QUESTION: Will Jewish denominations survive the pandemic? Should they survive? What would American Judaism be without denominations?
ANSWER: Denominations will survive – but what should they mean in the emerging digital world of porous and flexible identity? If that question was heretical before, current events force it forward now.
Judaism always has flowed in streams that shift with the times. Culture, language, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, climate, politics and technology shaped every Jewish vector of identity, belief and practice that Jews ever have known.
Amidst Jewish history’s millennia, denominationalism is a relatively new river – barely 200 years old. Since then, denominations developed, branched, merged and diverged as potent channels. Through them have come beliefs, liturgies, publications, shared frameworks of identity and experience, camps, leadership ladders and more – often for the good, sometimes maybe not.
But it’s the inherent nature of channels to shift with climate. Around the mighty Mississippi are countless oxbows, lakes, rivulets, islands and flood plains marking where the Big Muddy once flowed. No river stays the same: ecosystems evolve.
So too with Judaism’s denominations. Governance systems, education standards, clergy roles, ethics constructs, the role and limits of expertise, how we see and are seen in a digital world – these and other channels are leaping out of old riverbanks.
The wise will focus more on the flow than the channels themselves. Denominations that adapt will thrive as blessings for an ever fertile Judaism for a future evolving now.
Published in the May 19, 2020 edition of the Forward, here.