Post Denominational, Post Modern, Post Halachic, Post Rabbinic Judaism Awaits Name

Historians have long divided the history of Judaism and of the Jewish people into a number of somewhat overlapping eras, sometimes using titles like Biblical, Talmudic, and Prophetic to refer to these periods. Most historians have put us, for hundreds if not thousands of years, in the Rabbinic period of Judaism. And it seems to me that the Rabbinic period is drawing to a conclusion.


From what I can tell, the Rabbinic period has been characterized by the development and strengthening of halacha as a means of defining Jewish religious life in an unnatural situation of a nation that has been scattered worldwide. This nation, the people Israel, no longer has a centralized, hierarchical structure to guide it. Regimentation of Jewish practice and of communal structures replace an Israelite monarchy, priesthood, sacrificial system, legislative process and judicial system.

The rabbinic period has also been characterized by tremendous output of both printed word and of oral traditions. Legal and Agaddic works have been produced, as well as liturgy and a good deal of secular Jewish literature. The enlightenment even led to the creation of alternative approaches (which later become, in American Jewish parlance, Reform and Conservative Judaism). And, while they were conceived of as either alternative ways of viewing halacha, or even as non-Halachic, they still referred back to the the traditional rabbinic views and practices as a point of reference.

At the recent conference of the Jewish Outreach Institute a rabbi gave an excellent session on what we used to call the “who is a Jew” debate. She outlined the historical development of the issue and discussed its implications. In the middle of the discussion it struck me: There are few people in the room for whom a rabbinic determination as to Jewish identity is the final word, and probably few for whom it’s even a major consideration.

In short, we are entering post-rabbinic Judaism. The title “rabbi” will still be there. But s/he is increasingly a resource person rather than the primary leader. Nobody has taken his/her place; leadership has just spread out. It’s hard to identify the cause, or to separate cause from process. But it’s been gradual: the Havurah movement of the 60’s, the Jewish Catalogs as a step toward grassroots Jewish empowerment, Israel and Holocaust remembrance taking center stage, growing role of foundations and donors.

Post Denominational

The denominations that seemed to be powerhouses in the 20th centuries are a shell of their former selves. Within each movement, the range of practice has become so varied that each has had to create a series of official documents that attempt to identify exactly what it is the movement stands for. And there is demographic data that shows that people, especially younger people, are not drawn to a particular congregation because of the “movement” it pays dues to, but by whether it meets specific needs at a time or place on their individual journeys. The movements reflect where synagogues pay dues. But the roles of national synagogue and religious movements have declined.

Increasingly, Jews find value where they can. Orthodox day schools sing songs that came out of National Federation of Temple Youth, United Synagogue Youth sing Hasidic melodies. Rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators routinely cross denominational lines as their personal expertise is valued above their denominational roots. But the movements, which drew separation between Jewish communities, are struggling to identify their roles today.

Post Modern

Modernity, too, has proven to have a limited Jewish shelf life. The modernity that chose the documentary hypothesis as a lens through which to view Torah has been largely rejected by community members who don’t care who wrote the Torah, but want to know what the Torah has to say to us in our lives. Similarly, the “superstitions” of the old countries – amulets, red or blue strings, hamsas and the like – proved to be attractive not only to old school Orthodox, but to spiritual seekers and contemporary Jewish artists. And within a generation of Mordecai Kaplan founding Reconstructionism and writing books like “Judaism Without Supernaturalism”, a Jewish spiritual scholar, Arthur Green, no less, was at the helm of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a leading mystical scholar, teaching there. In short, our Jewish contemporaries reclaimed much of what the modernizers tried to dismiss.

Post Halachic

With Post-Rabbinic goes Post-Halachic. As an example, Shabbat Manifesto is a movement that suggests that one shut off technology for Shabbat, and take other steps to distinguish Shabbat from other days. But it is adamant about not promoting a halachic observance of Shabbat. What it aims to do is take some of the concepts that halachic observance suggests and transplant it to contemporary life, but without the focus on details and restrictions. Mikvah use, similarly, has been adopted by many, but without the details of Halacha.  The list can go on.

The New Age: The Egalitarian Age of Judaism

If the era of Rabbinic Judaism is at an end, what is the era we have entered? Using “Post-…” to describe it is simply describing a negative; something has ended. But it seems that  something has taken the place of all that is now “post”. I propose that we have entered the Egalitarian era.  I refer not to the question of equal roles for gender, which is how the word “egalitarian” has often been used. Instead, my suggestion is that the current age of Judaism is one in which each Jew feels the right to create his/her own personal Judaism. No Jew, even the rabbi, stands above anyone else. Each Jew creates his/her own relationship to the divine and to the Jewish people.

Looking at issues from women’s role in religious life to gay marriage, it appears to me that people at the grassroots level have led the way in experimenting and pioneering. Often they have been the ones to pressure the established leadership to move the community ahead. In the Egalitarian Age of Judaism, this will continue to be a core component that defines Jewish life.

What do you think?

    6 responses

    1. Interesting and thought-provoking analysis.I think that in certain respects, you have hit the nail on the head. The obvious exceptions, though (I would think) are the Chareidi/Chassidic/"Black Hat" segments, who continue to attach themselves to a Rebbe or "Daas Torah". It seems to me that rather than Judaism reaching some sort of spiritual or intellectual equilibrium, or becoming more homogenous, that instead Judaism is fracturing and polarizing. The middle ground is quickly vanishing. The "Black Hat" Chareidi segment has grown tremendously over the last two decades. They will never accept egalitarianism, in any flavor.


      1. Hi;On January the 7th 2011 I will be presenting my Viva’ for my PhD. The University is St David Lampter (Wales).My tisehs is about Humanistic Judaism. The title of it is: Humanistic Judaism History, Doctrines, Ethics and Religious Rituals’. I must say it is a very good piece of work. It is very comprehensive and I am sure it would benefit anyone interested in Humanistic Judaism. So, from now on I will be checking on your website for news about Humanistic Judaism.


        1. Let me make this even more complicated for you:As you corerctly observe, Judaism is matrilinear (passed down via the female line). As such, any child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew according to Jewish religious law.Islam, on the other hand is patrilinear. Any child of a Muslim man is considered a Muslim also according to Islam. Here’s where it gets funny: BECAUSE of its patrilinear nature, Islam allows Muslim men to marry women of other religions (well, SOME other religions).Now, what happens when a Jewish mother and Muslim father have a child?


    2. Throughout history (Jewish and otherwise) there has always been a constant tension between the religious authority and the folk practice of the community. The rabbi stressing extreme practice while the average layperson finds spirituality from their own take on their relationship with G-d. A sinusoidal pattern of drift occurs. When authority is overzealous, people tend to pull away. When everyone is doing their own thing, the community feels like it lacks direction and seeks authority to reassert itself and focus their religious practice and goals. One can only pray for the intermittent equilibriums to last longer.


      1. Your blog today gave me another pevctespire on just getting things done. I have a lot on my plate, some of it routine, some larger more ambitious projects, and everything in between. Anyone of these gets put on the same to-do list in order to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. The larger projects get broken down into smaller tasks. Overall, my long range plan usually works well, but for the everyday, I’m constantly shuffling things from one day to the next, as it should be. Long range planning is different than the day to day. They both need flexibility, but day to day IS flexibility! Then, once each task is done, it is quite satisfying! Just like completing a larger goal is cause for celebration! Something to keep in mind when we face formidable tasks break them down into manageable pieces, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment along the way. Peace.


    3. Mazel TovJust stumbled acosrs our website and I am absolutely delighted that wehave a small window for Humanistic Jews in the UK at last. I look forwardto the site growing and gaining many new members. The site will hopefullyalso gain personality and personalities in the near future. My firstimpression is an informative site explaining the principles of HumanisticJudaism, but seriously lacking any direct human input. We must be braveand stand for what we believe in with people, faces and UK links.Criticism will inevitably flow from some quarters, but there are many whowill publicly support this initiative.Rabbi’s / Madricha’s questions, community news and events and on-linelearning for adults and kids are just a few of the items that would makethis site greater, as many like myself are stranded outside of Humanisticcommunities and yearn for a UK based on-line community / congregation withlinks to communal / national events.Keep up the good work. I will be joining the site from my home email. May your efforts continue to go from strengthto strength.ShalomDavePS. Problems sending email directly to your email address.


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