What Am I? Denominational Affiliation in a Post-Structuralist World

Originally posted on jewishvaluescenter.org

“How would you describe your Jewish affiliation?” or more bluntly “I don’t get it, what are you?” are questions I receive all too often. Well, let me try and explain. I believe in God, wear a Kippah, abide by the vast majority of the Halakhic system and enjoy a nice Talmudic debate as much as anyone. I go to Minyan multiple times a week, have a consistent learning schedule, and try and make sure that all of my actions are for the “sake of heaven.”

However, I fully accept the methodology and conclusions, both of the academic study of Judaism, and the sciences in general. Indeed, I do not accept Jewish eschatology and I view Halacha as a fully man-made system – albeit a good one. In turn, I also believe that Judaism needs to fully accommodate feminism, the LGBTQ community, and many other groups that historical and traditional Judaism have viewed negatively.

Now before you start reaching for labels and try defining me as “open-Orthodox” or “Conservative,” you must understand that it is not so simple. I have a deep appreciation for Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and share many of his views and values. I very much admire Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the prolific Modern-Orthodox thinker, and I strive to live my life in the way that he envisioned for the ideal Jew.

Furthermore, I have read hundreds of pages of Conservative responsa and absolutely love the combination of deep-rooted knowledge, empathy, and true understanding of contemporary issues. If this is not enough, one of my favorite public figures, authors, and podcast creators is an outspoken atheist, and although I often disagree with him, I find him to be one of the most intelligent and reasonable people I have ever heard.

If I had to try and summarize contemporary American culture and philosophy, all while standing on one foot, a very safe answer would be the following:

“Nothing is as black and white or as binary as people have classically thought. Most correct answers in life require a great level of nuance – the rest is commentary, go out and learn it!”

This idea, which is ubiquitous in much of contemporary philosophy is true in almost every realm of existence, whether it be politics, ethics, religion, etc. Furthermore, this idea equally applies to individuals. While there are many reasons why I do not love the term “intersectionality,” its overarching idea is a very true one: namely, individuals have overlapping or intersecting identities and it is hard to classify an individual as any one thing. Basically, people are extremely complex and it is very hard to fit anyone into a strictly defined box.

It is due to these aforementioned ideas that I have recently become increasingly frustrated with Jewish denominational labels. People will often ask if I am Modern-Orthodox, Open-Orthodox, Social-Orthodox, Conservative, etc. and I generally laugh and say that I while I appreciate certain elements from each of these communities – along with other denominations like Ultra-Orthodoxy, Reform, and Reconstructionism – I honestly cannot say that I identify with any of these movements or communities. I have personally chosen to identify as post-denominational, in that I view strict denominational lines as an attempt to hold on to an archaic or outdated type of thinking where labels and definitions exist for each individual.

While labels, names, and generalizations are often needed in our world to set up overarching structure, there are very rarely individuals that perfectly fit within them. In other words, it is necessary to set up ‘ideal types’ in which one can categorize the massive amount of information that we are presented with on a daily basis – but it is also crucial to remember that these ‘ideal types’ only exist in the abstract and seldom reflect reality. If they read the tenants of their respective denomination, most Jews would probably take issue with, or at least want to revise, many of the fundamental doctrines of their denomination. Why should any individual feel pressured to fully accept religious and dogmatic principles created by other people, rather than think freely and for themselves?

It is time for the greater Jewish community to follow our contemporary trend and fully embrace post-denominationalism. The categorical framework that humans have classically used to organize our world is set up in terms of archaic binaries (or in this case denominations), but the truth is always more fluid. Instead of asking what denomination an individual belongs to, what we should be asking is: “What components of Judaism are particularly important to you as an individual?”

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