Thursday, 15 September 2011

Why Do We need Denominations

A response to the JTS Chancellor, Arnie Eisen’s very good question – Why do we need denominations.

His essay is at


I wonder if there is an analogy around questions of state versus private funding.


I want there to be safe roads to be everywhere for when I travel anywhere.

But I don't want have to pay per mile every time I get in the car and I want roads in areas where no private road builder would want to invest in building roads.

I want there to be a hospital with well trained medical staff for when I get ill.

But I don't want to have to get my wallet out as I lie on a hospital stretcher.

I want properly trained teachers with recognised qualifications in the schools where I send my kids.

But I don't want to have to school inspections myself. I don't have the expertise or the time.


I depute these tasks to the State and pay my taxes, despite the sense that there might be creeping inefficiencies and despite the fact that I might wish, at point of need, a different road plan or hospital design or educational oversight.

I commit to the larger, more ponderous, less perfectly attuned to my own desires, organisation – in these cases the State – because I want there to be a structure there and waiting for me and my needs when I am ready. It’s not a plea for communism, but an argument for the State to work out what we as a nation need that private organisations can’t or won’t provide well. And I feel the same things about Movements and denominations.


It's easy to find a freelancing post-denominational Rabbi to do a one-off pre-planned special; a marriage, a Yom Kippur service etc. – easy in, easy out. But I am prepared to commit to Synagogue community so there is something there for ‘the other 51 weeks,' if I need it – or if another member of the community I join might need it. I also commit to a denomination – a Movement – to do the things no single Synagogue community can provide; a Bet Din, training for the future and a Youth Movement where kids from my community can join with others. I expect denominational leadership to keep an eye on the horizon, pointing out challenges and opportunities down-stream, beyond my ability to see past my own immediate needs.


It’s always going to be cheaper and more immediately gratifying to serve my own interests with a non-denominational, non-community based Jewish identity. Committing to a denomination and a Movement is always going to take more commitment and more of a willingness to engage beyond self-gratification. But commitment and a willingness to suspend selfish desires are the mark of maturity, Hesed and courage. That’s why I’m a proudly denominational Jew. I’m neither Orthodox nor Reform, but I’m delighted for Orthodox Jews to commit to Orthodoxy and Reform Jews to commit to Reform, I don’t even begrudge the emergence of affiliated networks of ‘unaffiliated’ minyanim, I just think we should all be committed to a bigger communal vision than our own.


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