Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I have a question for Unorthodox,” Blair, a loyal listener, writes. “Lately, I’ve been asked more times than I can count, ‘What are you?’ in regards to what kind of Jew I am (Reform/Conservative/Orthodox/etc.). I find myself very frustrated with answering this question. I was raised in the Reform movement, my whole family is very Reform, and we belong to a Reform synagogue. Even though I went to a Conservative overnight camp (Young Judea) and later worked at a Conservative day camp (Ramah), I always identified as Reform. But over the past year, I have become more religious and spiritual, and though I am not shomer Shabbos and I don’t observe the full laws of kashrut (yet), my practices have clearly changed.
“So my question is, do I need to identify with one specific movement? If so, how do I know which movement I identify with?”
No, Blair, you don’t have to identify with one particular movement. In fact, it is very Jewish of you not to. For most of Jewish history, there was just one kind of Jew, the Jewish kind. Yes, there were profound regional and ethnic differences within the Jewish world; Jews in Spain prayed differently from Jews in Lithuania. But within all these communities there were the more learned and the less learned, the more observant and the less. Nobody thought these people belonged to separate Jewish communities. That began to change in Germany around the 18th century, when liberal Jews began to separate into their own strain (with the blessing of the more Orthodox, who didn’t need them around planting heretical ideas). Then, in the United States in the 19th century, Reform Jews organized themselves and explicitly rejected Sabbath-keeping and kosher laws. Conservative Judaism soon emerged as something of a middle path.
Has all this Protestant-style splitting been good for us? It has had its advantages, and everyone has gotten used to it. Egalitarian Jews want shuls where women are treated as equals, and they would rightly question how they could share space with Jews who would not count women in the minyan, the prayer quorum of 10. Orthodox Jews who don’t believe in gay marriage are happy to let queer Jews pray elsewhere. The various denominations have developed radically different liturgies, too. (Compare a Renewal prayerbook with an Orthodox prayerbook like the Artscroll and you’ll see.) Like the Christians who futilely hope that Catholics and Protestants will reconcile into one big church, Jews who hope that denominations will fall away can seem a bit silly.
Nevertheless, count us among the silly, optimistic fools. At least up to a point. While denominations may have their place, and are unlikely to wither away soon, we believe that, at least in our minds, Jews today should be post-denominational. Many of us feel a little bit of this, a little bit of that: We keep kosher but drive on the Sabbath, or we are Reform in belief but love certain melodies associated with Orthodoxy, or we are atheist but keep paying synagogue dues. We’re a tiny people, and we can ill afford to be ghettoizing ourselves from one another. Plus, it’s more fun not to.
So how about this: Next time someone asks you “what kind” of Jew you are, you say, “I grew up Reform, but these days I think there’s wisdom in all branches of Judaism. So I call myself post-denominational.” Try that on a few of these poor, unfortunate, uptight souls, and tell us how it goes.