Saturday, November 21, 2009


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Blogging from the Bolt Bus on the way, appropriately, to the National Havurah Committee board meeting:

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wrote this insightful post last fortnight following the elections:

Why did Democrats lose in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday? Because independent voters moved against them, say the pundits.

This is true [... b]ut it doesn’t really tell us very much. It’s a lot like saying: the Yankees won the Game 6 last night because they scored more runs than the Phillies. Or: the unemployment rate went up because there were fewer jobs.

It’s worth a read in its own right, but I want to focus on one section and draw an analogy to the Jewish community:

Part of the problem is that ‘independents’ are not a particularly coherent group. At a minimum, the category of ‘independents’ includes:

1) People who are mainline Democrats or Republicans for all intents and purposes, but who reject the formality of being labeled as such;
2) People who have a mix of conservative and liberal views that don’t fit neatly onto the one-dimensional political spectrum, such as libertarians;
3) People to the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, who consider the Democratic and Republican parties to be equally contemptible;
4) People who are extremely disengaged from politics and who may not have fully-formed political views;
5) True-blue moderates;
6) Members of organized third parties.

These voters have almost nothing to do with each other and yet they all get grouped under the same umbrella as ‘independents’.

Similarly, many overlapping terms are used for Jewish individuals and communities who are not affiliated with any of the major denominations: independent, unaffiliated, nondenominational, postdenominational, Just Jewish, etc. Each of these terms connotes somewhat different shades of meaning, but even so, within each such category, and certainly within the union of all those categories, there are people who “have almost nothing to do with each other” except for what they aren’t. And so when we try to talk about people and communities outside the denomination, we suffer from the same confusion and conflation that Silver writes about, conflating essentially the same six categories that he lists (among others).

American political discourse often assumes incorrectly that all “independents” are in category 5, with positions right in between the Democrats and the Republicans (and so the way for a party to pick up these voters is to adopt some of the other party’s positions), when in fact there are other types of independents too. Similarly, until very recently, “unaffiliated”/”Just Jewish” was associated strongly with category 4: “People who are extremely disengaged from [Judaism]“. (It was recently enough that I had to write this article to explain to a mainstream Jewish audience that this isn’t always the case, though I think the other types of “independent”/”unaffiliated”/etc. Jews have gotten enough attention since then that maybe the points in that article are now obvious to everyone. But maybe not.) The survey results seem to indicate that this is still true of most people who check “Just Jewish”, though I wonder how much those results are contaminated by active independent/nondenominational/blah Jews who also think of themselves as “Just Jewish” and aren’t survey geeks and therefore don’t know that “Just Jewish” isn’t the option they’re supposed to pick.

Even worse, category 4 is sometimes conflated with category 3: Some think that people who are extremely disengaged from Judaism are on the extreme left! This is the idea behind phrases like “very Reform” and “ultra-Reform”. The analogy to American politics shows this conflation to be ridiculous: you can’t have extreme-left views if you don’t have fully-formed [political | Jewish] views. There are also people who hold extreme-left Jewish views (along one or more axes in n-dimensional space, some of which can be classified as left-right spectra), but this is a very different population from the apathetic masses.

Participants in independent minyanim and other unaffiliated/nondenominational communities are often mischaracterized as falling into just one of these categories, when the reality is that there is great diversity within and among such communities, so they can’t be neatly placed into just one. One common characterization of independent minyanim, particularly those of the “traditional egalitarian” style, is that they are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”, i.e. Conservative in everything but name, placing them in category 1. Another common characterization is that they fit between two denominations on a linear left-right spectrum (category 5), e.g. “to the right of Conservative and to the left of Orthodox” or “to the right of Reform and to the left of Conservative”. (The former is wrong on the facts in many cases, while the latter is simply incoherent.) And indeed, there are some individuals who see themselves as Conservative (or Orthodox or Reform) in everything but name (or even in name too) and are involved in nondenominational communities, and other individuals who identify as “Conservadox” or some other hybrid of multiple denominations. But independent/nondenominational communities also include plenty of people from category 2: those whose approaches to Judaism can’t be placed on a one-dimensional spectrum.

In the comments, feel free to add to the list of types of “independent” Jews.


  1. I feel most at home in the academic milieu of JTS and other positive-historical scholarship, but often feel out of place in 'Conservative' congregations where there is a huge disconnect between the principles and scholarship of the movement and the knowledge and practice of general membership, including rabbis

  2. The best classification statement I know is the one attributed, I believe, to Rabbi David Hartman -- serious Jews vs. non-serious.

    However, my personal definition of serious would include a commitment to the injunctions in Pirkei Avot not to separate one's self from the community.

    As a "company man," I feel that al tifrosh is binding not only on individuals, but that the micro-community should be attached to its macro-community -- be that NHC, or URJ, or whatever.

    Terms like the horrendous very Reform and ultra-Reform that you cite are ignorant ways of saying I am of Jewish heritage but I don't practice anything. This contrasts with Just Jewish which means I am of Jewish heritage but I'm not affiliated with the Jewish community.

    The trouble with most of the movement labels is they assume a consistency of ideology, liturgical preference, and lifestyle which has no basis in reality -- and the disconnect is greatest in Conservative congregations where the practice expectations are clearly articulated and just as clearly not followed by "the general membership," as OJ points out.