Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Two Jews, Three Opinions

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

Pluralism is one of the most significant trends in 21st-century Jewish life. Hillel is creating pluralistic Jewish communities on college campuses during many Jews’ formative years, and producing a generation of leaders committed to Jewish pluralism. The Limmud franchise is spreading to new cities every year. The National Havurah Committee is experiencing a boom led by a new generation. New communities are sprouting up outside of the institutional movements, and many of them are committed in one way or another to pluralism. Even decidedly non-pluralistic organizations like Chabad and Aish are using pluralistic rhetoric as a marketing tool.

But what is Jewish pluralism really about? Mah Rabu’s Hilchot Pluralism series examines the theory and practice of creating pluralistic Jewish communities, but focuses entirely on the “how”, not on the “why”. Hilchot Pluralism takes it for granted that the reader is interested in creating a pluralistic community (why else would s/he be reading it?), and doesn’t address the question of why pluralism would be desirable (other than bringing up some situations in which pluralism isn’t desirable or isn’t possible).

A new article in the Columbia Current starts to ask these other questions. Dov Friedman looks at different philosophical approaches to Jewish pluralism.

For those who believe that law is fundamentally correct and that other conceptions of Judaism are incorrect, their theology precludes them from creating and joining in communal practices that deviate from their understanding of Jewish law.

Alternatively, those who believe that Judaism houses an infinite number of truths are always at risk of losing a coherent foundation upon which to build their community; they may build a pluralist community, but what would tie such a community together? It would have nothing to rally around except pluralism itself—making pluralism the end instead of a means to a more harmonious community.

For those who believe in the value of pluralism, it is an ominous reality to be faced either with traditionalism that may stamp out pluralism, or with pluralism that may stamp out tradition. In order to understand what a fully “pluralist” perspective entails, we must examine the ways in which the term is used.

Friedman looks at visions of pluralism from a number of different sources, including Rabbi Saul Berman (Orthodox), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Renewal), Rabbi Neil Gillman (Conservative), Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (Reform), Jewschool’s own Dan “Mobius” Sieradski, and Jews in the Woods. He distinguishes among “legalistic pluralism”, “pure pluralism”, “theoretical pluralism”, “practical communal pluralism”, “financial pluralism”, and more. Do we recognize the possibility of truth in positions other than our own, or do we agree to disagree but look for ways to interact anyway? Do we seek to create a unified religious experience, or maintain our separate practices but make sure we all have a place in the wider community? There are many answers to these questions. Add your own!

I think the full picture is even more complex than what is presented here. For instance, Friedman writes that Jews with a legal approach to Judaism see Jewish law as “the single authentic way to practice Judaism” and therefore “a conception of pluralism that strives toward unity in religious practice is impossible with the Orthodox”. However, there are a multiplicity of views that consider themselves “halachic”, and even consider each other “halachic”, even within Orthodoxy, so there are still opportunities for pluralism within this world. For example, I have participated in a daily minyan that was unquestionably Orthodox where the prayer leader used either Ashkenazi or Sephardi liturgy depending on who was leading that day, and I have been to a Pesach meal at a Sephardi Orthodox home where the Ashkenazim (such as myself) simply didn’t eat the rice but ate everything else.

And the line between “legalistic pluralism” (”I am happy to collaborate with other Jews as long as my Jewish obligations are not compromised”) and other proposed forms of pluralism (”we can allow our personal practices to shift when we are not within our own communities”) is fuzzier than it seems. Certainly no one, even a “pure” pluralist, would expect kashrut observers to eat shrimp, or vegetarians to eat meat, for the sake of pluralism (though it might be reasonable, albeit a big pluralistic step, for them to be in a space where other people are eating those things). But it gets murkier when we leave the realm of personal prohibitions and obligations. Does the “legalistic” view mean only that the individual is not violating his/her understanding of halacha, or that the community as a whole is following that individual’s understanding of communal halacha? For example, would a trichitza be ok for someone with that view (since s/he could elect to stay in a single-gender section), or would a bichitza be necessary (so that the community as a whole is conforming to his/her understanding of halacha)? Based on individual obligations, there shouldn’t be any legal problem with an Orthodox Jew attending a (non-shofar) service led by a woman, since the halachic question at stake is whether a woman can fulfill the community’s obligation. This doesn’t mean that attending such a service would be unproblematic for such a person, but it means that “law” doesn’t fully describe the set of objections (even though it’s often tempting to claim that one’s objections are purely “halachic”) — the disconnect between such an individual and such a community goes beyond making sure that his/her individual obligations are fulfilled and his/her individual prohibitions are not violated. The flip side is that, while such an individual could thus never be a full member of such a community (even beyond “legalistic” reasons), there may be room, as Friedman suggests, for such an individual to be a “chameleon” when visiting such a community.

I fully endorse the conclusion that education is a prerequisite for true pluralism:

Education, it seems, is the common currency—the common language—that enables individuals not only to make informed religious decisions, but also to know what it is that they are not choosing. This is because education in Jewish texts, laws, and history is an effective tool to help shape one’s personal outlook on Jewish expression. Only with a solid educational foundation can Jews effectively move between Jewish communities and adapt to their respective standards seamlessly. Education, then, is emancipation—with sufficient knowledge of Jewish text and law, individuals not only have the power to choose their own ritual standards, but also have the freedom to adapt these standards in the interest of Jewish unity.

Read more, and join in the conversation.


  1. Wrist-wraggle/shkoyach/kudos/props on a more nuanced discussion of halakha and pluralism.

    On the topic of trichitza, BZ, I know you are on the lookout for early uses of it. How about this (discussing a Brooklyn synagogue in the 1920's):

    "It was decided that men and women should sit together in the two
    > center aisles while the extreme left section was reserved for men and
    > the extreme right section for women."
    > (/The Responsa of Rabbi Professor Louis Ginzberg/, Golinkin ed., JTSA
    > 1996, NY and Jerusalem, page 87, footnote 2)

  2. LOL, bichitza — best retronym ever (and with a link, even)