February 11, 2005

Beyond Dogma

Is American Judaism headed toward a post-denominational future?


Every day at the New Jewish High School in Waltham, Massachusetts begins with Jewish prayer services-four of them.

Bleary-eyed students traipse into one of four minyans, each representing a different variation of Jewish worship-a mechitza minyan, a traditional egalitarian service, the "liberal" minyan or the "singing" minyan. Many girls and boys sport kipot on their heads, some boys go bare-headed and many of the girls wear tight, hip-hugging jeans.

Other students skip prayer and instead make their way to one of seven or eight discussion groups on topics ranging from Israeli current events to teen self-esteem.

Though unusual at most Jewish day schools, this multifaceted format is de rigueur at Gann Academy-The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, and it reflects the culture of an institution founded seven years ago as a pioneering pluralistic day school. It also may have something to do with why the school has grown to nearly 300 students from 48 in its inaugural year.

Just a few miles down the road, in Newton, another diverse assembly of Jews is reciting daily prayers on a campus shared by America's oldest Protestant seminary, the Andover Newton Theological School, and America's youngest rabbinical school, at Hebrew College.

Though worshipping together, the Jewish students at this school come from varying religious backgrounds, including some returnees to Judaism from Eastern spiritual traditions. All training at Hebrew College to become rabbis, these Jews eschew the movement-oriented distinctions that defined 20th-century American Judaism at a rabbinical academy that calls itself not Conservative, Orthodox or Reform, but trans-denominational.

Down the road, across the Charles River and far afield in other cities across the United States, the emerging pattern is the same: Jews of different religious stripes are coming together to worship, study and create communities that don't quite fit into the traditional molds of the three or four Jewish religious denominations in America.

There is the Orthodox-style minyan in Cambridge, Mass. where the sexes are separated by a mechitza but women lead some parts of services. There is the synagogue in Manhattan that dropped its Conservative affiliation, hired a new rabbi and attracted so many new members with its non-traditional services and its mantra of being a "community of questioners" that it had to create a second, overflow service in its 1,200-seat cathedral.

There is the rabbi who decided he didn't need ordination from an established rabbinical seminary-he said rabbinic ordination today has become nothing more than graduate school-and instead got three friends and colleagues to confer upon him the traditional title of rav. He then went out and transformed an old synagogue in Brookline, Mass. from a nearly empty shell with a dozen active members into a thriving center of worship and education with hundreds of regulars.

Varying widely in religious observance and flavor, these myriad institutions, individuals and religious congregations are united by one thing: a refusal to identify with any existing religious movement in the United States.

Is American Judaism headed toward a post-denominational future?

"I believe people are taking responsibility for their own religious lives," says Rabbi Arthur Green, dean of the trans-denominational rabbinical school at Hebrew College. "I don't want labels to make decisions for people. To each his own."

Green-ordained by the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (the fourth denomination of American Judaism) and a longtime champion of chasidism-in many ways is the embodiment of the post-denominational Jew.

"It's hard to know exactly what denominational affiliation is," Green says. "Is it practice or is it membership? I think the categories are somewhat meaningless."

Post-denominationalism, too, means different things for different people.

For liberal Orthodox Jews, it's about finding ways to maintain the tradition without leaving feminism at the door. Hence, the emergence of new minyans like Jerusalem's Shira Chadasha, Manhattan's Darkhei Noam and Cambridge's Minyan Tehillah, all of which have mechitzas but allow women leadership roles in an otherwise Orthodox prayer service.

For Conservative Jews, it's often about creating an egalitarian community dedicated to Jewish religious observance and serious, traditional, dynamic prayer services-things the Conservative movement preaches but rarely has been able to put into practice in its largely suburban, non-observant communities. Hence, the development of minyans like Manhattan's Kehilat Hadar, Brookline's Washington Square Minyan and the Newton Centre Minyan, where full egalitarianism meets a spirited, traditional prayer service with mixed-gender seating.

For Reform Jews, it's about finding places to worship and learn where they can find greater depth than the average Reform temple offers without having to embrace a whole ideology.

And for many institutions, it's about branding.

"Many people are refreshed by being in a place without a label on it," says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, the jovial spiritual leader of Brookline's Temple Beth Zion. Waldoks, author of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor," bills his shul as an independent synagogue in an "egalitarian Chasidic style."

Once a moribund Conservative synagogue, Waldoks took over Temple Beth Zion in 1998 and has had such success with his lively, song-oriented services that he has generated a significant Friday night following-something nearly unheard of in the non-Orthodox world. He also has managed to attract members whom, he says, never before had much interest in shul: Buddhist-oriented Jews (Jew-Bu's), disaffected Jews who had let their synagogue affiliations wither, Reform Jews seeking something beyond the blandness of Reform temple worship. The shul also is home to the new Washington Square Minyan.

Resisting a denominational label, Waldoks says, has helped Temple Beth Zion attract those who might otherwise be uncomfortable with a particular denomination-and those not interested at all in denominations.

"The moment you place some kind of label on yourself, you immediately create discomfort among some people," Waldoks says. "Here, there's no preconceived notion."

A similar approach has helped Manhattan's popular Kehilat Hadar, a majority of whose members grew up in Conservative homes but which attracts significant numbers of people reared in unaffiliated, Reform and Orthodox homes.

"Hadar is interested in welcoming Jews of all backgrounds," says Elie Kaunfer, one of the congregation's founders and a rabbinical student at JTS. "If Hadar were to call itself Conservative, it would be harder for people who identify as Orthodox or Reform or identify as 'not Conservative' to come. The more you label yourself, the harder it is to cast a wide net."

"The question people are asking today is not, How do I become a Conservative Jew," Waldoks says. "The question is why be Jewish."

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of JTS, claims that the Conservative movement, which he heads, is the primary source for the religious energy of post-denominationalism. He points to Hadar as an example.

"The Hadar movement could not be mistaken for anything but a Conservative synagogue: It's fully egalitarian and seriously Jewish. The ritual is neither Reform nor Orthodox; it's quintessentially Conservative," Schorsch says. "The young people at Hadar are intellectually Conservative and they are ritually Conservative except they are advanced Conservative Jews rather than entry-level Conservative Jews. They wish to distinguish themselves from the materialistic, bourgeois synagogues of suburbia."

Schorsch may be right when it comes to many of the new, unaffiliated minyans cropping up in cities around the United States, but if so it represents a failure of the Conservative movement to hold onto its best and brightest.

Rabbi Shai Held arguably is one of those. A teacher at the rabbinical school at JTS and a doctoral student in religion at Harvard University, Held also is the scholar in residence at Hadar-what the younger, hipper and not-yet-affluent generation has instead of a rabbi.

Held says the Conservative movement has a lot of negative connotations for Jews who are egalitarian-minded, observant and learned, which is why a place like Hadar prefers non-denominationalism to a Conservative identity.

It's also why Held finds himself seeking a variety of Judaism that cannot be found in any single denomination.

"I'm looking for a Judaism that is committed both to the authority of tradition and to an engagement with modernity, including sometimes the moral critiques that modernity makes of tradition, particularly around the issues of gender," Held says. "What denomination you call it is much less interesting to me than what substance you put into it."

Held is in good company. According to Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, the fastest-growing category among American Jews today is that of "Other,"-that is, Jews who say they do not associate with Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist ideology.

That reflects the trend in American religion in general, which long has been marked by increased individualization. Religious movements are constantly refining and particularizing their varying brands of religion, from new churches in the South with millions of followers to small congregations pioneering new forms of religious belief and expression in obscurity.

Sociologist Robert Bellah, in his landmark 1985 book "Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life," wrote that America was a land with 260 million different religions-one for every person. Famously, he recounted the story of a young nurse named Sheila Larson, who described her faith simply as "Sheilaism." "I believe in God," she said. "I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice."

A Gallup poll at the time found that 80 percent of Americans agreed that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues."

"In American Judaism, as in American Protestantism, we're likely to see more and more movements and ways of being Jewish, not fewer," Sarna says. "That's a good thing."

Some herald the post-denominational trend as a sign that American Jews finally are beginning to look at each other and themselves as "just Jews," without the barriers, hang-ups and artifice imposed by the established movements.

"Do the modern denominations of Judaism have a metaphysical reality the way Torah does? I don't think so," Held says. "The only thing that matters is God, Torah and the Jewish people."

Staying away from denominational affiliation is also a way to enable unaffiliated Jews, who constitute the fastest-growing Jewish group in America, to feel welcome in Jewish settings. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which promotes Orthodox levels of observance but welcomes Jews who are selectively observant or not observant at all, is careful not to define itself in a denominational context.

"Chabad was and will always been non-denominational," says Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, of Chabad of Cambridge, adjacent to Harvard's campus. "We don't identify Jews based on denominations, affiliations, degrees of observance. All Jews equally belong and have an equally essential role in writing the story."

That's also the idea behind the boom in trans-denominational Jewish day schools like New Jew and JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School, which seek to preserve the variation of religiosity among their students.

"Everybody feels a part of it. There is no one voice," says Rahel Wasserfall, special projects coordinator at JCDS, in Watertown, Mass. "It's not only that it lets people be who you are; we seek having different perspectives."

Of course, there are stark differences between the philosophies of Chabad, whose ultimate goal is to bring as many Jews as possible to traditional religious observance and JCDS, which promotes the idea that there is no right or wrong way to practice Judaism. Therein lies the appeal-and difficulty-of using terms like non-denominational, trans-denominational and post-denominational: Everybody uses them differently.

At JCDS, the term of choice is "intentionally pluralistic," meaning that the school substitutes tolerance and inclusiveness for any particular dogma. That's the rule, too, at Hebrew College's rabbinical school, though the term of choice there is trans-denominational.

That means that all forms of religious expression are welcomed at the seminary-except for fundamentalist ones.

"Can a pluralist accommodate people who are non pluralist? I don't think so," says Green, the seminary's dean, explaining that students are not pluralists if they do not accept the religious legitimacy of other faiths.

This compulsory pluralist approach is apparent at the rabbinical school's twice-weekly morning prayer services, which varies in ritual according to who happens to be the chazzan that day.

"What happens depends on who is leading" the service, says Emma Kippley-Ogman, a 23-year-old student at the school. "Sometimes you'll hear a very traditional [recitation of the prayers]. Other mornings there will be more meditation woven into it. There's always a lot of song. Sometimes somebody will pull out a drum."

"It poses challenges," she says, "but it also brings people together."

Critics, however, say that such a nonjudgmental, all-inclusive approach to Judaism-Schorsch calls it "Judaism without borders"-risks being devoid of any real meaning.

"Pluralism is a very useful antidote to dogmatism and close-mindedness, but it also carries its dangers," says JTS' Held. "The danger of being non-denominational or post-denominational is that it's not always clear if you're saying anything."

Held and others draw distinctions between the post-denominationalism of enforced pluralistic institutions like Hebrew College's rabbinical school and JCDS; the trans-denominationalism of New Jew, where different forms of Judaism coexist under a single roof but are not fused; and the non-denominationalism of minyans that are somewhere on the religious spectrum between Conservative and Orthodox but either can't decide what they are or prefer not to adopt a denominational label.

Some in the Orthodox world suggest that all this talk about moving beyond denominations simply is a sign of the insignificance of the religious distinctions between all the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations-and that the rise of post-denominational Judaism has made few inroads in Orthodoxy.

There are some indications of this. Schools with enforced pluralism, like JCDS, have a dearth of Orthodox students, though that's at least partly because there are far more educational options available for Orthodox students in the Boston area than for non-Orthodox ones. And Green says there is only one student at his rabbinical school who identifies as Orthodox.

But the innovative minyans that meld tradition with egalitarianism have attracted adherents from the Orthodox world-even if centrist Orthodox institutions still regard them as being on the fringe. And these alternative minyans are spreading quickly, particularly in the Boston area, which has been a lab for innovative Orthodoxy at least since the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik founded Maimonides there as the first co-educational Orthodox school in America.

Perhaps the most salient example of trans-denominationalism's extension into Orthodoxy will be apparent later this month at the biannual conference in New York of Edah, liberal Orthodoxy's flagship organization, when many of the people behind the much-ballyhooed post-denominational minyans no doubt will be well represented.

In the trans-denominational world, Green says any salient division falls not along denominational lines, but where tolerance meets dogma. "To me, the line is not around Orthodox vs. everybody else; it's about fundamentalists vs. non-fundamentalists," he says.

Ultimately, Green's brand of Judaism-"My Judaism is eclectic and inconsistent and I'm not ashamed of that," he says-eventually may become a new American Jewish denomination, not least because it already has a rabbinical school.

"Historically, every group that has announced that it is non-denominational, post-denominational or trans-denominational ends up being just one more denomination," Sarna says.

It's not unlikely that the eventual graduates of Hebrew College's rabbinical school will one day create their own association of rabbis. Then, when an association comprised of their synagogues follows soon thereafter, what have you got?

"In America, if you have a rabbinical school and you have an association of rabbis and you have an association of synagogues, then you have a denomination-whether you call it that or not," Sarna says.

Sidebar: Pluralism in Practice