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Are Affiliations Necessary?

I was asked to explain two things this weekend, and the more I think about them, the more I wonder how related they might be, and how useful it may or may not be to treat them as comparable. Those two things were the term “post-denominational” and what I think about voters who don’t affiliate with particular political parties.

For maybe a year and a half now, I’ve been exploring what
post-denominational Judaism is, could be and could mean in general for Jews, and I’ve
forgotten that such issues are still pretty fringe. There’s a great article from the Jerusalem Post on post-denominationalism, and it mentions my favorite indie minyan, the first place I ever heard describe itself as “post-denominational.” To do an extremely Reader’s Digest recap, post-denominationalism is a thought, a theory, a new way of enacting Judaism that rejects the idea that denominations are the best vehicle to carry us into the next century. Why worry about Conservative/Orthodox/Conservadox/Reform, etc.? We have other words to define ourselves (like “traditional” vs. “non-traditional”, egalitarian vs. not, more halakhically-bound vs. less so, and oh-so-many other categories that sites like Jew It Yourself help us learn to use). Why be more divisive than necessary?

Well, according to Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed in New York, because it’s the only way to get anything done. Using Max Weber’s church/sect breakdown, Rabbi Kalmanofsky concludes that one major reason to allow your small, “sect-y,” invigorated, manageable sect grow larger, less manageable, bureaucratic and obtuse (as a “church”) is because it gives you the clout—and the numbers, and often the cash—to get something done.

Rabbi Kalmanofsky has many ideas on the topic, but I leave those to another venue. I ran up against this idea—that it’s more important to have the numbers and bulk to raise money and cause fear—in political conversations recently. And thus we come to middle-of-the-road voters. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that there is a single American who hadn’t decided at least what party he or she intends to vote for, but of course they exist.

So, is it more important that I describe myself as a progressive or a liberal or a Democrat? I’m fully registered, and all those words are true. There are things the Democratic party does that I don’t agree with, and certainly that individual Dems do that I outright reject (Harry Reid, I’m looking at your flag-burning vote right now). But I strongly affirm my allegiance to the party, even when it makes me want to retch a little. Why? Because it’s the only way to insure that things get done. How else to accumulate money, support, and votes for issues I care about? The two-party system is pretty entrenched, and so I play along with it.

I’m not done thinking about the structural similarities between these two issues. For all that Judaism is not a two-party system, certain money, as well as a lot of power and prestige, flows along “partisan” lines. How should I reconcile my interest in post-denominationalism with the part of me that fiercely guards my voter registration card? For how long ought the pressing demands of practicality rein over a more intuitive self-definition.

Well, once we’ve got a Democrat in the White House, I guess I’ll have more time to worry about this sort of stuff. So I guess I’ll check back in with more ideas in November.

–Mel Weiss.