“Denominations” Fail to Give an Accurate Idea of Jewish Life
May 2, 1976
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
There have been times in American history when one could identify a particular political party with a clearly defined ideology; A Federalist was committed to a strong, centralized, national government while an anti-Federalist preferred that more power reside in the State. Now, however, one finds in both major political parties numerous conservatives and liberals, backers of big government and little government, foes and friends of labor, and proponents of virtually every political ideal and program.
Alas, this lack of ideological clarity is almost as characteristic of the so called denominations in Judaism. The terms “Orthodox, “Conservative,” and “Reform,” are descriptive of very little. In each grouping there are many points of view on Jewish faith and practice and in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to embrace in any one organization the exponents of the very divergent philosophies.
Orthodoxy never had, and perhaps never will have, one umbrella group. Among Conservatives, the Reconstructionists never felt comfortable in their Rabbinical Assembly, and now that body is facing a schism on the question of the role of women in the synagogue.
The Reform group, which once split on the issue of Zionism, now contains within its ranks an organized group of dissidents who take a more conciliatory position on intermarriage. In all the groups the attitudes toward Halacha and conceptions of a personal God range from thesis to antithesis. So extensive is the diversity!
And how does one classify or describe the millions of Jews who are members of none of the three organized groupings? Are all of them secularists? I am not so sure. Many of them believe in God but in none of His American “prophets.” Moreover, even Jewish secularists are not all of the same cloth. Should one not reckon with their different ideologies?
Just for the fun of it I sat down one day and tried to state how I would classify Jews according to their beliefs and not according to their memberships, according to their ideology and not according to the institutional apparatus which dominates the American scene. I submit my classification for the benefit especially of those who are interested in making surveys on Jewish identity and commitment.
The following is how I would group our people:
A. Jews who believe that as a people we have a special relationship with God Who revealed His will to us in the Written and Oral Law. These also believe that that will has been correctly transmitted to us by the sages of the mainstream of Jewish thought.
B. There are also Jews who accept what Group A accepts but hold that in the process of transmittal there was vouchsafed a large area in which there always was, and can still be, creativity on the part of man and they want to exercise that creativity, cautiously but consciously.
C. There are those who hold to the special relationship which Jews as a people have with God, and also believe that God revealed His will unto us, but they have strong reservations whether Jews always correctly recorded that will or properly understood it. Thus they try to revise the record or their comprehension of Revelation.
D. Then there are those who believe that we are a unique people with a unique message for all mankind but that that uniqueness is the product of history rather than any special covenant with God.
E. Without committing themselves to any notions of uniqueness there are Jews who simply cherish Jewish values and the forms in which these values were transmitted. In their eyes only the forms are unique, not the values themselves.
F. Many of our people have no feeling for Judaism at all but do sense a gut identity with their brethren. They cannot explain it or justify it. It is simply there, and it is valid because it is natural.
G. Lastly there are those who are with us simply because they are ashamed to quit us or abandon us to our fate.
Needless to say, I am not so naive as to believe that my seven groups are exhaustive of all the available nuances of belief and thought that are available. Nor would I be so stupid as to recommend the organization of seven groups, each with its explicit ideology. However, I engaged in the exercise only to suggest to my coreligionists that they first try to identify which statement most accurately reflects their point of view. Then when they approach another Jew it should not be with the altogether simplistic avowal,
“I am Orthodox,” or “I am Conservative,” or I am ‘’Reform,” but rather “I believe that….” Then the dialogue or discussion might make sense. It will make for a clearer understanding of what one’s position is on any issue of Jewish faith or practice.
And Jews owe it to themselves to know where they stand. It ill behooves such an educated group and Jews generally are well-educated to be so confused as to where they stand Jewishly . “Know thyself” is still sound counsel for all of us.