Monday, February 27, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part II: Yesodei HaTorah

This is the second in a series that chronicles and analyzes the pluralistic practices of independent Jewish communities.

Part I discussed the two-table system, an approach to kashrut for potluck meals in diverse communities. As suggested in a comment to Part I, Part III will be about prayer. But before we continue with the applied science, we need to build a stronger theoretical framework. Therefore, Part II will lay down some basic axioms for Stage 3 pluralism. If you want to argue with the axioms, comment on this post. Then, Part III and future parts will assume these axioms. "Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism" is a recommended prerequisite to this post.

I reiterate that a pluralistic community can be defined for our purposes as a community that includes multiple sets of beliefs, practices, or identities. Multiple; not necessarily all. Therefore, these ideas apply both to communities that seek to include the full possible range of Jewish identities, limited only by willingness to be part of a community with other Jewish identities (e.g. Hillel, Limmud NY), and to diverse communities that include a narrower subset of the whole (e.g. Kol Zimrah, the Kotel).

Furthermore, nothing in this series should be construed to mean that a "more pluralistic" community (i.e. one that encompasses a larger* set of identities) is inherently better. The only intended value judgment is that (following Rabban Gamliel's requirement of tocho kevaro ("its inside is like its outside"); see Berachot 28a) a community should be honest with itself about the extent of its pluralism. I.e., the community's policies and practices should encompass the same range** of identities as the population that the community seeks to include, no more and no less. Problems occur when a community claims to be inclusive but its practices fail to reflect the full range of its constituency.

*"Larger" is used loosely here. Formally speaking, all nondegenerate sets of possible Jewish identities have the same (infinite) cardinality, like the stars in heaven. There's a reason the mathematicians had to resort to the Hebrew alphabet!

**"Range" should be understood as a multidimensional subspace, not as a chunk of a linear spectrum.

With all that in mind, here are some axioms that define a pluralistic community, with commentary. (Note: The names Reuven and Shimon are chosen as a nod to their use as generic names in rabbinic literature, not to be sexist.)

Community C is a Stage-3 pluralistic community that includes {Reuven, Shimon, ...} iff for all Reuven and Shimon in C:

1) Reuven can participate in the community without being compelled to violate any of his core values, whether explicitly through his own action or inaction, or implicitly by being identified with the community.

Values are a central part of identity, so if Reuven cannot participate in the community in a manner consistent with his values, then the community does not include Reuven's identity.

Assuming tocho kevaro, as above, the second part of this axiom ("or implicitly by being identified with the community") is almost a tautology: the set of values that are so inherent to a given community that anyone who identifies with the community implicitly identifies with those values, defines the scope of the community's pluralism to include only people who hold those values.

"Include" here means include as a full member of the community, not merely as a visitor (or a ger toshav).

Pluralism doesn't mean that everyone should compromise equally; it means that the community should structure itself so that no one has to compromise.

That is, no one has to compromise on core values. But participants in the community should otherwise expect to make some adjustments to their expectations. Innovation and unfamiliarity should not be feared.

2) If Shimon's practices are contrary to Reuven's values, Reuven has no basis to prevent Shimon from carrying out Shimon's own practices, except to the extent that this interferes directly with #1.

If Reuven could require Shimon to follow Reuven's practices, then this would not be a pluralistic community that includes both Reuven and Shimon; Shimon would be merely a guest in Reuven's community. Shimon might be very welcome as a guest as long as he follows Reuven's practices, but that's not pluralism, that's kiruv.

3) Reuven and Shimon are free to discuss and argue their differences, and each is free to call the other one wrong.

Pluralism doesn't mean that we all agree, and doesn't mean that we all think that all of our points of view are equally valid. No "liberal talk radio problem" here. Supporting pluralism, and creating a forum for multiple viewpoints, does not preclude arguing forcefully for one's own viewpoint.

If Reuven and Shimon are part of a community that includes both of them, this provides a more conducive forum for discourse than if Reuven is a guest in Shimon's community or vice versa.


This is all theoretical, so let's look at a simple concrete example to see how these axioms can be translated into reality. Suppose that Reuven does not write on Shabbat, and Shimon writes on Shabbat, and they are both part of the same pluralistic community.

1) The community should not engage in an activity that compels each individual to write on Shabbat, and it goes without saying that the community should not pass an official resolution saying that Jews should (or should not) write on Shabbat. Thus, Reuven can participate in this community without writing on Shabbat.

2) Shimon may write on Shabbat in the context of this community, and Reuven has no basis for claiming that Shimon shouldn't write on Shabbat. If Reuven's idea of a "Shabbat atmosphere" is one in which no one is writing on Shabbat, then Reuven isn't really interested in being in a pluralistic community with Shimon. Not that there's anything wrong with that; see above. And Reuven and Shimon can still get along. But let's call a spade a spade.

3) Now that Reuven and Shimon and Dina and Tamar and Zevulun and Asenat are all in a community together, they can freely discuss why they do what they do. Reuven says that writing is one of the 39 melachot that are forbidden d'oraita, and Shimon says that writing is his method of creative expression that best captures the spirit of Shabbat as a day of rest, and Dina says that creative expression is exactly what should be avoided on Shabbat, and Tamar says that writing isn't about creative expression for her but is a way to jot things down so that they can be remembered later, and Zevulun says that Shabbat is about living in the present and not worrying about what comes later, and Asenat says that Shabbat is about temporarily creating an ideal world davka so that a taste of it can be carried into the rest of the week, and they go back and forth about these questions until they see three stars in the sky, and then they all make havdalah together and live happily ever after. The End.


In Part III, we'll look at communal prayer. What issues do you want to see in Part IV?


  1. Great post; lots of food for thought. Though I wonder: the example you picked, writing, is inherently an individual activity. I wonder how well the axioms, especially the second, apply to something that's inherently communal.

    But I'll wait and see what you have to say in part III first.

  2. i agree desh. The hard part of pluralism is when standards (religious, ethical or otherwise) conflict. I'm interested in how we use to two table model for things like prayer. Recently in israel the pluralism question I am facing is do I go visit friends in settlements for shabbat? They don't impose their ideology on me just being there, but by going I am supporting the settlement project. Not only that, I think settlements are bad, so I cant really do the live and let live. I guess this is just the boundary of my pluralism.

  3. I third desh's wonder. How could this apply to something like playing music (live or recorded), where Asenat might say "Listening to music violates my core values" while others require music playing for the fulfillment of their Shabbat practice? Perhaps this will be explored with prayer in part III.

  4. I'm not promising any easy answers in the prayer post. The music on Shabbat question has no answer yet. In Part III, I plan to pick the low-hanging fruit.

  5. I have really been enjoying this thread, Yasher Koach for taking on an important question for our communities.

    One thing on writing, I was in a situation where a shomer shabbos (according to strict ortho halachah) speaker was speaking on shabbat. There were people in the discussion for whom writing was not an issue of work and were taking notes on the lecture. In that they were Jewish, the speaker was noticably unconfortable with the note-taking but did not say anything.

    In this situation, writing becomes a communal-ish activity and then falls into a category of that asked by Desh.

  6. In this situation, writing becomes a communal-ish activity and then falls into a category of that asked by Desh.

    Ka mashma lan.

  7. What if the pluralistic discussion gets to the point where someone feels uncomfortable? Unfortunately not everyone in the world is capable of keeping a discussion civil and stopping it from turning into a heated arguement/insult of a person's core beliefs. Then what?

    [No, of course I'm not talking about my last livejournal post...and the currently invisible war that ensued there... not at all...] But seriously, is it ok/necessary to cut off conversation at a certain point?

  8. At that point it's no longer a question of pluralism, it's a question of individual decency.

  9. BZ, I left you a comment here yesterday, but your blog ate it, and then I left another and the same thing happened. I think I mis-typed the word verification. Are they getting longer or is that just my imagination?

    Anyway, my comment (which I may yet try to post a third time) was basically asking if you really think it's possible for no one to have to compromise if, for example, you're including Orthodox people and people to whom the traditional practice of kashrut and Shabbat is anathema. I would define those as two pretty far ends of the spectrum. (I'm not saying that anyone in your pluralistic communities feels that the traditional practice of kashrut and Shabbat is anathema, I'm just giving a hypothetical.)

    There are a lot of cases where, for example, Orthodox Jews won't want to benefit from any melacha (as defined by the Orthodox rabbinate or common Orthodox practice or whatever) performed by Jews on Shabbat, so even sitting in a room and using a light which a Jewish person has turned on during Shabbat would be a problem. There are Orthodox people who won't trust the kashrut of anyone who is not shomer(et) Shabbat according to Orthodox halacha, which means that even the two table system is impossible (you said it could be stage 3, not just stage 2, which would imply that it could work and no one could have to compromise).

    On a related note, you wrote:
    "Innovation and unfamiliarity should not be feared."
    I agree on the unfamiliarity thing, but innovation is trickier for me. Even though Orthodox innovates all the time, it innovates at a much slower pace than everyone else (feel free to disagree, I might be wrong) and has a strong anti-innovation streak, even against innovation within its self-defined halachic system. I kind of think that there's something to be said for that anti-innovation thing, although not in all circumstances.

    Feel free to say that this isn't an interesting question to you, but as a semi-Orthodox person who often would like to participate in cool Jewish stuff but cannot because of other, overriding beliefs, this is a very important issue to me. Is there a way to resolve it or am I permanently excluded because of my insanely rigid and uncompromising beliefs? I recognize that arguments like this are why stage 1 pluralism is so popular and frustrating for non-Orthodox Jews, but what's the solution, really, if you're going to include Orthodox Jews, as most college Hillels and such must?

    (Sorry that this is so long. Each time a comment got eaten I thought of more to say.)

  10. No, I'm not sure it's possible in all cases for no one to have to compromise; the next post in this series will include a number of unanswered questions. The examples you bring up show that not every combination of people is ready to form a Stage-3 pluralistic community. However, I think that Stage 3 (understanding everyone's identities and values) can still be a framework for discourse.

    But yes, it's hard when some of the values involved are inherently non-pluralistic (like in the Orthodox cases you cite, or ironically, as I'll discuss in Part III, in many Reform communities).

    BTW, from looking at all the offerings at the YU book sale last week, I think Orthodoxy innovates at a very fast pace, but most often l'hachmir.

  11. But, to clarify that last comment, innovation need not be halachic, and need not be either l'hakil or l'hachmir. Examples of Orthodox innovation include online Daf Yomi shiurim and the IDT Yeshiva.

  12. Perhaps it is just human decency. But at the same time, I feel a bit guilty for not letting everyone express their beliefs. It's all hidden, but there are a lot of people whose religious beliefs are that by not pursuing Orthodox Judaism, I'm making a big mistake. Which they have the right to think, but when it gets to the point of "you're denying G-d!" someone has to call things off.

    But it makes me wonder if it really is possible for us all to get along. I feel like many Orthodox Jews have the underlying agenda of Kiruv, because in their belief, all us non-Orthos really are doing something wrong by not keeping halacha the way they interpret it. I resent the Orthodox monopoly on Halacha, and how it's assumed that if you don't buy into it, you're insulting Tzaddikim, who know oh so much more than we do now in our lack of knowledge.

    I don't know if Reuven will let Shimon practice the way he wants to without feeling his own principles are violated. And Shimon will resent Reuven for looking down on his practices.

    I've lost faith in klal yisrael.

    Though as for ALG's question of tables, you can always have some packaged hekshered food that hopefully no one would have a problem eating, so then the Orthodox Jews who only eat food made in Orthopraxically shomer shabbas houses have something they can eat, and everyone can join in on that. Not everthing has to be hand-cooked.

  13. Excellent Piece!
    the case of writing on shabbat does not deal with the case of people who choose to engage in a specific ritual together, but only with people who wish to share space together. In choosing to share a ritual, Reuven and Shimon's ideas about how the ritual may be performed may be mutually exclusive, or exclude some options very important to one member. The way the ritual is performed may exclude some people's practice (ex. using instruments on shabbat is not acceptable to some shabbat observers, and may make them feel unable to participate in the service) or even exclude categories of people (ex. women). Sharing space seems the easiest to agree on, if we agree to not care about what our neighbor is doing (which is an interesting idea in and of itself). Sharing ritual is a bit trickier. Sharing ritual when it involves compromises that categorically exclude people is the trickiest. How do we deal with the question of asking for some people to be excluded in order for others to be included?
    Keep up the great posts.