what it means to be Jewish. For convenience, we’ll call this group “covenantalists.”

Whether secular or religious, atheist or spiritual, covenantalists are heavily invested in the Jewish community but also contribute time and money to broader issues that resonate with their Jewish values.

The third type of Jew, again whether religious or secular, has a strong connection to Judaism but a weaker tie to Jewish community. This individual sees Judaism as a path to personal fulfillment and a source of human wisdom. To be Jewish in the 21st century for them means to share Jewish wisdom with the broadest possible audience — Jewish and non-Jewish — wherever that audience

resides: locally, nationally or globally.

We’ll call this group “personalists” because while they by no means negate Jewish community, their quest for personal meaning for themselves and others takes greater precedence than Jewish communal concerns.

Sadly, it is unlikely that placing a new lens on communal definitions will enable greater collaboration with “tribalists,” although that is not a reason to write them out of the Jewish community. But a rethinking of categories can more effectively unite “covenantalist” and “personalist” Jews around all kinds of causes, unlike existing categories of “secular” versus “religious,” or “Orthodox” versus “Reform” (or some other denomination) that exercise polarizing effects.

The deplorable allegations against Agriprocessors, the kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, illustrate how an issue of importance to the Jewish community like kashrut can degenerate into a denominational dispute when approached through standard denominational categories. For example, the situation is viewed in some circles as a Conservative versus Orthodox family feud because the Conservative movement is sponsoring the move behind ethical kashrut known as heksher tzedek, while many elements of Orthodoxy are skeptical of the Conservatives’ motives.

Conversely, the situation shows how redefining communal categories could potentially garner a broader consensus. Those who care about the mitzvah of kashrut being practiced correctly from a legal point of view, those who are also concerned about ethical dimensions of kosher slaughter, and those who care about the human dignity of the immigrant workers could all potentially unite under one umbrella around this issue.

Covenantalists — including Jews who identify as Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Independent, etc. — could work together with personalists around the ethics of humane treatment of animals. Secular and religious Jews also could find common cause around the abuse of immigrant workers. Those involved in Jewish grass-roots social justice groups who may be covenantalists or personalists could enter the conversation as well.

This reshuffling of Jews into broader categories focuses more on their relationship to community and less on their particular religious practice or belief. It therefore creates the potential for new coalitions around important issues and new ways to relate to one another on a daily basis that labeling by denominational affiliation alone does not allow.

New categories can promote fresh thinking about issues, sensible collaboration and vibrant partnerships. In contrast, when sitting around “the table” grouped by denomination, a specter of past ideological battles and competition for current resources appear. This diminishes the opportunity for larger thinking and action.

The reality of denominations as a way of religious organizing will remain for the foreseeable future. Denominations as a way of religious organizing help to sharpen theology and fine-tune religious practice — these are its virtues. Its primary vices are the potential for triumphalism and exclusion, neither of which the Jewish community can afford. That is why we need to supplement our current way of viewing community, reframing the alignment of active Jews to help promote greater inclusiveness.

Thinking in these new terms can provide another lens through which we can analyze issues, expand opportunities for working together and relate to one another with greater appreciation and respect for what we can each offer the other in the coming new year.

In 5769, let’s create more inclusive categories to describe ourselves so that we can fight less and work more on the many complex issues that we face as a community.

(Rabbi Hayim Herring is the executive director of STAR, Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal).

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