Movement, Denominations, and Minyanim…oh my!

A little while back, in addressing recent discussions of minyanim and reacting to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, BZ posted:

Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot.

This has led me to think about the similarities and differences between what people tend to refer to as Chavura, Conservative, Independent Minyan, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal. (note that I alphabetized them rather than forcing them into a spectrum that doesn’t quite fit). Of course these labels have substantial overlap. Some are parallel. Some are not. They all come about because people want quick categories that they can use to label the Jewish approach of themselves and others.

–This next paragraph can be skipped, it defines a few terms and frames the issue, but some might find it needlessly semantic–Some of these labels are (what I’ll call) institutional, ideological, and/or aesthetic. Institutional groupings are based on a subset of Jews being unified based on connection to an institution(s). For instance, The Conservative movement is an institutional grouping since it’s people are connected through camps, schools, youth groups, an other institutions. It is also an ideological grouping since it has positions on many questions that it endorses. Conservative Jews have tendencies to think about Israel in certain ways, egalitarianism, etc. Of course, some differ and there is some diversity, but certainly, you can see what I mean by ideological grouping. By aesthetic, I mean a preference for decision-making model, prayer approach, or something else which is not explicitly Ideological. In many cases these issues are deeply moral, so I don’t mean to imply that this is in any sense superficial. Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus “Minyan” is an aesthetic grouping. This is a rather arbitrary nuance but there certainly is a nuance between how people think about the world (ideology) and how they prefer their prayer specifically (prayer aesthetic) that while influenced by the former is a slightly different issue.

Now I’ll take a look at a few common groupings and examine what they are, where they come from, and which they are parallel too, and not.

    Chavura

This term is especially confusing since it refers to two substantially disparate kinds of communities. Some use it to refer to lay-led communities which don’t employ professionals. For instance, this label is often is often associated with the groups that sought a more organic, spiritual, and culturally relevant Judaism in the 60s and 70s such as Havurat Shalom in Boston (which began as a seminary of sorts), the New York Havurah, and Farbrangen in DC. All these groups had major learning and political components in addition to davening and social retreats. The critical writing in this do-it-yourself movement was the Jewish Catalog (and its 2 sequels). Many of these early havurot where like communes. The collective living aspects soon diminished but many still had consensus-based decision-making, specific membership, and intense community.

At the same time that these pioneers of lay-led intimate communities were striking out to build new kinds of independent models the term was also being used to refer to synagogue-based sub-groups. Harold Schulweis helped create this model.

The 20th century use of chavurah originated with fellowship who met to study the writings of Moredecai Kaplan. More of the relationship between Reconstructionism and havurot later…

This is largely an aesthetic group. There is wide variation on every ideological issue. Havurot tend to be egalitarian but aren’t necessarily. Really it’s two different aesthetic groups (the in-shul and is-a-shul). Both though seek intimacy and intensity in Jewish life and have members who are willing to put in more time and energy to achieve those goals than many big congregation Jews are willing to.

    Conservative

People often use “movement” and “denomination” interchangeably. In the case of the Conservative movement/denomination, this is reasonable. The Conservative denomination has institutional and ideological ties. It has a process for making movement-wide practice decisions (The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards), its own seminaries (JTS, UJ, Schecter/Cons. Yeshiva), an organization of synagogues (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), and a pseudo-union for it’s clergy (The Rabbinical Association).

Interestingly, the Conservative denomination has given rise to many of these other innovative groups (mostly unwillingly). Many of the early havurah-niks were former Ramah campers/staff and Art Green, one of the main early leaders graduated from JTS. Mordecai Kaplan, founding thinker of the Recons, was a faculty member at JTS until his retirement. He influenced generations of Conservative rabbis and did not intend to start another denomination. Many of the current leaders of new minyanim have connections with the Conservative movement–specifically @ Hadar (of course, many minyanim have no connections to the Conservatives).

    Independent Minyan

It seems that “Independent Minyanim” is the chic term for lay-led communities not based in synagogues. These groups have much in common with the kind of havurot discussed earlier. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s most of the leaders in the network of lay-led communities used “minyan” to mean prayer groups and “havurah” to mean a member-based group which was social, political, religious, cultural, and often residential or semi-residential. More on the nuances between havurot and minyanim here and here. It is a sad when words which formerly conveyed nuance cease to, since their usage blends. In contemporary terms the nuance between “havurah” and “minyan” is less well-known and that’s a shame.

Back to the main point. Independent minyanim are categorized by their lay-ledness. This category contains havurot and minyanim (with the possible exception of those based in synagogues). It is an aesthetic category. There are a few institutions, the National Havurah Committee and Mechon Hadar for example, which help independent community members connect with folks from other communities both socially, for learning, and for mentoring each other on the mechanics of running minyanim.

I put “independent” in scare quotes since I think it is a silly term that doesn’t do a good job describing what makes these communities different. More on why here.

    Orthodox

Though Orthodoxy is frequently thought of as one of the “big three” along with the Conservative and Reform movements it isn’t really analogous. The Orthodox world has many denominations. It is an umbrella containing a variety of ideologies with aligned institutions. For instance, Lubovitch, has its own seminaries, schools, places of worship, etc, and is parallel to C and R. Modern orthodoxy has some institutions (YU, Maimonides etc) and is somewhat parallel. This is a world linked by ideology (though the spread between Soloveichik, Salanter, and Schneerson is enormous). Many orthodox communities, as it happens, don’t have paid clergy lead prayers and are, in this regard, lay-led making some orthodox prayer groups minyanim or even (ack!) havurot.

    Reconstructionist

Reconstructionism is somewhat like Cons. and Ref. It has a seminary, Rabbinical Association, synagogue coordinating organization, youth group, and camp. It is somewhat different in that it has a commitment to local community process to create policy and construct ideology. it has a similarly wide spread to the havurot. Though it has just a smidge over 100 congregations some use a (the?) hechsher system for koshrut, others use an eco-koshrut approach, yet others are vegetarian as a means of making food match their values. Some have clergy-oriented services and others are chavurot or minyanim.

Reconstructionism differs from Reform and Conservative in that it was started primarily in a US context. As a result it prioritizes democracy at the national and local level to a very large degree. This may be part of why communal process is prioritized in the movements ideology. Recons have major aesthetic diversity but tend to be somewhat similar ideologically though the movement doesn’t have positions quite the way the Conservative movement does.

Lastly, it’s useful to not that in the early years of Reconstructionism (RRC and Havurat Shalom were both founded in 1968), there was a lot of cross-pollination. Many early Recon rabbis were Conservative-trained and had been part of the community-learning model in the Kaplanian Havurot. The NHC was originally located at the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH was the USCJ equivalent). The director of FRCH was a member of a minyan. In the years since, the Recons became more focused on growth in suburban synagogues though there are major exceptions.

    Reform

Like the Conservative grouping, Reform is an ideological, aesthetic, and organization grouping. There is diversity on all points.

    Renewal

Renewal is an interesting case. It is somewhat similar to the Con., Rec., Ref. set since it has institutional, ideological, and aesthetic connections but is much smaller and has a different model for Rabbinic training. I understand that it is decentralized. In some sense, Renewal is more like an “independent” synagogue. It tends to have employed clergy but limited institutional frameworks. Of course the main nuance between havurah and Renewal is that the former is lay-led and the latter tends to be focused around charismatic leaders (rebbes).

It is useful to have labels that give us shortcuts in understanding the practices, preferences, and beliefs of others. These heuristics can help a lot but haven’t kept pace with the times. We now have many which overlap. What kind of Jew are you? Well I prefer the structure of a havurah, the basic ideology of Reconstructionism, and pluralistic institutions. If you happen to go to a Conservative synagogue, send your kids to USY and Ramah, and like the prayer book/Rabbi’s sermons you have a much easier answer than I do. As the years have gone by, and America has changed, people increasingly want embrace complicated identities. I talk a lot more, here, about how institutional decoupling will happen over time. Increasingly people will want to separate the organizations for Israeli politics, American politics, worship, camp, etc since our placement of one slides (israel, etc) doesn’t strongly correlate with others, hence the interest in having several sliders rather than just one (Reform, Ortho, etc). More and more people will want to separate their Institutional, Ideological, and Aesthetic affiliations. This is why the old denominations are changing and most young people are looking for different solutions. The labels are changing because Jewish life is changing. We’ll need to develop better organizations and better labels to keep up.

26 Responses to “Movement, Denominations, and Minyanim…oh my!”

  1. In the end all of them follow orthodox halacha. Think about it. If the reform had been succesful at ahem.. reforming judaism and redefined it as simply a religion this ridiculous list would not exist.

    The logical way out would have been “I am an atheist and therefore can’t be Jewish” and be done with it. In the end Orthodoxy “won” and spawned this hydra.


    formermuslim · December 3rd, 2009 at 1:10 pm
  2. “The Conservative denomination has…its own seminaries (JTS, UJ, Schecter/Cons. Yeshiva)”

    UJ is now called the AJU (American Jewish University). The Ziegler Rabbinical school is certainly affiliate with Conservative Judaism but the undergrad university is not.

    Machon Schechter and The Conservative Yeshiva are separate institutions. CY is not a seminary that ordains Rabbis or any other Jewish Clergy.


    uzi · December 3rd, 2009 at 1:41 pm
  3. @formermuslim are you suggesting that you can’t be Jewish and an atheist? If so, I don’t think there is much to talk about.

    @uzi thanks for adding this nuance. I am not sure it changes the basic contention that there are specific places one can study to be a Conservative Rabbi. I was under the impression that JTS and Ziegler where the main two with many using the CY for their Israel year. Is that correct?


    zt · December 3rd, 2009 at 2:22 pm
  4. zt writes:
    I was under the impression that JTS and Ziegler where the main two with many using the CY for their Israel year. Is that correct?

    Not entirely. JTS requires its students to study at Machon Schechter during their Israel year, as did Ziegler until this year. Ziegler students now attend the CY.


    BZ · December 3rd, 2009 at 2:32 pm
  5. @formermuslim, as much as orthodoxy would like to be seen as defining the path of Judaism, that’s really not true. David Wilensky has an excellent post at his site, davidsaysthings.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/integrationist-reform-weakened-by-ritual/, that deals with just this question–what constitutes “authentic” ritual and tradition, and how does the way a movement define itself affect that?


    renaissanceboy · December 3rd, 2009 at 2:56 pm
  6. Thanks for the shout-out reneissanceboy.


    David A.M. Wilensky · December 3rd, 2009 at 3:16 pm
  7. the conservative movement also has a seminary in Belarus and one in Buenos Aires.


    Justin · December 3rd, 2009 at 3:23 pm
  8. ” Chavura

    This term is especially confusing since it refers to two substantially disparate kinds of communities. Some use it to refer to lay-led communities which don’t employ professionals. For instance, this label is often is often associated with the groups that sought a more organic, spiritual, and culturally relevant Judaism in the 60s and 70s such as Havurat Shalom in Boston (which began as a seminary of sorts), the New York Havurah, and Farbrengen in DC. ”

    As an early (though not founding since I was in Israel at the time) member of Fabrengen, I just want to note that it is lacking the first “R”. Originally this was a mistake due to ignorance of Yiddish, but then it was drashed that we left out the “R” because we had neither a rabbi nor a rebbe.


    Jeff · December 3rd, 2009 at 3:29 pm
  9. Good point. Thanks Jeff. I’ll update.


    zt · December 3rd, 2009 at 3:41 pm
  10. it’s actually fabrangen, not fabrengen, as you can see from the url…


    leah · December 3rd, 2009 at 3:43 pm
  11. Justin – minor point, but the Conservative/Masorti Movement seminary in Europe is in Budapest, not Belarus. Although I’m not entirely clear on how formally, or not, that seminary is connected to the Conservative/Masorti Movement.
    www.or-zse.hu/ang/index.htm


    Gregg · December 3rd, 2009 at 4:23 pm
  12. zt

    If the reformists had their way Judaism would have been defined as a religion and as an atheist logically you wouldn’t be part of it. Right now you are using Orthodox definitions that defines Jews also as a nation. Be sure to thank the bearded men on the way out.


    formermuslim · December 3rd, 2009 at 6:07 pm
  13. I have mixed feelings in response to this post in general. I understand and appreciate the importance of labels in society and the role that they play but I am unclear on their necessity within Judaism. Obviously there is a use, say if I move to a new city and am looking for a congregation that has a liturgical service that I am familiar with denominational labels are helpful.
    What is disconcerning for me however is when we define ourselves, as Jews, based on these labels. I can’t begin to tell you how much I dislike it when people ask me “well what are you?” or “what kind of Jew are you” I often respond with, “the kind that prays, that doubts, that loves, that doesn’t always follow halacha” I want to practice Judaism, not reconstructionism or conservativeism. There will always necessarily be an individual component of our religious practice as well as the necessity for a communal space, but why do we necessitate the creation of what I can understand as nothing other than barriers in our quest for community?


    Ari · December 3rd, 2009 at 6:39 pm
  14. Ari, well put. I couldn’t agree more. Grouping religious practices together can be useful. Defining ourselves by those groupings is regressive.


    renaissanceboy · December 3rd, 2009 at 6:55 pm
  15. formermuslim writes:
    In the end all of them follow orthodox halacha. Think about it. If the reform had been succesful at ahem.. reforming judaism and redefined it as simply a religion this ridiculous list would not exist.

    The logical way out would have been “I am an atheist and therefore can’t be Jewish” and be done with it. In the end Orthodoxy “won” and spawned this hydra.

    What on earth are you talking about? Are you misreading “aesthetic” as “atheistic”?

    If the reformists had their way Judaism would have been defined as a religion and as an atheist logically you wouldn’t be part of it. Right now you are using Orthodox definitions that defines Jews also as a nation.

    ZT describes his ideology in the post as Reconstructionist. Go read Judaism as a Civilization, or if you’re short on time, just read the title.


    BZ · December 3rd, 2009 at 7:20 pm
  16. Never knew the “Orthodox” Point of View was that Jews were a “nation”. I thought that chiddush belonged to Zionism. The halakha in rabbinic literature is that if you don’t keep the sabbath, your wine is treif and your edut is passul; sounds like you’re “out” of anything resembling a nation.


    Amit · December 3rd, 2009 at 7:29 pm
  17. ZT writes:
    Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus “Minyan” is an aesthetic grouping.

    I think I would have called this “structural”. Prayer aesthetic is a third axis. (Lay-ledness goes beyond prayer.)

    For instance, this label is often is often associated with the groups that sought a more organic, spiritual, and culturally relevant Judaism in the 60s and 70s such as Havurat Shalom in Boston (which began as a seminary of sorts), the New York Havurah, and Farbrangen in DC. All these groups had major learning and political components in addition to davening and social retreats.

    Why are you using the past tense? The New York Havurah is gone, but the other two are alive and kicking (I was just at Fabrangen last fortnight).

    In the 60s, 70s, and 80s most of the leaders in the network of lay-led communities used “minyan” to mean prayer groups and “havurah” to mean a member-based group which was social, political, religious, cultural, and often residential or semi-residential. More on the nuances between havurot and minyanim here and here. It is a sad when words which formerly conveyed nuance cease to, since their usage blends. In contemporary terms the nuance between “havurah” and “minyan” is less well-known and that’s a shame.

    As we’ve discussed before (in the posts you link to), there’s a lot of blurring between these structural categories. Yes, a group that exists only for prayer is a minyan, and a group that exists only for non-prayer is a havurah, but many groups do both. Havurat Shalom and Hadar are two examples of nondenominational lay-led communities that gather for weekly prayer services and many non-prayer activities. Yet the former is considered the archetypal havurah and the latter is considered the archetypal independent minyan. Why? There are of course major differences between the two, but most don’t correlate to a meaningful havurah/minyan dichotomy. I.e. the content and style of their prayer services are different, but that’s not a structural difference. (Zoo Minyan’s services are very similar to Havurat Shalom’s, yet it’s called a minyan.) Havurat Shalom has a building, but that’s certainly not a trait that makes it more of a “havurah”. Havurat Shalom has selective membership and Hadar has no membership; that is an important structural difference that distinguishes the older wave from the newer wave of grassroots communities (and places them on opposite sides of most synagogues, which have non-selective membership). But there still isn’t a sharp distinction between “minyanim” and “havurot” here — DC Minyan has membership, and plenty of “havurot” don’t.

    So if people are blurring the nuance between havurot and minyanim, then I think that’s not such a bad thing, since making no distinction at all between these categories (except in the most obvious of cases) is a closer approximation to the phenomena than making silly distinctions like many of the perceptions that are out there: if it was founded before 1996, it’s a havurah, if it was founded after 1996, it’s a minyan; minyanim daven musaf and havurot don’t (I’ve been trying for years to get the name of the “Havurah-Style” service at the NHC Summer Institute changed); minyanim have “quality control” and havurot don’t (believe me, I’ve been to lots of minyanim that don’t); etc.


    BZ · December 3rd, 2009 at 8:01 pm
  18. these ideological distinctions are irrelevant. in real life it’s more like:

    oh, well, my father was jewish but my mother wasnt so we go to Temple Beth Israel

    or we used to go to Congregation Beth Yesharim but the cantor ran over my dog, so now we go to the Chabad across town

    or all the intellectual/hot women/men my age/my type are involved with that new indie minyan/havurah/Essene sect in the middle of the Negev, so i’m trying out that for now


    shmuel · December 3rd, 2009 at 11:47 pm
  19. i think shmuel may have hit the head on the nail…


    Justin · December 4th, 2009 at 12:39 am
  20. FM is wrong, as usual. The Reformers were pushed by the anti-haskala and ABSOLUTIST orthodox rabbis of the day to form their own ideology. When you couldn’t break from the constrictive vise that was exemplified by the Chasam Sofer (kol hadash etc.), what else could you do?

    Contrast this with the pre-denominational Sephardic world (don’t forget them!), where ideology mattered much less than ethnic identity and the keeping of traditions (Spinoza aside, of course). Diversity of opinion and observance were tolerated, so there was no need for splintering.


    B.BarNavi · December 4th, 2009 at 2:51 am
  21. BTW, I think aesthetic has more to do with ritual than anything. Does a minyan/congregation use instruments? Does it do a traditional nusah, or an abbreviated version thereof, or an innovative nusah?


    B.BarNavi · December 4th, 2009 at 2:57 am
  22. BBN-that’s an interesting take, except the Hasam Sofer wrote is teshuva on kol hadash in RESPONSE to the actions of the “Reformers.” As far as I have been taught, it seems pretty well documented that what we now know of as the Orthodox movement was a reaction to the Reform movement, not the other way around. And sure enough, the stringency in Ashkenazi halakhah has only increased since the Reform movement came on the scene.


    Justin · December 4th, 2009 at 1:21 pm
  23. Shmuel writes:
    these ideological distinctions are irrelevant. in real life it’s more like:
    (1) If that’s true, you can boil down most ideological movements to sociology (including the Soviet Communist Party, the Taliban and the Catholic church).
    (2) If so, you’re not accounting for anything except how certain people choose other people to hang out with, but not why they do it in the framework of a shul (or party cell or Mosque or church).
    (3) The people who hang out with the other people are uninteresting at this point, b/c all they do is hang out.
    (4) What is interesting are the people with whom others hang out. These people are the bearers of “ideology”.
    (5) Your point is now moot, QED.


    Amit · December 5th, 2009 at 7:29 pm
  24. Your point is now moot, QED.

    This is incredibly obnoxious.

    Isn’t it the case that the ideological factors make a significant difference (i.e. they’re certainly not irrelevant, as shmuel suggested), but that there can be any number of sociological factors in play as well, and that people do in fact make decisions about communities on the basis of decidedly non-ideological criteria?

    I realize that not’s the most controversial thesis of all time (and we can debate in what proportions ideology and sociology appear in various communities), but at least I’m not spouting “QED” nonsense.


    miri · December 6th, 2009 at 2:36 am
  25. I never claimed they did not “make a significant difference”, only that they were irrelevant.


    Amit · December 6th, 2009 at 8:01 am
  26. The question has been confused. I was merely talking about what the labels mean, not how people chose amongst them. Of course, social, emotional, geographical and other non-ideological factors play a role in those decisions. But whether Shmuel is closer to synagogue A or B doesn’t bear on whether A is a chavurah nor whether it is affiliated with a movement.

    Responding to BZ’s I think I would have called this “structural”. Prayer aesthetic is a third axis. (Lay-ledness goes beyond prayer.)
    What I mean by aesthetic is things that have to do with the feel of the place or attitudes (values, etc) about how services works (who participates, what tunes are used, how much in vernacular, do most people sing along) as opposed to broader political questions such as do people believe torah to be literally true (given at sinai? source criticism), what are attitudes towards israel, etc. Not sure which category to put egalitarianism in, perhaps elements of it fit in both places.

    Regarding Hadar v. Havurat Shalom, I think it is best to compare the two in their early years when they were being formed. I think that Hadar started as mostly providing services and that separate learning activities came later. Did (or does) Hadar have many social (non-davening-related) gatherings? Did (or does) it participate in political events? Did (or does)it have cultural (non-davening) events?
    The last major difference is the community question. In the early Havurat Shalom, most folks knew each other quite well. This was possible since membership was limited and fairly small. I suspect no one knows all Hadar attendees on a given shabbat morning, nor is that the goal. This is a primary and critical difference.


    ZT · December 14th, 2009 at 11:11 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik