Monday, July 18, 2005

Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism

Upon request from EMM. This is a work in progress, so suggestions are welcome.

Just as there are different stages of moral development or cognitive development, there are also stages of development in Jewish pluralism. These stages characterize organizations and communities (I'm not mentioning any specific organizations, so classifying them is left as an exercise to the reader), but can also characterize individuals. Just as a 1st-grade teacher would become frustrated if s/he taught on the assumption that his/her students were at the formal-operational stage, it is difficult to bring people into Stage 3 pluralism if Stage 1 is still a stretch for them.

I don't think that all Jewish organizations/communities should be fully pluralistic (in the sense of accommodating everyone); there is also a need for organizations/communities that advocate a particular ideology. In fact, true pluralism is impossible if the participants do not have the opportunity to refine their own ideologies and identities. Therefore, this taxonomy should not be seen as an attack on non-pluralistic Jewish communities. However, it should perhaps be seen as a prod for communities that seek to be pluralistic but are underdeveloped in that regard.

Each of these stages represents not a particular solution to the pluralism question, but a way of framing the debate. Within each stage, many different solutions can arise, but the discourse rests on a particular set of assumptions.

Stage 1: "Frummest common denominator". In this stage, Orthodox practice is the standard for the whole community, and is believed to be the most inclusive. E.g. if some people can only have a man leading birkat hamazon, and other people can have a man or a woman, then the answer is to have a man lead birkat hamazon.

The problem with this approach is not only that Orthodox practice is accepted as the communal standard, but that Orthodox cognitive frames (forbidden/permitted/required) are accepted as the communal meta-standard. Those who can claim that egalitarianism is a halachic imperative for them have some success arguing against these policies, but those liberal Jews who hold a different understanding of Judaism (and therefore don't hold the trump cards of saying that something is forbidden/required for them) are simply silenced. Some might be "uncomfortable", which leads us into Stage 2.

Stage 2: "Let's make everyone comfortable." I wrote the following to an email list a few months ago (and the discussion on that list was specifically about prayer, but this can be applied to other areas):

Where I think the emphasis on "comfort" comes from:
Many of us have strongly-held beliefs that translate into forms of communal davening, whether we believe in the equality of people without regard to gender, or in a form of halacha that draws sharp distinctions based on gender. But the pluralism conversation rarely focuses on the merits of these beliefs (and probably shouldn't), for two reasons:

1) Saying "I think your deeply-held beliefs are wrong" isn't a productive way to open a conversation. By having the conversation in the first place, we've implicitly agreed to disagree on some of these things.
2) Everyone realizes that they're not going to be struck by lightning if they daven once in a manner that wouldn't have been their first choice, and thus can't convincingly say that they can't daven that way -- especially those who are egalitarian (who can thus have no problem in principle with a man leading, since in their ideal world, men would be leading 50% of the time anyway, not that anyone would be counting) and those who recently became Orthodox ("Dude, what do you mean you can't daven egal? You davened egal last month!").

So instead, we use the language of "comfort": "I'm not comfortable with X, but would be more comfortable with Y." "How can we find a solution that makes everyone comfortable?" I think this is bad for several reasons:
  • "Comfort" is a vague term that elides the distinction between comfort mamash (like sitting in a recliner) and deep convictions. "I'm uncomfortable in this itchy sweater" vs. "I'm uncomfortable with our government sitting back while the AIDS epidemic decimates Africa's population."
  • This elevates comfort mamash, and encourages people to stay in boxes, and boxes to stay firm. Innovation and creativity are sacrificed on the altar of comfort. "This is how i'm comfortable davening" = "This is what I'm most familiar with" = "This is how I must daven every time".
  • Conversely, this denigrates deep convictions, because if deep convictions are nothing more than "comfort", then they are open to the criticism of "everyone should leave their comfort zone and try something new", with no qualitative distinction made between singing unfamiliar melodies and doing something which one believes to be a violation of halacha, human dignity, etc.

Stage 3: The dialogue focuses not on forbidden/permitted/required, and not on comfort, but on identity. I can visit someone else's community and participate in something that I wouldn't have chosen for myself, and it's not the end of the world for me, but at the same time I'm quite conscious that it is not my community. Therefore, the questions for the pluralistic community are: How can we (as a community) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we (as individuals) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we form a community that all of us identify with as our community? How can we (as individuals) make sure that our communities reflect our identities?

In order to make this kind of pluralism possible, it is necessary for the various Jewish identities to be robust and confident. The insecurity and ignorance in some parts of the Jewish world would make those parts be swallowed alive under this model, which is one reason that this stage is not so widespread yet. We don't yet know what pluralistic communities will look like when more of them enter Stage 3; this is a story that we still have to write.


  1. You have some interesting points - and your column is helpful for those of us determined to resist the continue Americanization and Femnization of the Jewish community.

  2. Thank you for a post that actually puts some thought into what we mean when we say "pluralism."

    I live in a large(-ish) Jewish community far from NYC (gasp!), and I think that pluralism within my local Jewish community is a value given lots of lip service, but rarely actually practiced. Except, perhaps, by individuals who are willing to "shul hop" (something not as common here as in Manhattan & Brooklyn). Our JCC doesn't count -- the common denominator there is the fitness center. Its Jewish programming is not a well thought out plan, more of a hodge-podge of whatever anyone is willing to do.

    So, one question might be, where are the sites (outside of cyberspace) where we can put Jewish pluralism into practice?

    One of the interesting things to me about the contemporary Protestant world in the United States today is the phenomenon of "ecumenical Christian" seminaries. I taught Judaism for a year at one such school in Texas (a neat experience in & of itself) and was fascinated that Methodists, Baptists, etc., etc. don't necessarily need to go to a seminary specifically for their own denomination, but that they would still be eminently qualified for a clergy position within one of their denomination's churches.

    I don't know that ecumenical and pluralistic are exactly the same thing, but I'm struck by the opportunity this space provides to future clergy who will go on to serve quite different movements (e.g, the conservative Southern Baptists vs. the liberal Disciples of Christ). I think such "ecumenical Jewish" religious spaces are rare.

    Finally, I'm confused about David Kelsey's post -- I'm not really sure what he means.

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful and objective post. We need more of this (and less denigration) on the blogosphere.

    It begs the question, though, how can a small group of Stage 3 individuals survive in what appears to still be a Stage 1 world? ESPECIALLY among Jewish bloggers?

    Seriously, I'd be interested in your response.

    Destined to Choose: A Rabbi David Cohen Novel

  4. I think we need to carve out some Stage 3 niches to serve as model communities.

  5. New word suggestion.
    When frumkeit trumps egalitarianism -
    it's "frumping".

  6. i really enjoy this think-through of the issues so many of us struggle with all the time. i don't know, though, that the notion of various models existing side by side so that people can drop in and out of their ultimate comfort zones really works outside of new york, silver spring, or jerusalem. we've only got one minyan focused on traditional davening in san francisco, so we've GOT to work on making it work for everyone. cause otherwise, people stay at home and are alone, and that's no good.

    as we joke, perhaps soon we'll inspire a breakaway minyan, and then folks can shul hop. :)

    1. Are you talking about Mission Minyan? 'Cause I visited it a couple years ago and loved it. You guys are doing a great job with pluralism; I was impressed by the solution you'd created.

  7. Finding "ultimate comfort zones" is only a goal in Stage 2, and is probably impossible and/or undesirable. If you've found a model that respects everyone's identities and that everyone can identify with, even if some people are uncomfortable, then you've reached Stage 3. Yasher koach!

    See the rest of the Hilchot Pluralism series for some of the nuts-and-bolts applications.

  8. Couldn't help but notice that these stages lead, remarkably, from viewpoints you disagree with (based on concepts such as duty and obligation) to viewpoints you agree with (based on concepts such as personal identity and personal choice.) Since the staging framework enables you to associate people who think differently from you as having a low stage of pluralism, their views are, according to this framework, less respectable and deserving of a deeper discount. In short, you're simply classifying people by whether you agree with them or not, and your pluralism consists of the extent you get your way.

  9. Anonymous-
    I'm not "classifying people" at all, but classifying communities based on the discourse that they use to make pluralistic decisions. Let's not confuse the framework that individuals use to determine their own beliefs and practices with the meta-framework that a pluralistic community uses to enable individuals with different frameworks to live together. In Stage 1, the meta-framework is coterminous with one particular framework. Therefore, Stage 1 pluralism works for individuals who hold different practices within the same framework, but not for individuals with different frameworks.

    Stage 3's identity-based discourse recognizes that people in the community are operating within different frameworks, including the framework of obligations and prohibitions that characterizes Stage 1. Though Stage 3 focuses on identity, it recognizes that obligations of many different sorts are key elements of many people's identities. Stage 3 is thus a more advanced form of pluralism because it can accommodate a wider range of people as full normative members of the community.

    One can make an argument that it is better for a community to have a shared sense of duty and obligation than for it to recognize the personal choices and identities of each individual. While one might argue that this is more desirable, I don't see how this could be called more pluralistic. I'm not suggesting that Stage-3 pluralism should supplant non-pluralistic communities that are committed to specific values to the exclusion of other values, but I am suggesting that communities that are attempting to be pluralistic should move toward Stage 3.

    The ordering of the stages is also based on empirical observation; I've never seen pluralistic communities move chronologically from Stage 3 to 2, or 2 to 1.

    You say that "the staging framework enables you to associate people who think differently from you as having a low stage of pluralism". On the contrary. In Stage 3, people who think differently from me can be part of the same community as me, and both of our views are supported by the meta-framework. (And if their views are inherently anti-pluralistic such that they can't operate in this meta-framework, then yes, they are at a low stage of pluralism, but that's what their views are, then they shouldn't see this as pejorative.)

    You say that "your pluralism consists of the extent you get your way". I think that pluralism consists of the extent that everyone can get his/her way. But I concede that flawed human nature is such that if my framework were the sole framework legitimized by the Stage 1 meta-framework, I would be less motivated to lay out a road map to move beyond this status quo.

  10. Ben,
    This is a great post! I think various Limmud conference communities (and perhaps Caje before Limmud) have progressed through some of these stages and continue to work towards stage 3.

    I would like to respond to Jane that indeed one such seminary exists. It is called Hebrew College and houses both the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and the School of Jewish of Jewish Music. HC is located in Newton Centre outside of Boston. The rabbinical and cantorial schools are pluralistic. In each the school houses an intentional community of learners in constant stage 3 dialogue, according to Ben's model.

    Full disclosure: I work in admissions and recruitment for the the seminary and the graduate schools.

  11. Thank you for this post!

    I'm wondering, though, how these ideas work in practice. How can you avoid the frummest common denominator? For instance, if you're organizing a Shabbaton and have all of the sessions that involve art and instrumental music squished into Saturday night, that technically accommodates those who don't keep Shabbat al pi halacha. But, really, would they have structured it that way if not for those who keep Shabbat? Is it really fair to have to always defer to the requirements of those who are halachically observant? Yet, would it be fair not to?

    Or, what if someone wanted to have a session at a pluralistic convention exploring the idea of what it means to be a Jewish man or woman, but that makes many people uncomfortable -- those who don't fit into the gender binary, and those who don't like the idea of people having different Jewish roles based on gender, because they see that as inequality. It would seem the answer is not to have it, since it violates some people's convictions. However, that would mean refraining from having a discussion that some people would find valuable, and that does not seem to be in the spirit of pluralism, because it would silence some people's voices.

  12. But how does this version of pluralism differ from exclusion? What is it that distinguishes this conversation from that of accessibility for people with physical or mental disabilities, where we recognise that the best way to do something is usually the way that accommodates as many people as possible, even if it is not the first choice of most of them?

    For instance, if a person requires separate seating, or they require mixed seating, then is it appropriate to force them into an environment that does not provide that? Yes they can say "I am visiting this community and it is not my community" but by definition that means that you have not then built a community that includes that person.

  13. Kivi writes:
    For instance, if a person requires separate seating, or they require mixed seating, then is it appropriate to force them into an environment that does not provide that?

    As discussed in the post (and more deeply at this post), "requires" is a funny word. The Stage-1 discourse leads to people shoehorning all kinds of elements of communal practice into the category of an individual immediate requirement/prohibition, even when that's not always the most accurate or appropriate category.

    That said, separate seating vs. mixed seating is an area where there are people who genuinely won't pray under any circumstances in one or the other of these settings (even without being cornered by Stage-1 discourse). On this issue (and other isomorphic ones), the trichitza is a solution that works for some. But there is no solution that will enable two people to pray together if one won't pray in a setting where there is any mixed seating and the other won't pray in a setting where there is any gender-separated seating.

    But in the modern world, no one is "forced" into any environment - participation in any community is voluntary.

    Yes they can say "I am visiting this community and it is not my community" but by definition that means that you have not then built a community that includes that person.

    That's correct. No community can be 100% inclusive of everyone on every issue; on each issue, a community has to decide whether it is going to be pluralistic, and within what range. (See Hilchot Pluralism Parts II and VI for more on this.) And I think it's better to be up front about this than to claim to be completely inclusive but not actually be.