Inadequate Denominations

I’ve been arguing for a while, on-blog and in real life, that denominations are political conveniences and not ideologies. I think that Dov Bear’s question about the razor-thin line between Orthodoxy and Conservatism, as well as his observation (which is only impressive to someone who lives in a community like Woodmere; for us ‘out-of-towners’ it’s obvious) regarding the difficulty in drawing clear boundaries, fundamentally misunderstands the nature and function of denominating in the first place. It’s politically convenient for a synagogue in Boise, Idaho to align itself with a national organization that can help provide it with material and human resources. Thus, it will choose one of the ‘Big Three’ national organizations: OU, US, or UAHC. Of course, a UAHC Temple in Boise might look nothing like the one in, say, Tallahassee, religiously or socially, they are both, officially, ‘Reform’. The same applies to any of the other three. Of course, there are evolving standards. A Mechitza wasn’t always a sine qua non for membership in the OU, but it is now.

[There are a few ‘traditional’ congregations left, where there’s no mechitza, very few members are observant, but they insist on things like an Orthodox Rabbi whose job it is to make ‘ha-motzi’ at sisterhood functions. The only elements of tradition that it adheres to are those which keep the people unempowered. Let’s call it ‘Misogydoxy’ or ‘Ignoramodoxy’].

The main point is, that having denominations are a political necessity, which provide a great boon to those who want to slide comfortably into religious roles. “I don’t do that; I’m Reform”, or “I’m not Shomer Negi’ah, I’m Modern Orthodox”, etc. Once I label myself, I can basically continue to act out of habit, but the habit now has a name and, ostensibly, and ideology that someone, somewhere has articulated.

It can become pretty unsettling when those comfortable labels continue to evolve. I’ll repeat that in case you missed it: the labels evolve. What one meant by ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative’ 50 years ago isn’t what one means by their use today. The social group that calls itself ‘Orthodox’ has evolved, and the connotation of the term has evolved accordingly.

Of course, there are members of any group who cease to evolve. These are the people who scream about ‘YU moving to the right’. To the right of what? Are they making up new halakhot? Are today's Roshei Yeshiva articulating a philosophy that’s radically different from or to the right of the philosophy of, say, R’ Dovid Lifschitz or R’ Yerucham Gorelick?

No. The Modern Orthodox community has evolved. Some of its members haven’t. They respond by trying to invent time-warps where we can all go back to the 50s or by creating brand-new categories like ‘Open Orthodoxy’ so that they can continue to feel comfortable within a label.

Ultimately, though, denominations aren’t religious categories. It’s not that there aren’t religious differences between the denominations, rather, that identification with one or the other particular denomination isn’t a religious choice, rather, a political choice. When discussing the religious possibilities, there are many more than 3 or 4 alternatives. There are thousands, perhaps even 600,000, alternatives. We’d do well not to confuse political and social differences with genuine religious differences.

I’ll end with a line from Zalman Shazar’s memoirs, quoted by Levinas on p. 149 of In Time of Nations, discussing the categories of ‘assimilationism’ versus ‘nationalism’, a conflict which was plaguing the contemporaries of his youth:

“I remember a private conversation in which the baron [David Gunzberg] tried to convince be that the concepts “nationalism” and “assimilation”, which I used in speaking to my comrades, were “inadequate”…he produced the absolute, irrefutable argument: Maimonides! How could I define Maimonides, using the concepts I thought so solid? Would I say that Maimonides was a national thinker? But didn’t he live on the summits of world thinking in his time, his mind full of Greek wisdom, the friend of the princes of thought not from our land, writing his books in Arabic,…persecuted thereafter by the “faithful keepers of the walls” among our people? But…who summarized and organized the Halakhah for his and all future generations? Who formulated the principles of the Jewish credo…?

“It must therefore be recognized that the notions “national” and “assimilated”, so familiar to myself and my generation, do not express the complexity of the real, and are not suitable to their object.”

This should be required reading to anyone who would try to label RYBS as ‘Modern’ or “Ultra” Orthodox, RSL or RDW-H as ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative’, or to cut F. Rosenzweig, Heschel, or Levinas himself down to size.

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