Denominations of Judaism

Philologus had a column a few weeks ago where he claimed:

“Denomination” in contemporary English is a rather sociological-sounding word; it’s what you call someone else’s religion, not your own. Can it be, then, that the real reason more American Jews are now using it is that they have come to regard Judaism as someone else’s religion?

As I was reading it, I knew that it was not true because I was in the middle of typing texts from the early 20th century in which both Reform and Orthodox Jews called themselves “denomination.” I also remembered that Marshall Sklare had used the term in the 1950’s. I was not going to respond since I already responded to one of his articles using Ngram to show he was wrong. Why do it again? But then I received an email from a friend who knows about language, and writes better than I do, exasperated about the column on denominations. After a few emails back and forth, sharing ideas and sharing places to check, the following guest post emerges from my email friend. I found the quote from Sklare, he found the use of the word streams. The humor is not mine but I post the entire thing.

Guest post by Philobiblios
Philologus is back to writing op-eds under the guise of philology. This week he claims that the use of the word “denomination” is new to Judaism. Its usage reflects a nefarious combination of Christian and apathy by liberal Jews impinging the authentic Jewish lexicon which, he says, prefers the term “movement.”

Philologus may have missed Marshall Sklare’s classic, Conservative Judaism (1955), which explains the rise and fall of different groups based on the Chicago School’s theory of first, second, and third places of immigrant settlement. Sklare repeatedly uses the word denomination to discuss the shift from the denomination of Orthodoxy to that of Conservative. “Jews who rise in social class might simply leave one denomination, Orthodoxy, and switch their affiliation to Conservative or Reform. “ The term was used in all subsequent literature based on Sklare. Most Jewish sociologists continued to use the word (e.g. Chaim Waxman; Jack Wertheimer). Even amateur sociologists used it; see, for example, Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend (1977), where the three American denominations are discussed on page 118.

Ok, maybe Philologus had no interest in the Conservative movement of his youth. But he should have know that at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions the Jewish speakers presented as part of the Jewish Denominational Congress. American Jews were proud to take their stand as another faith and denomination.
In fact, between 1893 and 1919, most references to the “movements“ are to the Reform denomination and the Orthodox denomination. (AB-I was actually working on these texts of the early twentieth century text when the op-ed appeared.)

Maybe Philologus does not like universalistic sociology and prefers his beloved tribal Zionism. Zionists surely would not use such a goyish word. But no. Jacob de Haas, the Hasidic and Haredi Zionist leader who worked with Brandeis to build American Zionism, used the word Jewish denominations throughout the 1940’s and 1950s. Maybe Philogos doesn’t like de Haas because he can’t fathom that a Zionist would be Hasidic and not a pork eater.

In any event, already in 1935 the term was being used to describe the constituents of the Synagogue Council of America.

So what’s wrong with movements? No doubt the association with bowels makes the word less than ideal for copy editors (though it offers possibilities for low-minded headline writers.)

The current term, my journalist friends tell me, is “streams.” This is a translation of the Hebrew zerem, and has been the standard word out of Israeli dispatches since the 1970’s. Some of the earliest citations come from reports of Israeli leadership, in the late ’70s and ’80s, promising American machers that if they came to power, they would work to recognize all “streams” of Judaism. How the term zerem came to apply to the religious movements, or denominations, is an interesting question.

But when it comes to English words, however, Philologus has to learn to use Google Books, the Ngram, and various other online archives before creating non-existent philology.

One response to “Denominations of Judaism

  1. I like “streams”. Streams gather tributaries, and flow into rivers, so it doesn’t connote a singular centralized organization. Movement tends to connote a singular organization, devoted to one or a set of ideas – the Free Speech Movement, the Reform Movement (now Union for Reform Judaism), etc.

    I like R Micha Berger’s idea, that Orthodoxy is not a movement, but is a property of various movements: Modern, Mussar, various Chasidish, Yeshivish (their grand rebbe is RYSE?), lehavdil Sabbatean, etc., each with their own institutions.

    Conservative and Reform are more centralized, at least in this country – they have singular congregational (USCJ/URJ), rabbinic (RA/CCAR), and educational (HUC/JTSA[/UJ what used to be JTS-LA]) organizations.

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