So, back in the day, I studied in yeshivot and received semicha from the institution most commonly referred to as the Skokie Yeshiva. The Yeshiva was a bastion of what can best be described as “midwestern traditional / Orthodox” Judaism. What that meant was that Professor Eliezer Berkovits, whose views were off limits in many Orthodox circles, or Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman, a somewhat eccentric but brilliant scholar, whose works displayed a passion for Zionism, were among the best known teachers. As Jonathan Sarna points out, one study claims that at one point, the vast majority of Skokie rabbinical graduates to go into pulpit life did so in congregations that were not strictly “Orthodox” — i.e., synagogues that had mixed gender seating, microphones on Shabbat, and open parking lots that were filled on Shabbat. Interestingly enough, rabbis in such synagogues were often members of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, and such synagogues were sometimes members of what was then called the Union of Orthodox Congregations of the United States & Canada and its youth organization, National Conference of Synagogue Youth. Oh, and the yeshiva also had on faculty rabbis (including one rosh yeshiva) who had occupied pulpits in mixed seating synagogues.
Within ten years of graduation though, I was somewhat of an anomaly, as even the Midwest was beginning to draw sharper lines between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. By that time, innovations such as glatt Kosher (which was virtually unknown outside of a relatively small Chasidic community in Chicago) became a normative level of Kashrut (the Chicago Rabbinical Council and Boston’s Vaad Harabanim – KVH were among the last communities to change community policy and require glatt Kosher meat in order to be under Kosher supervision). The Rabbinical Council of America and Orthodox Union tightened their membership standards. And even the Chicago Rabbinical Council, a bastion of Midwestern-style traditional/Orthodoxy, made it clear that only rabbis in strictly Orthodox synagogues would be allowed to serve as president of the organization.
Indeed, as the 1980’s and 1990’s were upon us, it seemed as though the dividing lines between Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox movements and positions were becoming more well-defined.
But, as we know from all of Jewish history, Jews love to rebel. The chinks that opened in the distinctions came in a number of ways:
- Neo–Hasidic groups arose that merged not only a variety of Jewish approaches, but often spiritual practices borrowed from other faith traditions. Led by rabbis such as Shlomo Carlebach (who was already deceased, but whose teachings continued to influence others), Arthur Waskow, and Zalman Schachter–Shelomi, the Jewish Renewal movement blurred all boundaries.
- The influence of second and third generation American Jews became more pronounced. Raised in democratic and consumerist America, they (we) wanted a Judaism that was, at the least, democratic, and ideally, one that could allow us to select from options.
- Innovation and experimentation began to blur distinctions between movements. Some Orthodox synagogues began to offer women’s prayer groups or minyanim [one in Jerusalem features women aliyot while using the Artscroll siddur], liberal Conservative congregations introduced musical instruments to services, the Reform movement invited its members to more seriously consider some traditional observances and commitments.
- New options for prospective rabbis and cantors opened: Joining the Academy for Jewish Religion among the ranks of transideological rabbinical schools was Boston Hebrew College; American Jewish University (then known as University of Judaism) offered rabbinical education for Conservative rabbis separately from Jewish Theological Seminary; Yeshiva Chovevei Torah opened its doors to students seeking a more open Orthodoxy.
- Adult educational opportunities — most notably the Florence Melton Adult Jewish Mini School and Hebrew College’s Meah Program — brought together Jews of every background to study Judaism of every flavor.
- The internet sped up connections between people, opening them to learning more about the range of Jewish practices.
What’s left are movements that offer some value to member congregations, but less to individual Jews, who appear to be, in the majority, perfectly willing to cross theological as well as geographic boundaries to get their Jewish needs met.
And even us rabbinical types are often willing to cross boundaries in our teaching. The first time I heard Samson Raphael Hirsch, a vehemently anti-Reform 19th century rabbi, quoted by a Reform rabbi, was a landmark experience. Today, it is not unusual for rabbis to quote rabbis and writings from across the divide.
What you might not know: The great divide among movements in American was not always so huge. It is, to a large degree, a product of the mid to late 20th century. Consider:
- Jewish Theological Seminary had Orthodox leaders and supporters, and in its early days was the source of rabbinical training for large numbers of American-born rabbis serving in Orthodox synagogues.
- Although they never came to fruition, serious discussions were held regarding a possible merger between JTS and Yeshiva University.
- Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Kaplan not only developed an approach to Judaism called Reconstructionism, but, as a JTS graduate, helped to found the Young Israel movement.
- The Union of American Hebrew Congregations was, at its founding, an attempt to bring together all American synagogues of each movement under an umbrella.
Many forces coalesced to force divisions between movements. But as the 21st century unfolds before our eyes, the forces bringing us to a point beyond denominational lines appear to have strengthened.
Am I am proud to identify myself as post-denominational.