Chavurah Masarti

Lynchburg, VA                  Founded on 2 Cheshvan, 5766 

Defining our Jewishness in a Post-Denominational Age

The following article contains excerpts from notes that were used for a Rosh Hashanah sermon, 5770.  They were developed by Michael Gillette and represent a trans-denominational perspective.  Readers who identify with a particular Jewish movement or congregation should consider their local Rabbi as the appropriate authority.

  In Pirke Avot 1:2, Simon the Just is quoted as famously proclaiming “Al shlosha d’varim ha-olam omed”, on three things the world stands, “Al ha-Torah”¸ on Torah, “v’al ha-avodah”, and on work (actions of divine service), “v’al gemilut chasadim”, and on deeds of beneficence.  When translated carefully, this statement asserts that three different areas of life must be nurtured for successful living.  We must pay close attention to the Torah --  our tradition as communicated to us both through the written and oral Law; Works – actions in the service of Hashem, effort, labor, expending energy; and Acts of Loving Kindness – tzedakah, tzedek, tikun olam.

   Notice that three things are mentioned in this famous statement.  The number three is notable as the minimum number of elements necessary for stability.  A stool cannot stand with fewer than three legs.  It surely can have more than three supports, but without at least three points of ground contact a static object loses its balance and topples over.  Judaism, like a stool, might rest on a wide variety of supports, but it can’t last long without at least the three major values quoted above.  The tripartite statement found early in the Pirke Avot creates a wonderful commentary on our modern experience of Judaism.  Let us consider the three major movements within Judaism and how they relate to these points.

  Prior to the mid-1800s, although many streams of Judaism existed and vociferous debate often erupted about which expression of Judaism was most appropriate, all Jews were clearly considered to be participants in a single religious entity.  Historical friction between Pharisees and Sadducees or Chassidim and Mitnagdim often grew intense, but these conflicts never fractured Judaism into completely disconnected experiences.  Only once the reformers of the mid-nineteenth century secured recognition from the German government as the official ‘church of judasim’ did non-reformers feel compelled to petition for recognition of their own organizations.  Thus, the Reform movement and the Orthodox movement came to be.[1] 

   Later, when some reformers were uncomfortable with many of the extreme positions of the Reform movement, the Conservative movement developed.  Judaism was then defined by three very distinct philosophical positions.  The Reform movement rejected the primacy of halacha.  The Orthodox movement asserted the primacy of halacha as defined by inherited tradition.  The Conservative movement accepted the binding nature of halacha, but maintained that continued evolution of that law is an ongoing aspect of appropriate Jewish development.  (Reconstructionist and Humanist strains add additional legs to our stool based on cultural commitments, but they are philosophically indistinguishable from other movements when it comes to the compulsory status of halacha.)

   The historical separation of Judaism into the three major Jewish denominations map well onto the world view expressed by Simon the Just:

·       The Orthodox world view adopts Torah as primary.  The Orthodox movement urges us to base our lives on Torah; to study it and build a fence around it (Pirke Avot 1:1), sanctifying our lives by our observance.

·       The Conservative world view stresses Avodah.  We must struggle with our Judaism and work hard to balance traditional demands with living an integrated life in a modern context.  The blessing we say before studying Torah fits the Conservative movement well.  We say ‘la’asok b’divrei Torah’, to engage with the words of Torah.  Jews are commanded not just to read or study Torah, but to build a relationship with it and, on one translation of ‘la’asok’, to quarrel with it.

·       The Reform movement has embraced Gemilut Chasadim, and has often asserted that the core value of Judaism is its concept of Justice;  “Tzedek, tzedek tardof”, ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’.

   So who are we and how do we define our Jewishness?  Must we choose from a list of three or more options?  Or is it appropriate to appreciate strengths and values in the array of Jewish experiences?

   I believe that the time has come to move beyond movements.  Jews and Judaism cannot be defined by one leg of a stool.  We must all struggle to balance all three of the core Jewish values.  As individuals, some of us will excel in one area, others in another.  As a community, however, and only as a community of mutually respecting peers, can we cover all of our bases and advance all of the necessary values.

   The Orthodox Jew does not struggle, because he/she sees no other option than traditional observance.  The Reform Jew does not struggle because he/she feels nothing to compel him/her.  The Conservative Jew defines him/herself by the struggle, and knows neither the security nor the satisfaction of his peers.  But if we stop arguing over who has it right, and admit that each has a piece of the greater whole, we can stand on the three pillars of Judaism: Torah, Action, and Justice.

   So who are we in Chavurah Masarti?  What shall we call ourselves when others ask?  How shall we fashion an accurate and healthy self-image?  Are we Orthodox?  Conservative?  Reform?  Are we Post-Denominational?  Trans-Denominational?  Non-Denominational?

   How about just “Jewish”?

   In the upcoming year, may we all grow and excel in every aspect of the meaning of that label.  May we learn Torah, may we struggle to personalize our religion, and may we strive to make the world a better place.  To do these things, no labels are necessary.


[1] See chapter Three “Emancipating Into Modern Jewishness” of The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Ph.D., Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007

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