Friday, July 24, 2015

#TBT: “Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism” at 10

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Ten years ago this week, I posted “Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism” to Mah Rabu, a new blog that was just a couple months old. It was a golden age of blogging in general, and Jewish blogging in particular. Twitter didn’t exist yet; Thefacebook existed but was just for college students; blogs were where it was at.

This post, framed as a “work in progress”, defined three different “stages” of Jewish pluralism:
  • Stage 1: “Frummest common denominator”
  • Stage 2: “Let’s make everyone comfortable”
  • Stage 3: Identity

The taxonomy came about as a result of my experiences with multiple Jewish communities that were all trying to be pluralistic, but in practice meant very different things by “pluralism”. Defining these stages was a way to articulate these different approaches to Jewish pluralism, and also a way to highlight the ways in which some views are marginalized and silenced by some forms of pluralistic discourse.

This part has often been misunderstood, but the taxonomy classifies pluralistic discourse, not pluralistic outcomes. It’s not about what the community ends up doing, but about how it gets there. So, for example, a Stage-1 pluralistic community might have identical practices to a non-pluralistic community, but the difference is that in one community, those practices are adopted because they are perceived to be a “common denominator” that is acceptable to everyone even though it is recognized that everyone has differing individual practices, while in the other community, those practices are adopted because they are seen as the norm for the community.

“Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism” seemed to arrive at a time when it was needed, and it became more influential than I ever expected; to this day I still hear about pluralistic Jewish organizations that are assigning it as required reading. It also became the backbone of the theoretical framework of the Hilchot Pluralism series, which became a place to systematically document and analyze pluralistic practices in the independent Jewish world.

So, 10 years later, do I still agree with it? Yes and no.

I still stand by almost every word in the original post. I think the categories themselves are still useful, and accurate enough as descriptions of different modes of discourse. I think the shortcomings of Stages 1 and 2, and the challenges of Stage 3, are still relevant.

Where my thinking has changed is in labeling the categories as “stages”. That’s the part of the original post that had the weakest support – I had plenty of data (from my own experiences) about how different pluralistic communities operate, but not so much longitudinal data about communities that actually changed their approaches. Two separate influences made me revisit the “stage” structure: 1) I’ve been involved in pluralistic decision-making in communities that were grappling with multiple pluralism issues, and have seen that it’s not always possible to take a uniform approach to all issues, because of the differing nature of those issues. 2) The original taxonomy was modeled after educational theories such as Piaget’s stages. Since then, my understanding of educational theory has become deeper (10 years ago I was a high school physics teacher, and now I have a Ph.D. in physics education research), and critiques of Piaget are also valid critiques of “Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism”.

Why aren’t “stages” the right description? Because this description implies that a given community is in a single stage of pluralism (or non-pluralism) at any one moment in time, and takes a single approach to pluralistic discourse around all issues that may come up. But that’s not how any community really works. Every community has issues around which it does not attempt to be pluralistic. And on issues where a community does consider itself pluralistic, it’s possible for the same community to take a Stage-1 approach to some questions and a Stage-3 approach to others. Multiple “stages” can coexist at the same time. (It’s also possible that some people in a community will try to argue for a position using discourse from one stage, while others use discourse from another. If this isn’t identified, it can lead to people talking past one another.)

For those who want to see their communities take a Stage-3 approach to pluralism, this more fragmented picture can be seen in a half-empty or a half-full way. The half-empty perspective is that even when you think you’re in a Stage-3 commmunity, the other “stages” never really go way. But the half-full perspective is that if you want to move a community towards Stage 3, you don’t have to do it all at once; this can happen one issue at a time (even if there are some issues where other “stages” are more entrenched).

What are the ways that you find it useful to think about Jewish pluralism in 2015?