By Todd J. Sukol
I often get asked where I stand on Jewish pluralism. In both my work and personal life, people sometimes perceive what they believe to be a disconnect between my deep commitment to Jewish tradition and my equally rigorous commitment to inclusivity and diversity of practice and belief.
I’d like to see if I can set the record straight.
I’ve seen the words “pluralism” and “pluralistic” used to describe at least three very different approaches to Judaism and Jewish practice. One of those works beautifully for me. The other two do not.
The first pluralism posits that diversity in Judaism is one of our greatest strengths. Minority opinions on legal matters, for example, are documented throughout the ancient discussions of the Talmud. In fact, they are given a place of honor even when rejected. The sharp eyed student of the Rishonim (medieval scholars and philosophers through whom ancient Judaism passed on its way to contemporary hearts and minds) can discern radically divergent theologies in their writings. Even the Shemonah Esrei (or Amidah), the central prayer of Jewish liturgy for 2,000 years, hints in its opening section that communal belief in one G-d coexists with individuals relating to G-d in radically different ways.
I like to call this notion “Big-P Pluralism,” the idea that Judaism is and always was a system of diverse ideas, beliefs and practices that interact with each other within a communal, living framework. It gives us a way to engage with authentic Jewish ideas in ways that work for us as individuals, while simultaneously supporting each other and learning from each other’s vastly diverse, and equally rich, personal journeys. It is also, I think, consistent with the value of “inclusivity” that I have come to embrace in my work at the Mayberg Foundation. As an excerpt from the Foundation’s statement of core values affirms, “We believe in building a vibrant and meaningful Judaism for all Jews – regardless of how one identifies or practices – that provides both inspiration and wisdom.” This is a Pluralism I can embrace. At its base is tolerance and coexistence. When nurtured, it can grow into something much more profound: loving, supportive, value-based community. I am, in that sense, an unabashed “Big-P Pluralist.”
Unfortunately, a second pluralism is much more common than the first. This “little-p pluralism” is rooted in convenience and presumed efficacy rather than principle. Out of step with contemporary Jews, many Jewish organizations “slap a J” in front of a myriad of programs in efforts to “Judaify” activities they think will bring people through their doors. This effort to “give the people what they want” in a Jewish context is not necessarily a bad thing, but it smacks of desperation and lack of substance. By all means, let’s do fun and trendy things. But let’s simultaneously find ways to expose people to the vast reservoir of Jewish wisdom and give them tools to extract relevant and useful elements for meaningful contemporary life. Too many organizations look to kitsch in order to combat declining membership and financial viability. Substance would serve them better.
Finally, a third pluralism has emerged, one that I call “Alt-P Pluralism.” All too often “pluralistic” has become a code word for “anti-orthodox.” I have seen Jews denigrate fellow Jews for traditional beliefs and practices they don’t share. “Freedom of religion for all but the Orthodox Jew,” as I heard one person put it. I once watched in disbelief as a member of my own family was accused of being aggressive, simply for quietly living according to her own principles. I have personally been taunted at Jewish events for the food I choose to eat and not eat. When liberalism morphs into an orthodoxy all its own, I call that fundamentalism, not progressivism. Alt-P Pluralism promotes prejudice and division not unity and diversity.
Big-P Pluralism, on the other hand, gives each of us room to engage with Judaism on our own terms while drawing strength from – and giving strength to – our collective Jewish wisdom and community. For my part, I have wrestled for decades to integrate rigorous principles, discipline and religious structure, on the one hand, with openness, spontaneity and sheer joy, on the other. To be sure, I have seen the strictures of religion crowd out substance at times. And I have also seen remarkable talent and powerful spiritual urges squandered because they lacked a structure through which they could be expressed and actualized. I believe I am a better person for having engaged in that journey of balancing and synergizing these apparent polar opposites. That has been my personal journey so far, and people with radically different views from my own have played a major role along the way.
We all have the right, and maybe even the responsibility to pursue our own individual journeys. Big-P Pluralism gives us a way to embark on those journeys for ourselves, but not by ourselves.
Todd J. Sukol is a practitioner and observer of philanthropy and the philanthropic and nonprofit sector. He serves as Executive Director of the Mayberg Foundation and was formerly president of Do More Mission and executive director of the Koby Mandell Foundation.