The Myth of Denominational Demise

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.

The world is filled with certainties that aren’t – like the myth that religious denominations are dead. We will eventually have three inchoate pools of people, it is said: Orthodox, “Other,” and Unaffiliated. Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than a way of life rooted in halakhic observance, community consciousness, and synagogue centrality. “Other,” presumably, will feature the very opposite, synagogues as “limited liability communities” that collect dues in exchange for rabbis on call, life-cycle ceremonies, and occasional events like High Holidays. The growth market will be “a pox on both your houses” — the unaffiliated altogether.

Evidence for this sorry denouement includes the documented decline in religious affiliation generally, the generational replacement of the baby boomers (who joined things) with their children (who don’t); economic conditions that allow little luxury for supporting synagogue movements; an internet era that provides programming for free; the declining numbers of Conservative Jews, once the majority denomination; and the stagnation of Reform Jews who maintain their numbers only because of the in-migration of Jews by choice.

So why are denominations not necessarily on their way out?

Denominational obituaries assume that organized religion in general is a thing of the past, but it is equally arguable that religion is just changing, not disappearing. Religion, as we know it, is a post-World- War-II response to the Cold War era, baby-boomer children, and suburbia. Synagogues insulated Jews against latent anti-Semitism, and provided safe spaces to rehearse ethnic identity and support of Israel. Plenty of post-war money paid denominational offices to provide the programs that a synagogue needed to ramp up and reach out.

Denominations back then had bureaucracies that churned out personnel and services; what they did not have is a clear ideological mandate to justify the personnel and services they churned out.

No one will join that kind of denomination. But denominations are what we make of them. They can define what religion is becoming not reflect what it used to be.

Precisely this ability to evolve with the times is what makes religion in America so exceptional. Indeed, one explanation for its robustness, relative to the anemic state of religion in Europe, is America’s separation of church and state, which has prevented state support and conditioned religion instead to fend for itself. Static churches, sociologists say, die out; creative ones succeed. Denominations that hunker down with old ways of thinking are indeed doomed. But denominations that think differently have a future.

This different denominational thinking must acknowledge the fact that, unlike the Cold War era, ours is a time of spiritual search. The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member. And who needs denominations just for that?

But assume our synagogues respond to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves. Assume they deliver purpose, meaning, and a reason to be alive. Assume further that they ritualize these higher human goals by connecting people to each other, to their past, and to God. Assume also the existence of rabbis who have something deep to say – rabbis, that is, whose intellectual acumen is equal to whatever society offers elsewhere at its thoughtful best. Assume, in a word, that synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter.

Suppose all this, and you get synagogues that need denominations.

A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas. Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere. Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.

I write this after attending the latest biennial of the Reform Movement, which certainly didn’t look dead or dying. It reaffirmed its commitment to the marriage of modernity and tradition; the courage to take moral stands; an inclusive vision for Jewish Peoplehood; and a compelling portrait of Judaism at its moral and spiritual best. It was religion as it just might be, religion that only denominational greatness can provide.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D. is the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at HUC-JIR in NY. His most recent book is 100 Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation (Bluebridge Press).

This post was originally published on Dr. Hoffman’s blog, Life and a Little Liturgy.

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10 Responses to “The Myth of Denominational Demise”

  1. avatar

    When denominations “galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere,” they justify their existence — and our need for them, as Jewish individuals and congregations.

    But when we tax ourselves for the maintenance of duplicating support centers offering the same kind of advice and services (e.g., fund-raising, financial management, school administration), we limit our own ability to sustain the distinctive voice that is the justification for denominations. \

    And even more serious, if we fail to make our voices distinctive, we erode our ability to be heard.

    While I applaud Rabbi Hoffman’s optimism for the Reform movement, it needs to be tempered with the pragmatics that can emerge from more inter-denominational collaboration so that we do only once the things that we share with the other non-separatist movements, and conserve our denominational resources for those things that make us unique.

  2. avatar

    “The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member.”

    This is the problem with too many synagogues, run by lay leadership with “business experience” (whatever that means) that don’t appreciate that it is not about fee for service. They worry about “competition” and how to make money offering life cycle events and high holidays. To them it is all about finances, membership, dues, marketing, etc.

    What I want to see is leadership that understands that synagogues are not businesses. I want to see, as Rabbi Hoffman says, synagogues responding “to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves”. Our strategic plans should reflect this rather than focusing on material growth and the nuts and bolts on how to achieve that.

    Our leadership must be better connected to our denomination so that our denomination can, in turn, benefit from strong synagogues. Only then can “synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter”.

  3. avatar

    As I noted in response to this blog on “Life and a Little Liturgy,” I am concerned to see “Orthodoxy” set up as a straw-man in opposition to a strange conflation of Reform and denominations (plural). This inaccurately portrays Orthodoxy as a monolith without its own struggles around authenticity or modernity. And it seems to assume that Reform is the only “marriage of modernity and tradition” in town.

    And I think that, despite intentions, the post is actually arguing for a sort of post-denominational “liberal Judaism.”

    I think Reform needs to EITHER articulate what distinguishes Reform from other forms of modern Judaism OR join with others — Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, non-denominational, independent — in that “Liberal Judaism.”

    I’d love to see a broad coalition of Jews insist in a clear and text based way that egalitarianism — to take the most important example today, I think — has equal weight to other aspects of Jewish law. Would be great for Reform Jews to join, but would not define Reform Judaism.

  4. avatar

    “Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than…”

    Orthodoxy never was a movement or a denomination. The 19th century Reformers gave this name to halachically observant Jews; both to differentiate themselves, and to perpetuate the myth that the being “a German on the street, and a Jew at home” was somehow on par with observance of Jewish law.

    The Reformers won that battle, and observant Jews are stuck with the title “Orthodox”. (Most notably, the Orthodox Union, which does not claim to represent all so-called “Orthodox” Jews)

    I agree with the rest of what Rabbi Hoffman wrote. I hope that the “reforms” suggested by Rabbi Hoffman will be put into practice.

  5. avatar

    I have responded to many of these comments in mt newest post, “Denominations: The Final, Moral, Test” I add the moral argument, the most important, actually. See my blog “Life and a Little Liturgy” —

  6. avatar

    Kindly visit a Chabad house…. you will see that they dont really bother with such matters llc etc. The Chabad Rebbe said all Jews are welcome and we should STOP labeling each other and dividing. This is the reason the second temple was destroyed…. There is NO fee or membership dues…each person gives what they will… Chabad shlicus families LIVE for the TORAH and MITZVOS….I used to be secular/reform thinking religious frum jews were odd balls stuck in the old days….Man I was wrong…. Thats why they are growing and there are Chabad houses in every country (except arabia and other hateful intolerant countries) Right across from the Kremlin is a Chabad! I think they are the best system to prevent jews from driving their volkswagens on shabbos to get a cheese burger syndrome…lol. I never realized how intense the Talmud was… please all of you study at least Pirke Avoth (ethics of ou fathers) also please stop going to ha’aretz and disturbing observant jews…you are wrong!

    • Kate Bigam

      Hi, James. Thanks for stopping by. While you are certainly entitled to your opinions, I’d like to offer a reminder that is a Reform blog that nevertheless offers hospitality to viewpoints from other sectors. We request and hope that such viewpoints will be respectful, as well as civilly stated and intelligently reasoned.

    • avatar

      James, while the Chabad Rebbe said all Jews are welcome, he didn’t really mean it. He only welcomed female Jews to a limited range of Jewish activities; and he only considered as Jews those born of Jewish mothers or “properly” converted. And his idea of a proper conversion would have included an approved Orthodox beit din being paid to oversee the procedure.

      Having said that, I believe that we in the Reform movement have two important things in common with Chabad. One, we worship the same God and hold sacred the same texts; and two, we welcome Jews wherever they are on the observance spectrum. To Chabad’s credit, they are aggressive at trying to move people farther along on the observance spectrum towards the fulfillment of more ritual mitzvot. As was vividly and very publicly demonstrated in Postville, Chabadniks are seemingly much less concerned about the ethical mitzvot.

      Given that you entered this discussion about denominations, you should be aware that the Reform movement respects all denominations, while recognizing that not all Jews are going to be inspired by the same kind of denominational offerings. This contrasts with the well-known statement by the late ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Schoch, who taught his followers they should be tolerant of Chabad, because it is the closest religion to Judaism.

  7. avatar

    Either a Jew believes HaShem gave Moshe the Torah at Har Sinai and it is divine respecting all laws within as such or he or she is secular….to imply that HaShem was wrong or changed his mind or the Torah was written by Bedouins is undermines Judaism….however admitting that I believe G-d wrote the Torah but I cannot be observant at this time is a more honest approch and gives respect to our brothers and sisters that do maintain halakic laws rather than denounce. them .We need to all stick together not divide thst is the Lubavitch Rebbes mission….thats why they are growing all over the world…Shalom

  8. avatar

    Ps please explain to me and all other Jews what rabbi Rubashkin in Pottsville,Iowa was guilty of? The ACLU now admits it is one of the most illegal and antisemetic cases since the Dreyfuss affair…in fact the judge participated in the investigation.I came here to talk to and hopefully unite fellow Jews not endorse any particular shul….but this Comment about Chabadniks and Postville is terribly wrong…I implore any fellow Jew to investigate for themselves this terrible injustice….this human being is sentenced to 27yrs for a false accounting entry! All his debtors were paid…I met his children! How could any fellow Jew participate in spreading lies about this man? Thousands of mortgage brokers did far worse years ago…falsified documents destroying our economy…no prosecuted(check out washington mutual )yet only a Jew is singled out….sorry didnt mean to insult only unite…..Shalom Yaakov

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