Post-Denominationlism? (Ideas #9)


Among other things, the recent Israeli elections verified the existence here of a clear trend that permeates the Western world. Parties of national ideology suffered greatly in favor of parties whose main platforms center around personal fulfillment. For many Israelis, protection and encouragement of certain lifestyles has become more important than the destiny of the Jewish state. If we are suffering from post-Zionism, it is in tune with the generally post-ideological age upon which we are embarking.

While many of us are nostalgic for times of greater purpose, it will take genius to pull us out of Capitalism's culminating era. In the meantime, we need strategies that will allow Judaism to flourish in the midst of a growingly self-centered consumer soceity.

One advantage of the post-ideological age was highlighted by the recent conference of the Reform rabbinate. As individual fulfillment becomes more and more central, denominations that have made it their business to adapt themselves to the times, cannot help but return to more traditional themes in Judaism. Whereas social justice used to be the raison d'etre of these movements, this is no longer the case. People want to be better equipped for relationships and family-building. They want something to enrich their lives. Understanding the moral implications of what is going on in Yugoslavia (and even Israel) is not what brings a person to any type of synagogue today. Thus, mitzvot and Torah study have become the order of the day.


My own limited encounters with younger Reform and Conservative leaders and the literature they are putting out leads me to believe that we will have more and more common ground. Our goals are very similar - to stem the tide of assimilation by getting people more involved with a Jewish mode of spirituality. Our methods are also similar - pushing sincere ritual and creative study. What separates us is faith and its ramifications vis-a-vis the concept of obligation. This creates obvious limits to commonality - nonetheless, the greater risk is to overstate the difference. I may not be able to accept the legal validity of a Reform conversion but I can invite a Reform rabbi to teach Torah at my shul.* Likewise, I found it entirely appropriate to use curriculum materials put out by creative educators in other movements.


We are not dealing with Abraham Geiger or the students of Moses Mendelsohn who sought to compromise Jewish beliefs or observance. Quite the contrary, we are dealing with people who want to bring assimilating Jews closer to their heritage. More than one Jew has come to the ranks of Orthodoxy thanks to the good work of Reform and Conservative rabbis - many more have solidified their Judaism to the point of avoiding intermarriage.


No one is waiting for us to legitimate other movements. Halachic Jews will continue to seek leadership from traditional sources and non-halachic Jews are uninterested in our approbation. When there are no real halachic barriers, the only things preventing good will and cooperation are misperception and misunderstanding. My personal experience is that when we drop preconceived notions and put our discomfort aside, we realize that we have much more in common than we might think.


I am not a religious pluralist. By definition, one cannot be an Orthodox pluralist. What I am talking about is tolerance and mutual respect. I have long respected religious Christians - that doesn't mean I agree with their beliefs, but, like the Rambam, I believe they are moving mankind in the proper direction. Likewise, I heard R. Shlomo Wolbe refer to Albert Schweitzer as a great man - It is reasonable to assume that part of that greatness was bringing African pagans to his brand of ethical monotheism. If we can have as much respect for Reform and Conservative leaders that deserve it, I think we will see much more willingness to accept Orthodox standards as the modus operandi for such tricky issues as divorce, conversion, etc.


Maybe I'm naive and simplistic, but I think a lot has to do with just being a mensch.



* While this point may require halachic validation in view of limitations of from whom one may learn Torah (see Shulhan Arukh Y.D. 246:8 and Schach as well as Chagiga 15b), most non-Orthodox clergy are in a clearly different category than Elisha ben Abbuye. In the same way that I encourage all of my students to put forth creative understanding of the texts and I then support such interpretations in front of the study group, one loses little by opening up the Torah to the insights of all. Many such students had faulty theological positions and even more lacked rigorous observance of mitzvot, but somehow they were able to enlighten me with a new twist or to think along the same lines as some of the Rishonim or Achronim. By the same token, I would not invite them to give a halachic discourse.