Friday, December 29, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part VI: The limits of pluralism

Previous episodes:
This ongoing series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. This post, inspired by numerous comments on the previous posts, explores the limits of (Stage 3) pluralism. When is a pluralistic solution impossible or undesirable?


Before we get started, a few reminders (found in Part II):
  • A pluralistic community need not include everyone in order to be pluralistic. In fact, the examples in this post will show that if such a requirement were in place, then no pluralistic communities could exist.
  • If I say that Reuven's practice and Shimon's practice can't coexist in a Stage 3 pluralistic community, that's not a value judgment about either of their practices; it just means that they're mismatched for this purpose. They should live and be well in separate communities, or in the same community (in which one of them will not have his identity fully actualized within the community's practice). (I might separately believe that Reuven's or Shimon's practice is wrong, but I won't mention that in this post, because the purpose of this post is community engineering, not criticism of individual practices.)
  • It's ok for a community to take a stand on one side of an issue and thus be non-pluralistic on that issue. The community should just be honest that that's what's going on, and not claim to be a place for everyone.
With that in mind, let's look at some obstacles to Stage-3 pluralism.

The Meta-Pluralism Problem

Pluralism doesn't require meta-pluralism (pluralism about pluralism). Pluralism need not extend to encompass anti-pluralistic worldviews. You have to pay to play: if you want the protections of pluralism, you have to buy into pluralism yourself. This doesn't mean you have to believe that other positions are valid, but it does mean you have to respect their right to exist.

For example, during the recent controversy over the Jerusalem gay pride parade, supporters of the parade were accused of hypocrisy. The argument went something like "You liberals claim to be about pluralism and tolerance, but by having this parade, you're being intolerant of people who believe that homosexuality is wrong." The fallacy in this argument is that the anti-parade position was anti-pluralistic, and therefore did not warrant pluralistic protections. If the parade organizers had forced haredim to engage in gay sex, this would indeed have been intolerant and non-pluralistic. However, the haredi objections were directed at the very existence of the parade. No one can be expected to go out of existence in the name of pluralism. If the opponents of the parade want to maintain this anti-pluralistic position, they forfeit the right to use pluralism in support of their position.

More broadly, people who say "I can't be in a community where people are/do X" (where X = gay, Orthodox, pray, drive on Shabbat, whatever), and people who are/do X, can't coexist in the same pluralistic community (which sounds tautological as stated). Either the community decides to be pluralistic on this issue (in which case the former position is unwelcome, since it is anti-pluralistic), or the community decides not to be pluralistic on this issue and to place X outside the community norms (in which case people who are/do X can leave, or can stick around as guests but not as fully enfranchised members of the community).

The Classification Problem

Reuven and Shimon cannot form a Stage-3 pluralistic community together for a given purpose if Reuven's identity requires that the community formally recognize a classification among people that Shimon would perceive as making Shimon into a second-class citizen in violation of his own identity.

We have several examples of this from comments posted to past Hilchot Pluralism posts.

Sarah M comments on Part IV:
-what to do when there are community members who object to hearing kol isha, a woman singing?
If there is no singing at all in whatever this community is gathered for, then there's no issue. But if there is, there is no way to simultaneously be sensitive to people with kol isha concerns and avoid offending people who are operating outside of that paradigm. A policy that requires half the community to be literally silenced will not be perceived as benign by people who do not share the underlying worldview. Here again, the community must make a choice between two incommensurable policies, or demarcate space for both.

ALG comments on Part II:
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).
The two-table system is about food, not about people. Anyone can bring food for either of the two tables as long as s/he follows the instructions correctly. For Table 2, some people can prepare the food in their own kitchens, while others have to use other people's kitchens or bring store-bought food, but anyone can find a way to do it if s/he wants. This is true even if the potluck is Table-2-only (or, of course, Table-1-only). There is no hierarchy of who is considered trustworthy; everyone is considered equally able to follow directions and make accurate statements.

If the community adopts a policy (even for just one of the two tables) that deems only some people as trustworthy, on the basis of their personal practices that take place outside of the context of this community and have no direct connection to the specific issue at hand (note that ALG's example is about people who are "shomer(et) Shabbat according to Orthodox halacha", not "shomer(et) kashrut", even though the issue at hand is about kashrut), then the community is implicitly adopting a particular set of personal practices as a communal norm. Even though people who don't hold these practices are equally able to participate in this hypothetical alternative two-table system that distinguishes among people (not just among food), the community has adopted a particular cognitive frame for "shomer(et) Shabbat" as normative. Establishing this frame means placing people with different frames outside the Stage-3 boundaries of this community. Therefore, the community must choose whether or not to adopt a norm about personal practice (even if this norm is not enforced and everyone is welcome to participate), and either way, someone will be excluded from Stage-3 participation.

The minyan check system (in any of its variations) doesn't share this problem, because any minyan definitions that arise, no matter how exclusive or offensive they may be to some individuals, emanate from other individuals, not from the community's policy. Once the community creates the infrastructure for the minyan check (and there is some disagreement about the proper infrastructure), it is completely impartial about the content of minyan counting.

The trichitza also doesn't share this problem, because people have a choice not to be classified at all.

The Aesthetic Preference Problem

This isn't actually a problem. But it's one answer to Sarah M's comment on Part IV:
-a discussion of when it might not be the best idea for everyone to be davening in the same room?
It's one thing if people want to do the same thing together, and are looking for a way to overcome their differences and make this happen. But if people aren't really interested in doing the same thing, then what's the point in doing it together? Someone is bound to be unhappy. Better they should do it separately, and come together for something more mutually agreeable.

To use davening as a concrete example (in response to Sarah M's comment), if you and I want to daven in the same basic style, except that we want to say slightly different words, or we want to wear different things, or we want to sit in differently composed sections, and so forth, then we've already discussed at length how to make this happen. But if Reuven wants a Classical Reform service with organ and choir, and Shimon wants a Carlebach-style service with lengthy communal "yai dai dai", and Dina wants yeshiva-style speed mumbling, and Tamar wants guided meditation, then it's unlikely that there is a way to achieve all of these goals while maintaining the integrity of each one. Beyond a certain point, each style gets watered down so that its quality (judged by its internal metric) suffers, and the people need to decide whether their desire to pray together outweighs the quality of their individual prayer experiences.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with answering "no" to this question. People can split up to pray in separate groups, or if the community has reasons that it wants to pray together, it can consider solutions such as alternating between different styles (as Tikkun Leil Shabbat does) without watering down each style. If the community decides based on aesthetic preferences to split for prayer (or something else), it can find other venues to come together.

The Education Problem

In economics, theoretical models of the market assume that people act like Homo economicus, operating rationally and with complete information. One way in which these models fail to predict actual market behavior, and in which markets fail to operate efficiently, is that real humans have incomplete information, so they are not able to make the decisions that would result in an optimal distribution of resources.

Jewish pluralism suffers from a similar disconnect between theory and practice. We can talk here in the ivory blogosphere about Stage 3 pluralism and creating a community that respects everyone's identity. But it doesn't work when people don't have enough education, experience, and/or self-confidence to have fully-formed Jewish identities that they can speak up for in the community's discourse.

One example is when the participants are at the stage in life when their identities overall are still in formation, let alone their Jewish identities. Mah Rabu correspondent EMM writes to us from the world of pluralistic Jewish schools:

“Pluralistic” Jewish schools welcome students whose families embrace substantially differing Jewish practices. Do any of these schools actually enact Stage-3 pluralism in their student communities? To the extent that a child’s Jewish identity does not satisfy BZ’s “robust and confident” criterion, it seems impossible in principle for these schools to be Stage-3 communities.

Consider the following situation: Peretz and Zerach attend a Jewish school with pluralistic ambitions. A teacher plans a siyyum celebrating the completion of a unit of study and invites students to contribute snacks to share with the class. The teacher, having read about the two-table system, sorts the food into hekhshered and non-hekhshered sets and informs the students about how the food was sorted. Peretz chooses to snack from the hekhsher-only table and Zerach chooses to nosh from both tables. Has Stage-3 pluralism occurred?

The answer depends on the degree to which the students’ decisions were informed and secure. Did Peretz snack confidently? Did Zerach nosh robustly? Perhaps Peretz and Zerach are somewhat precocious, and perhaps they have benefited from excellent instruction about kashrut, modern Jewish history, and Hilchot Pluralism. Even so, classical bar/bat mitzvah age notwithstanding, it would be a stretch to regard their decisions about religious observance as adult decisions unless Peretz and Zerach were at least 15 years old. More realistically, we might take our cue from the 26th amendment and regard the typical young person as capable of making informed decisions about nuanced issues only at the age of 18 years. Regardless of how one determines the precise cutoff age, most primary and secondary school students are not fully-fledged, confident, secure Jewish decision-makers.

Schools, therefore, are not Stage-3 communities of children. Perhaps, however, the students in such schools are merely surrogate decision-makers for their parents (or guardians). Are pluralistic schools Stage-3 communities of adults? To the extent that pluralistic institutions ought to value diversity and prepare students to make their own adult Jewish choices, the answer again is ‘no’.

Consider the following situation: A school maintains an enormous database of parent preferences about Jewish practice. The school requires parents to make these decisions for their children and requires students to abide by these decisions during school activities. Ignore the practical problems surrounding collection and implementation. In theory, such a school would include families with divergent home practices. Is this Stage-3 pluralism?

Maybe, but this school is failing to be pluralistic in the more profound sense of valuing diversity and preparing students to make their own confident adult choices. Parenting involves striking a balance between making decisions for children and letting children make their own decisions, with a gradual shift in emphasis to the latter as children get older. When a parent signs on the dotted line and enrolls a child in a school, the parent admits the school as a partner in the task of child-raising. A pluralistic school can be a safe place for a student to learn to experiment with their emerging adult Jewish identity within parameters defined by the school. If the parent makes every last decision about Jewish practice for a child, and if the school reinforces those decisions, who is teaching the child that diversity of confidently-chosen Jewish identities is a good thing?

The fact that Stage-3 pluralism is not strictly possible in these settings does not mean that these institutions should adopt a Stage-1 or Stage-2 approach or abandon pluralistic aspirations entirely. It does demand that they develop a vision of pluralism that honors the gradually emerging distinctness of parent and child. Jewish schools that aspire to fully-fledged pluralism will need to explicitly inform parents about the extent to which the institution will enforce the preferences of the parents (when they exist) and the extent to which it will promote the child’s development into an independent, informed, confident Jewish decision-maker.

Perhaps truly pluralistic Jewish education is impossible below a certain age, and it is necessary to gain a non-pluralistic foundation so that one can function later in pluralistic settings.

Though pluralistic Jewish schools are multiplying, the vast majority of active Jews continue to attend secular schools or non-pluralistic Jewish schools, while participating in non-pluralistic Jewish communities outside of school, and have their first exposure to Jewish pluralism in college. Hillel is an organization on campuses throughout the world that is committed to producing pluralistic Jewish communities. Some Jewish students are ready for that when they get to college, and others aren't. This disparity is a major reason why most Hillels are never pushed to move beyond Stage 1.

The root of the problem is not simply that 18-year-olds are at a wide range of levels of Jewish education and preparation when they get to college. The problem is that this disparity is correlated with denominational background (and yes, most active Jews get to college with some sort of denominational affiliation in their history, even if those labels are less meaningful in post-college life).

Many Orthodox 18-year-olds have a solid Jewish background. Often they've spent a year in yeshiva after high school. They have lived in a functioning Jewish community where Judaism is lived on a daily basis by regular folks, and they have an image of the type of community they want to emulate. They may not know much about non-Orthodox Jews or Judaism, but they know about themselves and their own form of Judaism. They know enough to be in command of their own Jewish lives during college and to express their preferences and needs in the wider community's discourse.

In contrast, many 18-year-olds from Reform backgrounds (even active ones) lack this solid foundation. Back home, Jewish life was centered on the synagogue, where it was the rabbi's job to know what was going on, so regular people never had to figure it out for themselves and become self-sufficient. Maybe they've had Jewish "peak experiences" at camp or at NFTY conclaves or on an Israel trip. But these experiences, valuable though they are, are so self-contained and dependent on a specific environment that is (by design) isolated from ordinary life that they fail to provide tools for incorporating Judaism into ordinary life. These students have always experienced Judaism in places where someone else was in control of the environment, and don't have experience creating these Jewish environments for themselves. But they're ready to try. Maybe. If they know where to begin. But it's confusing. They're just starting to figure things out.

So the two groups arrive at Hillel and collide. Two groups that together personify Erikson's fifth stage: identity vs. role confusion. One group confidently knows everything, in that way that only adolescents can, and one group is having an identity crisis, in that way that only adolescents can. One group is asking "What are the laws, precepts, and ordinances that our God has commanded you?" and one group is asking "What is this?". And they're broken down on lines of ideology and practice, with Orthodox Jews primarily falling into the first group and liberal Jews primarily into the second.

And somehow they're supposed to cobble together a pluralistic Jewish community where everyone's identity is respected. That's not going to happen when one group of students are confidently asserting their identity and another group of students are timidly trying to feel theirs out. So even though everyone has the best intentions, the result is frequently Stage 1, because the students with the most confidence and knowledge end up having the greatest influence on the discourse, so the Orthodox cognitive frames become the frames for the whole community.

My proposed solution will come as no surprise: create robust liberal Jewish communities so that children (and adults) can develop solid knowledgeable liberal Jewish identities, and will then be ready to take part in Stage-3 pluralism. Any attempt at pluralism without this foundation is putting the cart before the horse, and has little chance of success (if success is defined as Stage 3).

Coming in Part VII: ???



  1. While I appreciate the gist of the argument, I think you've oversimplified the issues of the "two table system" down to universal ability to accurately read and state. While maybe not for an individual, for a community kashrut heckshers are not a binary function and the degrees of freedom are even greater when you open up the conversation to food preparation in private kitchens. To state the issue at hand is food and not people is also an over simplification as there is no clear division -- I think we'd all agree that kosher ingredients do not ipso facto create kosher foods. It is no more unreasonable to be concerned whether the "kosher" food is inedible because it was prepared/purchased/carried on Shabbat than it is to be concerned that the food is not pas yisrael/chalav yisrael/glatt/gvinat yisrael/reliable heksher or any other of the subtle differences in how individuals observe kashrut. These same issues arise in individual relationships but are compounded when making rules for a pluralistic community. In Synagogue Judaism, you would count on the Mara D'atra to define the exact standard for the communal synagogue kitchen but a pluralistic solution requires that all the participants properly understand all the concerns of all the members and agree to a fully defined compromise. The alternative is to label each kosher meal with the name of the provider and then allow individuals to make personal decisions about whose kosher food is strict enough for personal consumption.

  2. Of course it's about more than just hechshered ingredients or not. But all of these other aspects, relating to how/where/when the food was prepared, can be specified in the community's specifications for the two tables in a two-table system. For example, Kol Zimrah's "Table 2" requires not only that all ingredients have a hechsher, but that cooked food be cooked in an all-hechsher kitchen. If a particular community finds it appropriate, it might require that food on Table 2 be chalav yisrael or whatever.

    On the issue of food prepared/purchased/carried on Shabbat, one might use the Philadelphia Post-It note solution, or one might simply require that all food on Table 2 arrive before Shabbat. All of these cases involve directions that anyone can follow if they wish (though this might mean using someone else's kitchen).

    ALG's "shomer Shabbat" example, however, wasn't about whether the food was prepared/purchased/carried on Shabbat, but about whether the people do these things on Shabbat, not necessarily with this particular food item, but ever. I think there is still a sharp distinction here. Yes, labeling everything with a person's name may be feasible on a practical level, but should be weighed against the poisonous atmosphere that is brought into the community when people are judging one another's total personal behavior inside and outside the communal setting (rather than merely judging one another's food and kitchens). And this atmosphere is a significant barrier to forming a pluralistic ocmmmunity.

    BTW, defining a "compromise" belongs only in Stage 2. Stage 3 is about finding ways that no one has to compromise.

  3. Standard Orthodox halacha posits shemirat Shabbat as the determining factor in whether an individual is a "Jew in good standing" such that the individual can be considered reliable to testify about matters of Jewish ritual. The assumption may be innacurate (commitment to a community rather than commitment to a halachic system might gurantee the individual's faithful adhearance to Kashrut) and it may also be offensive in the ways you suggest, but it is also a part of Orthodox halacha as it is currently practiced. Perhaps in Part VII you can identify the ideologies, observances, practices etc. that are excluded from your pluralistic community as one "progresses" through the stages. Any degree of Kashrut observance that depends upon only trusting Orthodox Jews in ritual matters, for example, could not eat at a Two Table meal.

    A question: Can't a community decide to maintain itself at different levels of pluralism viz different issues of contention. E.g. We're stage one when it comes to Kashrut since few non-Orthodox Jews care very much, but stage 3 when it comes to tefilah.

  4. About Hillels: In a Hillel at a school I used to attend, we only had enough people for one prayer service, so it had to be pluralistic. However, many members were uncomfortable with Hebrew or with the idea of prayer in general, and, if the entire service was included, would eventually stop attending both the service and Shabbat dinner. This would happen even if we left time for people to say additional parts of the service silently, because the members who were uncomfortable felt alienated that everyone else was mumbling in Hebrew and they didn't know how. We ended up having to shorten the service and tell more observant members, "Sorry, if you want to daven all of Ma'ariv, you can do so on your own after dinner," because we knew they would continue to attend even if they were unhappy.

    1. I agree that this is a common problem in Hillels, especially in smaller communities. Often the standard is not the 'frumest common denominator' but a much less orthodox standard. A student observant of kashrut and perhaps shabbat is unable to meaningfully participate, or must only affiliate with an orthodox group. In these situations it is the less observant who "dig their heels in" and don't understand why kosher food is a necessity, or find a trichitza deeply offensive.

      How can we see pluralism, not just as being open to more-liberal minded Jews, but also to more orthodox ones as well?

  5. "My proposed solution will come as no surprise: create robust liberal Jewish communities so that children (and adults) can develop solid knowledgeable liberal Jewish identities, and will then be ready to take part in Stage-3 pluralism. Any attempt at pluralism without this foundation is putting the cart before the horse, and has little chance of success (if success is defined as Stage 3)."

    Yes, that's a solution for home communities (i.e. not Hillels) to implement, but is there anything that Hillel members and leaders can do to solve this problem once people are already in college? Basically, how do you make a pluralistic space when so many people are in the Reform/finding identity category you describe?