7 Post-Denominational Opportunities: It’s About Attitude, Not Structure

[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

Trans-denominationalism and post-de-nominationalism are great words. They sound big and important. “We are entering a new post-denominational age,” the Jewish pundits declare. Often this declaration is meant to scare people. We are entering uncharted water; the great Jewish institutions of the 20th Century are crumbling. We don’t know where we are headed. Ahh! Watch out!

Okay, reality check: we have been here before. We are masters at navigating change. The Twelve Tribes of Israel become two Kingdoms, North and South. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and countless other sects morphed into Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism survived the Exile, creating Babylonian and Yerushalmi centers of learning. Schools of Hillel and Shammai argued with each other for generations and then eventually gave way to new schools of thought. We are an ever-changing and growing people. No doubt that each of these historical transformations resulted in some loss, but it also helped us hone the skill that would carry us from era to era: resilience. Our resilience lies in the fact that we take the best of what has come before and build on that to respond to the needs of new generations.

In fact, that is how the denominational structure came to be in the first place. The three major Jewish denominations were created in response to the needs of Jewish immigrants to America struggling to make sense of a new world and their place in it. Jews could affiliate with whichever movement most closely mirrored their personal practices and beliefs: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and the variations on those themes (Renewal, Ultra-Orthodox and Modern-Orthodox). There was enough of a range to choose from. The Jewish denominational model flourished in a society in which the largely Protestant Christian population also divided itself into various denominations among traditionalist and liberal lines.

These divisions no longer serve the needs of a growing group of Jews. We are not an immigrant population anymore, but a highly acculturated, cosmopolitan and successful group within the larger American scene. Our religious leaders will best be able to serve us when they understand the context individual Jews and Jewish communities operate in today and focus on the best of what Jewish wisdom has to offer to help us flourish in this time.

Leading a community during a transition is not easy, and there is not one blueprint for doing so. At Rabbis Without Borders, a program of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, we have developed several methodologies to help rabbis navigate the changing religious and cultural atmosphere. There are three key traits we believe rabbis and other Jewish leaders need to cultivate to lead us into the next phase of Judaism: pluralism, meaning-making and a positive outlook.

Pluralism is crucial to adapting to a changing denominational structure. The Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship, our signature program, brings together a group of about 20 rabbis a year. They span the denominational and post-denominational spectrum. They represent different geographic areas, ages and kinds of rabbinates. They learn together and challenge each other’s preconceived notions about who they are. They learn to cultivate curiosity and to leave their assumptions at the door. They grow to appreciate that rabbis who are “Reform” or “Orthodox” don’t fit neatly into the boxes these labels represent. Within our midst we have an Orthodox rabbi who is bringing together Jewish settlers and Palestinians to forge relationships and work towards peace. We have several Reform rabbis who identify as Republican, and self-identified feminist rabbis who observe the family purity laws.

We are all human and have multiple valances. Rabbis mirror communities. None of us is easily labeled. All of us have some kind of hyphenated identities. We learn to accept people whoever and wherever they are on the spectrum of Jewish life. This is an incredibly useful skill when rabbis are encountering an increasingly larger range of people in their communities. It allows for an expanded definition of what a Jewish community is and allows a community in transition to be more fluid, able to change, grow and transform while serving the needs of its members.

Serving the real needs of people is hugely important at this time. To quote my colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula, “What is the job that Judaism needs to get done?” For years the Jewish community has focused on giving people a “Jewish identity.” Focusing on giving people a Jewish identity per se is not the issue. We need to give meaning to people’s Jewish identities. At Rabbis Without Borders, we teach rabbis to do what generations of rabbis in the past have done: look at the context in which we are living, delve into our tradition and uplift the wisdom and practices that speak to people’s lives. As institutions and structures fall away, we need to ask why Shabbat practices, for instance, are meaningful today. How can we teach about the concepts of rest and rejuvenation in a 24/7 society? What value is there in a family committing to gathering once a week for dinner together? What meaning is there in placing our hands on our children’s heads and blessing them once a week? These questions are human questions. They speak to human needs and are not hampered by denominational divisions.

We cultivate a culture of “Yes.” We encourage our rabbis to read context generously. Often as rabbis and as humans, when we hear about something different from us, from our practice or from how we understand something, our knee-jerk reaction is to say “No.” No, we can’t do that. No, it is not done that way. No, they can’t join us if they are like that. Think about the opportunities that present themselves when we don’t give an automatic “No,” especially when, for example, we look at the diverse beliefs and backgrounds of people who are part of Jewish families. If we pause, ask questions, ask why people are doing something differently, it gives us an opportunity to learn about them, to create a relationship and to find out what need we might help them meet.

For too long, the Jewish community has been obsessed with defining people as being “in” or “out” of the community. We label people as “core,” “marginal” or “intermarried.” Like denominational labels, these too are changing. People define themselves. For the first time in Jewish history, people actually want to attach themselves to the Jewish people and see Jews positively. This is unnerving for a community that has been persecuted for generations. We are not used to non-Jewish relatives and others wanting to see themselves as part of our community. Instead of saying no to them, let’s take this moment to explore what Judaism has to offer them as well.

Challenging our borders, though, is not the same as eliminating them. Every individual has borders and every community has borders. But in this time of transition, I believe we should explore these borders, understand why they are there and ask what purpose they serve. This applies no matter where one is on the spectrum.

We also need to let go of the idea that Jews are the ever-dying people. We are not dying. We are uniquely adept at transforming ourselves to meet the needs of the current generation. Yes, there is loss during times of transformation, but we remain resilient. The loss of a particular institution does not mean that Judaism itself is dying out.

If rabbis and other Jewish leaders can cultivate pluralism, meaning-making and a positive, open outlook, we will be well situated to move in to a post-denominational or trans-denominational age. I look forward to seeing what the future holds.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.