Toward a Pluralism of Substance

In our collective work to engender feelings of peoplehood, I would advocate for a more focused approach to pluralism: a pluralism of substance.


[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Elie Kaunfer

Does pluralism help or hurt the goal of fostering feelings of peoplehood? It depends on what we mean by “pluralism.”

Pluralism is a difficult concept to define. In the March 2006 edition of Sh’ma, Susan Shevitz helpfully distinguishes between “coexistence pluralism” and “generative pluralism.” In the former, “people and groups holding different positions can still work toward shared goals.” In the latter, “Jews need to encounter people and ideas that are different from their own … and generate new approaches that draw from a multiplicity of perspectives.”

On the one hand, it seems one must maximize pluralism to increase feelings of peoplehood. After all, if I do not feel welcome, or tolerated, by my Jewish brother, than how am I supposed to feel a deep bond with him? Jews are a diverse bunch, so if, in Shevitz’s language, we are to coexist, and work toward the shared goal of a vibrant Jewish people, we must allow for people to “hold different positions.” Certainly if we are to rise to the level of “generative pluralism,” we must not just tolerate, but seek out, a “multiplicity of perspectives.” The more perspectives that are represented, the more Jews feel included in the project of Jewish peoplehood.

But on the other hand, there is a cost to pluralism in the quest for strengthened peoplehood. Jack Wertheimer pointed to one danger in his 2006 essay, “All Quiet on the Religious Front?” He writes: “American Jews … have concluded with great self-satisfaction that the magic bullet is ‘pluralism,’ a fine ideal that simply avoids confronting differences by celebrating them. American Jews who disagree can ignore one another when the issues are too uncomfortable, and agree to meet only when the issues are uncontroversial and therefore safe.” (p. 24).

Can I really feel connected to other Jews if I know, deep down, that we aren’t surfacing the core issues that divide us? Strong feelings often lead to strong bonds. If peoplehood is modeled on the image of a family, which family is ultimately stronger: the one that brings conflict out in the open, or the one that keeps interactions limited to the surface level? Granted the former is riskier, but, when managed well, engenders real relationships.

I would like to raise one other concern with pluralism, namely: the assumption that all “different positions” are on a level playing field. Indeed, this assumption, when in fact true, is very powerful. Having participated in a number of explicitly pluralistic Jewish environments (Dorot, Wexner, Harvard Hillel), I have experienced robust conversations around core aspects of Jewish identity and values. In the best of circumstances, these connections have truly been generative, in Shevitz’s categorization, and made me re-examine my own positions on numerous fronts. I have felt closer to the Jewish people because of its diversity.

However, what was distinctive about these environments was that the Jews involved had a deep grounding in Jewish identity and education. They had arrived at different conclusions, but were able to hold a sophisticated conversation.

But too often today, the push for pluralism, often in the service of Jewish peoplehood, is one that makes no demands on the participants’ education and sophistication regarding the basic questions at stake in pluralistic conversations. The result is that pluralism has often come to be synonymous with blind affirmation of one’s Jewish identity, regardless of its content or depth. Instead of encouraging a path toward deepening identity, pluralism celebrates the status quo.

Ironically, this attempt at being welcoming, in the name of a pluralism of acceptance, weakens feelings of peoplehood. Ultimately the bond between someone who can express a deeply grounded Jewish identity and someone who cannot is weak. People who have no common ground, beyond a vague attachment to the identity “Jewish,” are not able to have a meaningful, critical engagement with each other. It should be noted that unlike the criticism that Wertheimer offered of pluralism, which focused exclusively on American Jews, this criticism extends to the many Israelis who also have trouble articulating their Jewish identity beyond a sense of nationalism and connection to calendar or Hebrew. When it comes to articulating the deeper reasons for being Jewish, most Jews – Israelis and Americans – are often at a loss. And that inability is a long-term challenge to fostering deep feelings of peoplehood.

In our collective work to engender feelings of peoplehood, I would advocate for a more focused approach to pluralism: a pluralism of substance. In this model, the key to peoplehood isn’t pluralism per se, it is education. Only through education will Jews develop a deeper attachment to their Judaism. Critically, education doesn’t lead to cookie-cutter people with identical Jewish values. It may in fact lead to deep differences among Jews. However, when those Jews encounter each other in pluralistic settings, they will be able to debate the core issues, as opposed to finding commonality in surface issues.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna once remarked: “Orthodoxy bet the house on education – and won.” Imagine a world where not just the Orthodox, but the entire Jewish people, bet the house on education. In that world, the substantial differences between Jews would be no less, but the depth of their positions would be so much greater. And the encounters between them could lead to significant “generative” results.

A peoplehood that is based on thin and broad points of unity is one that is doomed to fail. But a peoplehood that is based on the encounter between deeply educated Jews – representing a wide range of positions – is exciting. It is that challenge – a challenge of mobilizing around deep education – that is ours to take on.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is executive director of Mechon Hadar, and author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights).

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

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  1. Howard Wohl says

    I am not sure that your thinking starts in the right place. Yes, education is important, but, I must ask, what is education? Is it, for example, congregational learning taught by a secular Israeli facing a classroom of bored students? Is it a class of Yeshiva Buchers who are inculcated to think like their teachers and to be insular and withdrawn from general society? Is it experiential education that nurtures emotional attachments to the Jewish People and to Jewish Values? I don’t think the first two lead to Ahavat Yisrael. I think that we might consider that belonging precedes education, not the reverse.

  2. Andy Shapiro Katz says

    Arguably, the main distinction between Jews from different denominations (or at this point, maybe it is better to say Jewish ideological communities) is how much they value Jewish ideas/culture/community over and against “general” ideas/culture/community. Not surprisingly, valuing general ideal/culture/community more highly makes one also less bothered by the idea of one’s children, or grandchildren, and great-grandchildren not identifying as Jews (as long as they are still good happy people). So it follows that many Jews will, as essentially a matter of ideology, devote fewer hours to the learning of “strictly” Jewish material. That non-Orthodox Jews are rarely as steeped in Jewish learning as Orthodox Jews (the exceptions are just that, exceptions – Dorot, Wexner, and Harvard Hillel prove the rule) follows entirely from their ideologies. And MOST (though obviously not all) Jews who learn more, wind up seeking out communities that value that learning, and the practice often associated with it, more highly – so they move inexorably toward Orthodoxy. The Conservative Movement has document this trend for years. Unfortunately, I think that means that a pluralism of substance – when that substance is Jewish learning – will be something that only involved the exceptional members of different ideological communities – the very learned non-Orthodox Jews and the Orthodox Jews who have the openness and sophistication about the world to both want to, and be able to, connect with them. I am not, therefore, optimistic about this being a strategy for building a sense of peoplehood among the amcha.

  3. BB says

    About 100 years ago, the Orthodox composed about 10% of the overall American Jewish population, and there was the notion that perhaps Orthodoxy would cease to exist. The answer was having successive generations of families with many children. Having lots of children is the bet they made.

  4. says

    Elie Kanfer hits it right on the head when he writes in this article:
    “The result is that pluralism has often come to be synonymous with blind affirmation of one’s Jewish identity, regardless of its content or depth.”
    No extreme is good – including accepting “Pluralism” without limitation.
    For example if i suggested that we accepted Messianic Judaism or Jews for Jesus as a Fifth branch of Judaism in the name of Pluralism than most of you reading this would object. But think about it. Why would you be against accepting Jews for Jesus as a Fifth Branch of Judaism? Is it because you are intolerant? No. The answer is that you have standards and you believe that Jews for Jesus falls outside of the Jewish belief system. But isn’t it an insult to Judaism to say that Judaism is a belief system where you can believe just about anything you want and “keep” whatever traditions you like and not keep whatever you want- just as long as you don’t believe in Jesus!? Isn’t such a definition of Judaism an insult to Judaism itself? Therefore i don’t think Orthodox Jews should be called Intolerant for not accepting Reform conversions as their version of Judaism simply falls outside of their belief system of what Judaism means. The Orthodox are not being intolerant they are just being honest. If a Conservative Jew really believes that Halacha (Jewish law) should be binding he should also say that Reform Judaism falls outside of the boundaries of Judaism. Why does the Conservative movement embrace Reform if the Reform ideology contradicts Conservative ideology? See