In the midst of the various “Occupy” movements that emerge and disappear even more rapidly than Shabbatot in the winter, I tend to wonder if we as a global Jewish community are speaking as loudly and defiantly as we think we are.
Younger generations of Jews are propelling a “post-denominational” identity as a statement against organized religious denominations, synagogue obligations, and membership dues. They seek what Rabbi Elie Kaunfer calls “Empowered Judaism,” or the idea that they can create and strengthen a communal, meaningful, and sacred space bereft of any formidable membership related obligations. This movement of young Jewish independent thinkers intimidates their parents, grandparents, rabbis, and ritual committee chairs across the country that are rooted in the traditions and comforts of a formal synagogue experience. I think that there can be a middle ground between these two loud attempts to secure a meaningful Judaism in contemporary society. I think Judaism can be “reoccupied.”
While I do think that successful pluralism cannot be created when denominations define Jews, I do think that those labels are the stepping-stones that inspire us to form communities. It is when we become so consumed by those titles and statuses that we isolate ourselves from other movements and tear down all walls of tolerance. We defend our separate denominations as an attempt to secure the only Judaism we each know, rather than looking at the incredible Jewish influences that surround us. As an aspiring pluralistic Jewish world, we, in a sense, embody both the strengths and flaws of our own denominations, allowing these titles to box us into different categories. Ultimately, that is how most Jews associate themselves today—through the offered boxes left for us to “check.” I, however, feel the boxes themselves have become the issue in American Judaism today, for they limit us into thinking that there can only be one way to practice faith.
Unlike this new generation of post-denominationalists, or “Jews without prefixes,” I value different Jewish denominations, the communities that ensue from them and the traditions that make each one unique. Since post-denominational Judaism has evolved into a denomination of its own, I believe in the idea of “experimental” Judaism instead, a Judaism that encourages people to explore all denominations and integrate themselves into different communities. People, myself once included, have the tendency to commit to one community both physically and mentally, almost by means of security. This association, however, prevents us from exploring and experimenting with our individual walks of Jewish life and ultimately creating pluralism. We live in a world where too many focus on the direct destinations of their Jewish life, rather than on the journeys themselves. There is myriad knowledge and warmth we can gain by visiting the synagogues or communities that emphasize different aspects of Judaism than what we’re accustomed to.
With these two existing Jewish movements today—one that maintains the traditional synagogue movement structure and another that strives to destruct it—we may never reach unity between generations. While denominations are what can ultimately unify us, it is our inability to broaden our view of community that makes them detrimental to Judaism today. It is truly impossible to experiment with our Jewish identities unless we are willing to step outside of our comfort zones. Denominations are necessary in order to strengthen communities, however, tolerance and the ability to explore these movements are the most vital steps toward creating Jewish pluralism.
So rather than being independent Jews and avoiding the commitments of being members of our own faith, let’s simply expand the definition of membership. Let’s appreciate denominations that have helped Judaism thrive for all these years, but eradicate all our exclusivity and explore every community. Let’s experiment with the denominations of Judaism that we try to jettison and allow ourselves to grow and be inspired. Let’s, if we may, reoccupy Judaism.