Denomination states

Denomination states

What’s killing liberal Judaism? Is it sclerotic leadership? Pluralistic theology? Facebook?

All three have been held up as explanations (or scapegoats) in recent articles rocketing around my corner of cyberspace, where mostly Jews and a few Christians gather to stare into the future and gasp at what they see. For many of the Jews, that means the decline of liberal (read: non-Orthodox) denominations; for Christians, the weakening of mainline Protestant churches.

The Forward set the terms for the current discussion with a news article suggesting a “growing crisis in liberal Judaism” — that is, the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist streams.

As we reported a few weeks back, the umbrella body of Conservative congregations acknowledged that the number of families served by its synagogues has declined by 14 percent since 2001. Here in the Northeast, the decline was 30 percent.

Meanwhile, the Forward reported that 17 “dissident” Reform rabbis are pressuring their movement to — well, it’s not clear what exactly, although the implication is that Reform institutions are facing the same kinds of pressures that have led to upheaval within Conservative ranks. Two years ago a similar group of Conservative rabbis complained that their national organization was not being responsive to the worrisome changes within the movement. Meanwhile, Reconstructionist leaders are looking to merge their synagogue arm and rabbinical school.

The implication is, to quote an old Russian proverb, “the fish rots from the head.” While Jews are dropping out of synagogue life, or dismissing the whole idea of denominations, entrenched leaders aren’t responding to the new realities, according to critics.

Or perhaps the problem is theology. Writing in the Forward a week later, Reform Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan in Georgia asserts that Reform synagogues “have large numbers on the books but few active participants.”

The problem, he writes, is the movement’s failure to make “serious demands” on its adherents. “As the Reform movement has increasingly emphasized religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful,” writes Kaplan, “it has become impossible to compel members to come to services regularly, study Torah seriously, and contribute to the vibrant well-being of their congregation. Instead, they are allowed to come twice a year and call on the rabbi whenever they need a life-cycle ceremony.”

At the same time, Orthodoxy is going gangbusters. A new Jewish Federation of Baltimore study says residents identifying themselves as Orthodox rose from 21 percent in 1999 to 32 percent in 2010; in the same period, the percentage of Conservative Jews declined and the Reform held steady.

There is, however, a chicken-and-egg aspect to Kaplan’s argument: Are Reform Jews less active because their movement places too few demands on them? Or are people who are not inclined to be active going to join the least “demanding” synagogue?

And then there’s the Facebook factor. Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, wrote a blog post last week called “How Facebook Killed the Church.” Focusing on the “Millennials” (those born between 1981 and 2000), Beck posits that the face-to-face interactions that keep people coming to church are being replaced by electronic social interactions — texting, cell phones, and Facebook. Facebook friends aren’t “virtual,” he writes, but the real thing.

“Church has always been about social affiliation,” writes Beck. “You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.”

He concludes: “If you can do this without getting up early on Sunday morning why go to church?”

Beck’s thesis is controversial, and flies in the face of Malcolm Gladwell’s much-talked-about theory that on-line social networks do not foster the “strong ties” necessary for meaningful social organizing. But I also suspect that the majority of those arguing that you can’t conduct a meaningful friendship via Facebook are probably old enough to remember telephones with dials and their very first “hi fi.”

(By the way, if true, Beck’s thesis is a great argument for the Shabbat rules that prohibit the use of electronic devices.)

All the articles above suggest different notions of what keeps us coming to synagogue — or not. “Dissident” Reform and Conservative rabbis want a certain kind of denominational rigor. Kaplan wants more demands placed on adherents. Beck says houses of worship are places for “social affiliation.” And no sooner will this column appear than I’ll get a letter from the reader who likes to remind me, week after week, that “Judaism is about God and mitzvot, end of story.”

I’ve managed to concoct a Jewish life that can attest to each of these ideas. Synagogue to me is more about community than worship, although I know that it wouldn’t be as vibrant without my fellow congregants’ commitments to tefila. I believe in autonomy, but ritual gives my life shape and meaning, even when I strain against its limitations. I’m not a “movement man,” but respect the need for a higher authority, if not a Higher Authority.

But I’m probably an anomaly. The liberal movements aren’t just struggling with leadership, theology, or Facebook. They are struggling with the very idea of freedom.

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