Pledging goodbye to denominational labels

The recently released Pew Research Center survey has given American Jewish leaders a whole lot of sobering statistics to reflect upon and analyze.

By YOSEF LANDA
October 27, 2013 22:04
4 minute read.
Haredim Ba'al Karham.

secular/religious Jew 370. (photo credit: Photo: Marc Israel Sellem, graphic: Mali Mizrahi)

The recently released Pew Research Center survey has given American Jewish leaders a whole lot of sobering statistics to reflect upon and analyze. True to form, in bagel shops and bridge parlors, mavens all over are wringing their hands over skyrocketing assimilation and plummeting synagogue memberships.

But there is some unmistakably good news in all of this, and that is the marked decline in denominational self-identification.

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Less and less Jews are attaching denominational labels to their Jewish identities. They view themselves simply as “Jewish.” And that is very good news.

We should break out the schnapps, wish each other l’haim and celebrate the beginning of the end of Jewish denominationalism, because this may be a large piece of the solution to the disengagement and disaffection of American Jews which has plagued us for the longest time.

Our habit of defining ourselves by denominational labels such as “Orthodox,” “Reform,” “Conservative” or anything else is most unfortunate and lamentable – as heretical as this may sound to some. It builds artificial walls between us and our fellow Jews. It erects barriers between us and the richness that we can discover in Judaism if we would only allow ourselves to freely explore it. We need to stop thinking denominations and start thinking Jewish.

This is not a new idea. And it isn’t my own. I had the privilege of listening to the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, for hundreds of hours as he delivered his public talks and discourses. I cannot recall a single instance when the Rebbe – who Menachem Begin called “the great lover of the House of Israel” – appended a modifier to the word “Jew.”

To him, the terms Reform Jew, Orthodox Jew, Conservative Jew, etc., were altogether non-existent and terribly unhelpful. There are only Jews – and we are all children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. This is a cornerstone of Chabad’s embracing philosophy.

To be clear, I am not downplaying the fact that real differences exist between the various denominations. Those are very serious, even fundamental, disagreements about core Jewish principles about God, Torah, mitzvot and so forth, and they are largely irreconcilable. I would also agree that denominational labels serve a purpose, not unlike alphabetical abbreviations, in that they allow us to use fewer words when describing our Jewish lives. But at what cost? Denominational labels stifle meaningful and substantive discourse within the Jewish community. They divide the Jewish people, they taint our conversations with partisanship, and they contribute to the unfortunate dumbing down, Jewishly speaking, of generations of young Jews.

Let’s imagine a world in which our Jewish lexicon is free of denominational labels. We would self-describe simply as Jews and do the same for our fellow Jews.

Instead of highlighting our differences, we would be emphasizing our innate kinship, our common heritage, our inextricable oneness.

Of course, we won’t be able to resist arguing with each other about all sorts of stuff, and that is okay. Discourse is healthy and necessary. But we would be arguing as brothers and sisters, not as strangers alienated by artificial partisanship.

Freed of the artificial security and restrictive borders of denominational labels, we’ll be empowered to grow in our knowledge. We’ll be open to more Jewish observance.

We might seek out adult education offerings in our communities. Perhaps (gasp!) our rabbis will be challenged to deliver more in their sermons because their congregants will be clamoring for substance rather than partisan pep talks.

Dumping the denominational lingo will also raise the level of our Jewish learning. We will ask more insightful questions and probe for more meaningful answers. Our conversations about Judaism with our families and our co-religionists will be of a deeper, broader and more open quality.

Wouldn’t that be a blessing for the Jewish people? So how do we do away with these divisive labels? Simple.

We stop using them. Let’s stop referring to our fellow Jews with contrived denominational misnomers. Regardless of how diverse we may be when it comes to “doing Jewish” or “thinking Jewish,” we are one and the same in our “being Jewish.” We are all Jews. And that is what we ought to call ourselves.

With that in mind, I would like to propose that we take the following pledge, and that we encourage others to do the same: “I PLEDGE to endeavor to identify myself and my coreligionists simply as ‘Jews,’ without appending any denominational modifiers to that noble title. I do so in recognition of our being one people united by a common heritage and mission.

I realize that old habits will likely die hard. Taking this pledge, if it accomplishes nothing else, gives expression to the oneness of the Jewish people and to our abiding belief that regardless of all that separates us, the underlying Jewishness of each of us is the same. And that is a very big deal.”

If you agree with these sentiments, then I urge you to take the pledge and help spread the word to others. Do it for the sake of Jewish unity and continuity. Do it for a more informed, engaged and inspired Jewish community.

You can take the pledge online by visiting: www.ShowMeChabad.com/pledge.

May the day come soon when we will bid goodbye and good riddance to divisive denominationalism. For once and for all, and for the good of the Jewish people. Amen.

The writer, a rabbi, is the regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis.


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