Jewish Pluralism Revisited – Rising Above Conflicting Truths

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

Pluralism necessitates a “workable” agreement around the common good, a unifying factor that enables the diverse parts of a society and people to function around larger needs and purposes.

by Larry S. Moses

The dominant narrative of Jewish peoplehood in the decades after the Holocaust and the advent of the modern State of Israel was summarized in the phrase “we are one” – an understandable but complicated concept. This notion of an overarching Jewish solidarity was forged out of a mixture of staggering victimization and unprecedented empowerment, and fueled Jewish identity and community development for the generations who came of age during the last half of the 20th century.

As the son of a survivor of Auschwitz, I grew up alongside an Israel that seemed both heroic and redemptive. I embraced the preciousness of each Jew regardless of differences and the oneness of the Jewish people as nothing short of articles of faith.

And yet, over time, we have come to realize that our differences are profound and enduring, and that as a people we would be naïve to believe that these differences could be subservient to an all-embracing sense of what binds us as a people. If indeed we find ourselves in an “age of pluralism,” then we are well-served to engage in a sober assessment of how we can reconcile our widening diversity with the near dreamlike sense of oneness that resonated so strongly in prior decades.

A personal recollection: I once attended a lecture by the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban on the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. Eban lauded the achievements of the Jewish people but lingered on one area in which he found us lacking: we have forgotten how to disagree with each other. He stated that Jewish life now lacks a ‘culture of dissent’, and that we need to discover anew how to disagree with each other without impugning evil motives on the other. The notion of creating a culture that can withstand dissent and can contain differing and even contradictory positions brings us to two fundamental questions: How can Jewish peoplehood thrive in an age of pluralism? How can our differences somehow strengthen rather than weaken us?

John W. Gardner, in his remarkable book On Leadership, writes on the theme of fragmentation and the common good. Gardner addressed the pluralism of American democracy, but translating his ideas to Jewish peoplehood is not at all contrived. In a pluralistic society there are many leadership pyramids, many competing interest groups, and, as Gardner put it, “the war of the parts against the whole is the central problem of pluralism today.” From Gardner’s thinking we learn that the idea of pluralism has consequences: “A society that is not undergirded by some shared values and held together by some measure of mutual trust simply cannot survive. Pluralism that reflects no commitments whatever to the common good is pluralism gone berserk.”

Pluralism, therefore, necessitates a “workable” agreement around the common good, a unifying factor that enables the diverse parts of a society and people to function around larger needs and purposes.

In this sense, as Diana L. Eck of the Harvard Divinity School and others point out, pluralism is different than diversity, though the two terms are often confused. Diversity is simply plurality, a condition that is “splendid, colorful, perhaps threatening” as Eck puts it, but nothing more. Pluralism is active engagement. More than mere tolerance of differences, it requires participation and knowledge of our differences, and makes room for encountering conflicting and even contradictory truth claims without relinquishing one’s principles. Pluralism is a commitment “to be at the table more than a commitment to anything that comes of the deliberation.”

Jewish pluralism is evidenced throughout American Jewish life – in boards of rabbis, around community commemorations of Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and in Jewish Federations, Hillels, and Jewish Community Centers, for example. Despite the challenges, time and again Jews of differing loyalties have demonstrated the capacity to collaborate on issues of importance to the larger Jewish people. Conversely, the absence of State-sanctioned religious pluralism in Israel remains a gnawing problem for many American Jews and weakens rather than strengthens the fabric of Jewish peoplehood.

Two final points. First, Judaism and the Jewish people have from the outset demonstrated a creative genius for acknowledging and reconciling differences. We were never destined to be a uniform people with one set of beliefs, practices, and priorities. Ours is an interpretative tradition abounding in overlapping arguments and differences. Jews are hard-wired to struggle with those arguments and differences while remaining true to core values and a larger sense of solidarity. Managing our differences and still remaining a people is who we have been for thousands of years.

So to those who say that pluralism is a kind of necessary evil, a by-product of modernity that is somehow unfortunate but imposing, I would counter that Jewish pluralism makes us stronger, not weaker, and that, in any event, it is part of our essence.

Finally, the reality is that some Jews disqualify certain other Jews from the circle of Jewish peoplehood, and some Jews place themselves outside of this circle. But the vast majority of Jews still see deep meaning in a collective identity, unifying values, and common interests. The question is, and always has been, how to translate this sense of connectedness into concrete relationships and actions.

The challenge of pluralism in contemporary terms relates to overcoming the fragmentation, competitiveness, and insularity of our movements and organizations, connecting the dots between the diverse segments of Jewish life, and learning how to cross boundaries and create broader relationships. We use ideological and institutional interests as rationales for separating ourselves from others who could otherwise benefit both us and the larger Jewish people. Developing a capacity to “engage” Jews who are different around a sense of the common good is our renewed struggle. We have far to go in Jewish life to transform a culture of competition into a culture of commonality. But we are not new to this challenge, and we are capable of rising to it, as we have over countless centuries.

Larry S. Moses is Senior Philanthropic Advisor and President Emeritus of The Wexner Foundation.

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