On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

The Value of Denominations in Judaism

/ 15 Elul 5771

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Almost every time I speak at a synagogue or other venue about Conservative Judaism, someone asks why we need multiple Jewish denominations. We Jews are so few, the argument goes; resources are scarce. Why should our community weaken itself further by dividing into competing religious movements? Shouldn’t we, at long last, try to unite? Why can’t we just be—Jews?

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Julie SchonfeldJulie Schonfeld

“Is Conservative Judaism to remain a denomination struggling to retain its identity and regain its footing or can it summon the assets and resources of its historic structures to bring forth an inspiring, ascendant religious Movement?”Read More

Adam RoffmanAdam Roffman

“I applaud the chancellor for his very brave statement that he is a Conservative Jew because he “believe[s] strongly that our kind of Judaism more than any other gets the Torah right.” At the same time, I believe he hints at another important principle: Jews should choose their denominational affiliation based on what they actually believe to be the truth about the nature of Jewish religious practice, the authority of Jewish texts, and the type of worship they find most effective and
authentic.” Read More

The question is a very good one, I think, and the answer begins with history: the fact that there never has been complete Jewish unity or anything like it, for reasons built into the “DNA” of our tradition. The Sinai Covenant demands that Jews apply the Torah’s teachings in the real world. In order to accomplish that purpose, the Commandments have had to be interpreted, reinterpreted, and adapted to changing circumstances. Jewish minds, experience, and learning have been brought to bear on that task over many centuries. A significant measure of disagreement was inevitable.

Geographic dispersion, too, worked against homogeneity and in favor of difference. Jews have taught and practiced Torah in diverse conditions, languages, cultures, societies, and political orders. Total uniformity would have ensured our downfall. So would the absence of laws, customs, and beliefs common to all Jews no matter where they lived. Judaism survived and thrived thanks to an elaborate balance of unity and diversity. That is still the case in our day.

Modernity added two further sources of division to this mix: the freedom to opt into or out of the Jewish community and Judaism, and the ability of Jewish groups, or even individuals, to define the tradition as they please. To my mind, the many issues that have divided Jews over the past three centuries—and which resulted in the labels Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and secular—come down in the end to two overarching disagreements: What are Jews commanded to do and believe? And who has the right to decide? (Or, if you prefer: What is a Jew? Who is a rabbi?)

The lesson that I draw from this age-old Jewish story of unity and diversity is twofold.

First: Denominations are worth preserving, indeed are essential to Jewish passion and commitment. One cannot practice Judaism in the abstract. Lowest-common-denominator religion does not work. I am a Conservative Jew because I believe strongly that our kind of Judaism more than any other gets the Torah right. The essays in this blog series explain why. Jews of other movements, I know, feel similarly about their commitments.

Second: A lot of what Jews currently do separately could be done together just as well or even better. We need not study, teach, train leaders, or work to fix the world only as Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox Jews. It is a good thing that movement boundaries shift and blur over time. At this point in our history, especially in North America, Conservative Jews should work both to strengthen our own movement and to build a coalition that I call the “vital religious center.” Both projects will help to preserve Judaism and serve the needs of kelal Yisra’el.

Why do we need denominations? Because substantial differences among Jews, for all the hurt and damage they engender, are not only inevitable but, on balance, essential to the survival of our tradition. The Torah opens opportunities to Jews and makes demands upon Jews that shape the ways we think, eat, celebrate, mourn, raise our kids, treat our spouses, do business, stand before God, and work to repair the world. It matters greatly how these gifts and responsibilities are pursued. Will women be fully a part of Jewish learning, practice, and leadership? Will Hebrew, Shabbat, and kashrut be central pillars? Will Jews stand simultaneously apart from and as an integral part of the larger society and culture? Will we take on the discipline of ritual practice—and insist that it remain inseparable from an ethical practice of individual virtue and social justice? These and other dividing lines among our movements are not trivial. Compromise concerning them is not always possible. One cannot be all things to all people if one wants to be a Jew.

Why work for greater unity? As a Conservative Jew, I am an avowed pluralist. I know there are valid ways other than mine to serve God and Torah faithfully. I often find myself, as a result of that conviction, giving respect to Jews who will not extend it to me in return. “These and these are the words of the living God.” “All Jews are responsible for one another.” The interests of our community at this moment, in Israel as in North America, demand that Jews act on these two principles more devotedly than we have in recent centuries. We need to find our way to a degree of cooperation that has thus far eluded modern Jews. For all that I believe in the necessity of multiple paths, and believe passionately in the essential rightness of the Conservative path, I am convinced that the “default position” among Jews right now should be partnership. It no longer makes sense to do most things on parallel tracks, duplicating efforts and squandering resources.

That is particularly true, I think, at the ideological and behavioral center of Jewish life, where serious Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Jews more and more share vocabulary, learning, sensibility, and even practice. I also include in this group Jews who call themselves “nonreligious” but undertake significant responsibilities to the Jewish community and see themselves bound to Jewish history, Jewish ethics, and the Jewish people. Avowedly postdenominational groups that are egalitarian and traditional—a pattern that looks a lot like Conservative Judaism—fit squarely into the vital religious center as well. The members of this overarching group have a lot to say to one another, and all could benefit from a heightened degree of cooperation.

But that is also true of the Jewish community as a whole, which in my view benefits enormously from the diverse strengths and passions that varying denominations bring to our people and our tradition, and also benefits when work for Federation, social justice, environment, Israel, the arts, and many other causes crosses denominational boundaries. I hope Conservative Jews will join me in coming months in doing all we can to continue the revitalization of our synagogues, schools, and other institutions. I hope all Jews will take the trouble in 5772 to speak and listen to every Jew addressed by the Covenant we share, reaching out to every Jew who calls the tradition home.

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  1. Michael Epstein says:

    I am concerned that a lack of clear statement about what makes a Jew a conservative Jew is partially the reason for the sense that we lack clarity. As a member of a conservative congregation that has seen 3 rabbis over the past 5 years, I have seen the service change drastically with each new Rabbi. I find ways to adapt as each Rabbi brings something special and meaningful to our congregation and also understand how an outsider might see this as lack of respect for tradition. It is virtually an impossible task to balance the need for meaningful modification and the fundamental (pun intended) desire to maintain tradition.

  2. rob says:

    We have numerous conservative shuls in town. Each is a bit different. Is that wasting our resources? The families in our congregation each practice their faith differently–some would fit just as well in an Orthodox shul and some in a reform. Does that specrum enrich us or is it an issue. In short, I do not share this articles initial premise that the multiple denominations are that important except where we are not tolerant and appreciative of our differences.

  3. Mhollander says:

    Inclusive, well thought through, and I couldn’t agree more. If we could pull this off Meshiach is around the corner! Thank you for your wisdom, and beautiful insights!! Yesher Koach!!!

  4. Msb12 says:

    When the Chancellor speaks of “the Covenant we share” with a capital C, he contradicts much of his argument in favor of pluralism.  If Am Segula and Torah law are foundational, then much of progressive Judaism falls outside the boundaries.  Its not lowest common denominator Judaism that’s the problem – people need to start climbing the mountain where they are -, its anything goes, pick only what’s meaningful to me Judaism that provides the biggest threat to the Jewish future.

  5. I wonder if there is an analogy around questions of state versus private funding.
    I want there to be safe roads to be everywhere for when I travel anywhere.
    But I don’t want have to pay per mile every time I get in the car and I want roads in areas where no private road builder would want to invest in building roads.
    I want there to be a hospital with well trained medical staff for when I get ill.
    But I don’t want to have to get my wallet out as I lie on a hospital stretcher.
    I want properly trained teachers with recognised qualifications in the schools where I send my kids.
    But I don’t want to have to school inspections myself. I don’t have the expertise or the time.
    I depute these tasks to the State (OK, the British State where we have a National Health Service) and pay my taxes, despite the sense that there might be creeping inefficiencies and despite the fact that I might wish, at point of need, a different road plan or hospital design or educational oversight.
    I commit to the larger, more ponderous, less perfectly attuned to my own desires, organisation because I want there to be a structure there and waiting for me and my needs when I am ready. It’s not a plea for communism, but an argument for the State to work out what we as a nation need that private organisations can’t or won’t provide well. And I feel the same things about Movements and denominations.
    It’s easy to find a freelancing post-denominational Rabbi to do a one-off pre-planned special; a marriage, a Yom Kippur service etc. – easy in, easy out. But I am prepared to commit to Synagogue community so there is something there for ‘the other 51 weeks,’ if I need it – or if another member of the community I join might need it. I also commit to a denomination – a Movement – to do the things no single Synagogue community can provide; a Bet Din, training for the future and a Youth Movement where kids from my community can join with others. I expect denominational leadership to keep an eye out for challenges and opportunities down-stream, beyond my ability to see past my own immediate needs.
    It’s always going to be cheaper and more immediately gratifying to serve my own interests with a non-denominational, non-community based Jewish identity. Committing to a denomination and a Movement is always going to take more commitment and more of a willingness to engage beyond self-gratification. But commitment and a willingness to suspend selfish desires are the mark of maturity, Hesed and courage. That’s why I’m a proudly denominational Jew.

    I’m delighted for Orthodox Jews to commit to Orthodoxy and Reform Jews to commit to Reform, I don’t even begrudge the emergence of affiliated networks of ‘unaffiliated’ minyanim, I just think we should all be committed to a bigger communal vision than our own.

  6. D_w_hand says:

    When I speak to my Orthodox friends, I am disturbed by the increasingly frequent observation that the only Jews are Orthodox Jews.   Said another way, Reform and Conservative Judiasm is an oxymoron to the Orthodox.   I like & agree with your essay, but this point of view is meaningless to the Orthodox.

  7. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg says:

    Thank you, I find these arguments very helpful, balancing thoughtfully our passion for our own denomination with a strong value on working together across the whoel community

    Jonathan Wittenberg

  8. Anonymous says:

    I was wondering if anyone has ever done a comprehensive study on why people chose to be a member of a particular synagogue?  I know that I joined my synagogue because that is where my parents belonged.  They joined because after they moved to the suburbs, not out of any deep commitment to the Conservative Movement, but because my mother wanted to sit with my father and this synagogue service was more like the Orthodox services my father knew as a child than the other Conservative congregations in the area.  I know people who grew up in a Conservative congregation, but joined an Orthodox or Reform one, not because of any change in observance, but because that is where the spouse’s family belonged.  I have family, friends and acquaintances all across the spectrum from Reform to Ultra Orthodox, and we respect each others’ traditions.  People have different reasons for belonging where they belong and observing how they observe, even within the same Movement. 

    From what I have read about the Conservative Movement, it was born out of a desire to conserve much out of traditional practice while responding to the needs of modernity.  The impetus for change appears to be an effort to attract young people and families.  The leaders of Conservative Movement now have to determine how to change the balance between tradition and modern concerns to attract new members without alienating those they already have.
    I do not envy them.

  9. Brian McNary / Sadeh Avraham says:

    Chancellor Eisen,

    As good natured as your essay was, if the Conservative movement wants to stay relevant, it needs to stop living in denial.

    If these new “traditional egalitarian post-denominational” synagogues wanted to be part of the Conservative movement, they would be. They aren’t, and they consciously aren’t.  

    And, despite you insisting the Conservative movement is the center of Judaism, these post-denominational synagogues are now, in fact, the center.  They are not following you.  You are following them.

    And you aren’t alone.  Institutionalized Reform, and even parts of Orthodoxy, are bending their party lines to try and accommodate these groups.

    And, at present, all three movements are failing to impress the heartbeat of American Judaism.

    Want to know why?  It might not be the easiest thing for you to read, but you should read it.

    Because the coming generation, living in urban centers that are breaking before their eyes, cannot afford Rabbi’s that cost 50K a year, and five years to train, in the most luxurious city on earth, in some of the most luxurious institutions on earth, so that they can serve in largely luxurious Synagogues built during luxurious times in the some of the most luxurious neighborhoods on earth.

    Now, I know that no one wants to hear that in the Conservative movement.  Nobody wants to accept how serious the problem actually is on both a spiritual and physical level.

    But, then again, hear the echoes in the Shuls.  Not many Jews care to hear what the Conservative movement has to say anymore either. 

    Jews who care about the environment don’t want to hear about the third flight to Israel their Rabbi has taken in the past 2 years, or the annual tourist trip the Shul makes to the Dead Sea, as if flying across the world is a totally normal occurrence.  They don’t want to hear about the 1.5 million dollar heating bill the Shul racked up (ask Rabbi Chernick of the USCJ about that one…).  

    Jews who care about social justice don’t want to pray in lavish synagogues with high vaulted ceilings, arks covered with gold, seats covered with velvet.  They don’t want to hear a Rabbi do a Dvar Torah about social justice while wearing a 500 dollar suit made in Bangladesh.

    Nor do they need to in order to learn about the tradition.  This coming generation has no problem with Kashrut.  We have no problem with Hebrew as our central liturgy.  We know Shabbat keeps us more than we keep it.  And virtually every Jew now has access to Jewish education that no generation before us could have ever dreamed about. 

    And, because of that, Rabbi’s are quickly becoming what they once were- teachers who earn that name by teaching in their local communities, as opposed to being granted a degree from institutions that are virtually indistinguishable from elite secular America universities.

    And thank God, because we need that desperately right now.  We don’t need any more career Rabbi’s.  We need Rabbi’s like those in the Talmud- shoemakers, tradesmen, farmers.  People who spend their morning in prayer, their day in worldly labour, and their night in Torah.

    We need the Professors and Rabbi’s of JTS and HUC to put ALL of their courses online, so that they can transfer to the coming generation the full extent of their knowledge as opposed to the full extent of their school debt.

    We need to put our money where our mouth is and realize that 50K a year for a Rabbi could probably keep 5 thousand starving kids alive in Africa.  That’s maybe 50,000 kids per Rabbinical School class, per year.  A couple hundred thousand for  a single Rabbinical degree could probably give a couple hundred thousand vaccinations to the most vulnerable people on earth.

    But we don’t want to hear that, because the truth is too terrible.

    But here is the question I am asking, Chancellor.

    Why should the Jewish community support Conservative Rabbi’s that cost 200 thousand bucks to train rather than send that 200 thousand bucks into the mouths of starving kids in Africa?  How on earth can you ask a Conservative Jew, or any Jew, to justify that cost for Jewish education?

    I have the same question for the Reform movement.

    This is serious stuff, and my generation is not kidding around.  You speak of Shabbat, Kashrut, Hebrew?  We disgrace those pillars of Judaism if we are practice them in luxury while people starve.  You know it, I know, and the prophets knew it.  And you know what the prophets predicted if we didn’t change our ways.  And we need to, now.

    Step up, I am begging you, and take the actions necessary for this generation of Jews to truly be a light unto the nations.  

  10. Shai Ha-El says:

    Dear Dr. Eisen,
    I would love to see all of us working for greater unity and become the “golden Menorah” of the Bible, as an analogy of the Jewish people. To our great dismay, however, this Menorah is now broken. Not only that it is not made of “one mold”, its seven lamps – representing the different streams of Judaism – that do not talk to each other, or more correctly they dislike each other. The Menorah that was intended to illuminate the world, it causes more confusion instead.
    Affected by excessive materialism, individualism, cynicism and many other “isms” of the larger society, statistics have shown that most Jews of America and the rest of the world have been distancing themselves from Judaism. Assimilation has become a major plague, a holocaust of tragic proportions. The synagogue has definitely not been the answer failing to attract contemporary Jews, particularly the new generation. The severely fractured Menorah with its competing denominations has failed its mission.
    Yes, it is crucial to preserve some kind of integration in the religious experience and give a greater emphasis to the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael, loving our fellow Jews. To counter the growing tribalism within our midst, we need to find the unifying core within us and keep the tribes of Yisrael together. We must create unity (achdut), even if uniformity (achidut) is absent, so that we all stand together as we stood at Sinai a long time ago.
    I don’t see how the Jewish community as a whole can “benefit enormously from the diverse strengths and passions that varying denominations bring to our people and our tradition” (your words), unless the relationship between the various denominations is healed. The current inter-denominational model has not only been working; it has, in fact, had a damaging affect on the survival of the Jewish people as a whole.
    Perhaps, we need to create trans-denominational structures, where Jews are socially connected and emotionally identified with the Jewish people as a whole; where concrete attempts would be made to first build bridges of understanding and tolerance between the different streams of Judaism.
    Dr. Shai Har-El

  11. ross hare says:

    As I see it when the times become radicalized the center cannot hold. The economic and political crises the world is facing –families are facing– are reflected in denominational debate–notice I didn’t say discourse.. . Moderate and thoughtful voices are shouted down … I believe in the Conservative movement but I don’t see a good future at present… It seems even the Conservative rabbis look to orthodoxy as being…well… orthodox i.e. correct…

  12. Mark Hammond says:

    Nice points, only thing I would argue against is

    “Geographic dispersion, too, worked against homogeneity and in favor of difference.”

    I think it works *for* homogeneity, for evidence of that just see mass migration in the past 30 or so years. Segrated communities which were once isolated have integrated and absorbed surrounding flora.

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