Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism revisited

It's been almost five years since I posted the Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism. Since then, it has become the foundation for the influential Hilchot Pluralism series (of which I can't take credit for any of the content, only for writing the ideas up and disseminating them around the world). From the beginning, the taxonomy was identified as a "work in progress", so I'd like to make a revision, inspired by rethinking some of this material in preparation for teaching a workshop on Hilchot Pluralism at this past weekend's Independent Minyan Conference.

The stages of pluralism were originally modeled on Piaget's stages of cognitive development and Kohlberg's stages of moral development. (Thanks, NYC Teaching Fellows, for the free M.A. in education!) That is, the premise was that a community's discourse would advance from one stage to the next to the next (or at least that a community is primarily in a single stage at any given time, and this stage characterizes all of its pluralistic discourse).

Now I'm thinking the stages are actually more like Erikson's stages of psychosocial development (which have previously been mentioned in Hilchot Pluralism, but then I was referencing Erikson's actual content; now I'm just drawing an analogy). That is, even when a community moves on to a new stage, the previous stages remain present.

Even if a community functions primarily in Stage 3, the Hilchot Pluralism series has shown repeatedly that there are many cases in which a Stage 3 solution is not possible. A solution in which no one has to compromise is nice work if you can get it, but in the event that this is not possible, yet the community wants to both stay together and maintain some sort of pluralistic approach on the given issue, it must seek some sort of compromise. This often means functioning in Stage 2 despite its flaws. And there are even cases when Stage 1 is unproblematic even for a community that ordinarily operates in Stage 3. For example, the two-table system may represent a Stage-3 approach to pluralistic potlucks, but if a community is having a catered meal (so that the different approaches to kashrut in participants' kitchens are not relevant), the Stage-1 "common denominator" logic (leading to using a caterer under kashrut supervision) may work just fine. And if Stage 0 is non-pluralism, every community has things that it is non-pluralistic about.


So is it time for a Hilchot Pluralism Part VIII yet? If so, what belongs in it? One question that people asked repeatedly over the weekend is how to deal with "Who is a Jew?" issues, but I'm not aware of any satisfactory pluralistic approach to the question (beyond Stage 1, which is quite unsatisfactory in this case). All the Jewish denominations have official stances on "Who is a Jew", and independent minyanim have the luxury of not taking a stance until it arises as a practical question. This means that if anyone asks the question in theory, an independent community can honestly answer that it doesn't have any official position. But that is no help if and when the question arises in practice.


  1. In the case of "who is a Jew," is it not satisfactory to say that someone who presents his/herself to the community as a Jew is accepted as such, in a "we're not gonna ask specifics" kind of way?

  2. Until you start getting into question of, "do we have a minyan", "who can get an aliya", "who can lead", etc... In fact I feel like almost every minyan needs to have a position on who is a Jew. They may not explicitly endorse a specific movements answer, but in practice they may follow the same standards as a specific movement.

  3. That's ok in the short term, and is the de facto practice in most communities (including those that do have a defined standard of "who is a Jew") - I've never been asked which of my parents were Jewish, whether I converted, etc. (though I acknowledge that this may be white privilege in some cases). But in the long term, this amounts to "Don't Ask Don't Tell", and means that people whose Jewish status may be disputed have to remain in the closet about their personal history. And this provides no solution to what to do if someone is known by others in the community to have a disputed status. (In communities with a defined standard, the next step is at least well-defined, if unpleasant.) The "minyan check" system could in theory address the question of how to count a minyan (albeit at potential great embarrassment to such an individual), but I don't see a pluralistic solution to what roles this person can take on in the community.

  4. Interesting comment ...

    No one ever asked me to "represent" about being a Jew, but then again, I look the part.

    The question of "disputed status" within the Jewish community, like the question of the status of the children of foreign workers born in Israel, cannot and should not so easily be set aside in the pursuit of pluralism.

    A cautionary tale: In 2005, Israel's Supreme Court instructed Shas MK and Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai to register Jews converted Reform (which clearly clarifies status, does it not?) as "Jews" on their Teudot Zehut ... To prevent this "shonda" from happening, Yishai scrapped the ethnicity category altogether.

    Is this pluralism's dealbreaker?

  5. Dan M: I think the nationality line was removed earlier. Either that, or you're not referring to te`udot zehut. Mine was issued February 2003, and my nationality is eight asterisks.

  6. There're people in our conservative minyan that are not halakhicaly Jewish, but I don't know who knows, and if we should do anything about it, as it's kind of sensitive..

  7. OJ-
    Conservative minyanim at least have a definition of "halakhically Jewish". Independent minyanim (in the state of nature) don't.

  8. This is a constant issue for me, since I'm active in a Friday-night minyan and my mother isn't Jewish. For us, the person leading ma'ariv is responsible for the minyan count, and generally that person knows my deal and can make their own decision on it just like they have general free reign on the service in general (such as deciding whether to include the matriarchs or not). Obviously, not a solution that's going to work for every community.

    It's pretty not satisfactory to just not ask, not tell. This is a message that you're only welcome in a community if you pretend to be someone else. I'd much rather not count in the minyan than feel like I can't talk about my mother. I've had experiences where I'll bring up my status (usually when we're waiting for a 10th) and everyone will tell me they would prefer I kept quiet. But that's their problem, not mine-- if you think "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the way to go, then I think it's time to question what your "who is a Jew" standards are and what your reasons are, and whether you should adopt different standards you can take more seriously.