Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism: How Do We Embrace Pluralism While keeping Us Whole?

[eJP note: Created as a platform for enriching the Jewish Peoplehood conversation, “The Peoplehood Papers” is a selection of essays from a diverse group of Jewish leaders and thinkers on Jewish Peoplehood including pragmatic suggestions on how organizations can create new understandings and action plans around the issue. For the past five years, eJP has been privileged to share these essays with our reader community.

As we begin to roll-out volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – one can’t help but thinking the timing could not be more appropriate. For just last week, we began to hear about Natan Sharansky’s ideas to deal with the current friction in the Jewish world over prayer at the Kotel. Hopefully these essays will add to current conversations as workable solutions are sought.

The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluarlism – was published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Shlomi Ravid

This issue of the Peoplehood Papers set out to explore the potential for developing some kind of synthesis between Jewish Peoplehood and Pluralism. There is no doubt that sustaining a sense of Peoplehood in an age framed by the value of pluralism presents a real challenge. Jews today differ on core Jewish issues. Sustaining a sense of commonality in that environment becomes increasingly complex and yet denial is not an option as the tensions are not just at our door step – they have entered into the house. For that matter we approached contributors who are in the “trenches” of practice and asked them to offer their perspectives, solutions and strategies. Some of them focused on analyzing the issue. Others on realigning education in various settings and age groups in order to address the challenge. Still others offered new perspectives on how we should view and address pluralism. There is also an analysis of the unique situation in Israel. What was most encouraging was the consensus between the writers that if approached properly pluralism can actually enrich and contribute to Jewish Peoplehood.

Defining the challenge

Larry Moses frames the challenge at hand very eloquently: “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”. Moses concludes that “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.”

Charles Edelsberg from the Jim Joseph Foundation recognizes the importance of both the concepts of Peoplehood and Pluralism. He has a real issue with the fact that “While there are myriad efforts to define peoplehood, to my knowledge no single, commonly accepted definition has gained currency”. As is relates to Pluralism he notes that: “In various parts of the Jewish world, there is no commitment to pluralism. In these cases, difference is rejected, change disavowed, and innovative expressions of contemporary Judaism disdained.” Pluralistic Judaism in Edelsberg’s eyes “could ultimately fail to bring together diverse Jewish peoples around what is common, shared, hallowed, and quintessential in Judaism”. This raises for him the question of: “what other conditions, along with pluralism, must be present to establish a strong peoplehood?”

Can Education Provide an Answer?

Michal Muszkat-Barkan discusses the challenges of teaching through a pluralistic lens against the background of her upbringing in an Israeli Ortodox school. In defense of Jewish unity her teachers “protected” her from exposure to alternative Jewish perceptions. However as Muszkat-Barkan points out, the emerging paradigm in the Jewish world is increasingly pluralistic. This means that closing the doors and windows on alternative perceptions is wrong as a way of preparing for life. Furthermore, using her own words: “Reframing the aims of Jewish education to enhance a pluralistic approach to Jewish identity can lead to a richer and more realistic sense of Jewish peoplehood and contribute to the renewal and deepening of our covenant and Jewish solidarity.”

Tal Gale from the Diller Teen Fellows program proposes the educational journey to raise leaders of pluralistic Judaism: “Affording teens the unique opportunity to explore their Jewish identities by exposing them to the diversity of Jewish expression and experience which is today’s reality is to invite them to venture on a collective Jewish journey. Doing so requires courage on their part. If this approach is successful, the next generation of Jewish leaders may break down today’s barriers and help redefine a Jewish People strengthened by diversity”.

Beth Cousens notes that the sense of being part of a people is anything but intuitive for American young adults. “Yet, younger Jews do develop relationships with Jewish communities and with Jews different from them. They find Jewish communities to which they can belong, rooted in personal attachments. In their attachments, they provide a new understanding of peoplehood, suited to the pluralistic Jewish condition and to the world that younger Jews will lead.” The sense of belonging does not transcend: “us” does not exist for the entire Jewish people, but each student feels part of a community, one in which they feel comfortable and that they can call their own”. Cousens concludes that we should view Peoplehood as a process rather than an outcome in this current context.

Rabbi Jessey Gross who leads an outreach project in Baltimore sees pluralism as an engine for engaging her participants and at the same time as a way to enhance Jewish Peoplehood. Or in her words: “Anyone and any community seeking to engage with and learn about different ideas and attitudes as it relates to Jewish commitments and Jewish life is surely engaged in holy pursuit of Truth. Our goal should not be sameness. A Jew unwilling to hear opinions different from his/her own stands in the way of becoming a stronger Jewish people. The strength of our people will dictate the ability to live out the blessing that we are to be a light unto other nations but also bolster the foundation upon which Judaism and our ancient tradition can continue to flourish and grow”.

Pluralism of Substance

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer calls for a pluralism of substance as a means strengthening 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”.

Anat Barber takes the challenge of pluralism a step further. Pluralism, she claims, is applied mostly towards those who accept the pluralistic “rules of the game”. “We need instead to understand Pluralism as the need to learn about the multiplicity of Jewish voices, including those who see themselves as ultimate truth and reject ours”. According to Barber “The organized Jewish Community has over the last three decades disengaged from value driven conversations with these communities mostly because the Haredi community is non-compromising in their ideals. In fact what we have done (on both sides) is ended the very conversation which we need in order to maintain our sense of Jewish connection and Jewish Peoplehood.” Her solution is: “It is time to confront the wide gamut of Jewish plurality with a lens toward understanding our distinctions with respect and exploring our shared heritage. We need to understand that having conversations with someone different from you does not grant each other legitimacy, it simply means you care enough about each other to engage. Through this kind of exploration and understanding of the many different voices of Jewish community, we can actually come to a deeper sense of Jewish Pluralism”.

Shuki Taylor from YU’s Experiential Education Center reminds us that as we try to measure the success of our educational work on pluralistic Peoplehood we should be aware of the diversity of the perspectives our students share. “Pluralism celebrates the legitimacy of the Jewish community’s diversity. Peoplehood nurtures this community’s diverse commitment to the Jewish collective enterprise. Fostering this sense of commitment and belonging requires that, as educators, we embrace the full spectrum of perspectives the Jewish people subscribes to. In the age of Pluralism, we must be mindful of the fact that learners harbor a variety of different beliefs. The ways in which learners feel belonging and demonstrate commitment to the Jewish collective will vary greatly”.

For Stephen Chazan Arnoff, the director of the 14th St. Y, “there is also a kind of cultural pluralism that offers paths to Jewish meaning. These paths navigate old tensions between Jerusalem and Rome as well as personal and communal urges. For people already immersed in personal and communal meaning “doing in Rome as the Romans do” – experiencing and shaping meaning through popular music like me, for example – this means thickening the peoplehood experience through connecting Jewish identity with the power of general culture, not by finding ways to shed or replace it”.

The Pluralism of Israel

Rabbi Naamah Kelman offers a short history of the Israeli religious pluralism struggle from the days when the Israel Religions Action Center of the Israeli Reform Movement – Hamerkaz Le’Pluralism was founded in 1986. She concludes her historical scan with the following: “Today, pluralism promotes just this, no “Jew” is an island, we desperately need each other, each stream has strengths to bring to the table and we can learn from each other. So pluralism has the potential to strengthen peoplehood. That is the challenge facing us. With nation building behind us, with most Diaspora communities living in safety and affluence, it is time to create these meeting points of safe and fruitful cross-fertilization and dialogue”.

Rabbi Uri Regev focuses on the damage to the sense of Peoplehood brought about by the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. He points to an inherent conflict between Israel’s unifying role for the world’s Jews and the fact that its current laws discriminate against “the overwhelming majority of the next generation of the world’s Jewish community”. This contradiction, according to Regev, undermines the whole notion of Peoplehood. His conclusion is: “If Jewish peoplehood is based on an emotional and intellectual connection, mutual responsibility and solidarity, we must work to shape Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state, which embraces all shapes and shades of Judaism in Israel and in the Diapsora and does not alienate them”.

In conclusion this exchange while only beginning to grapple with a very complex issue, provides room for optimism for those who care about both Peoplehood and pluralism. All of the contributors while being well grounded in the field of Jewish education actually felt that pluralism can actually enrich and strengthen Jewish Peoplehood. Not that integrating them will be an easy process, but if well thought through, planned and implemented, it promises a more nuanced, sophisticated and deep sense of Peoplehood. One that not only reflect the current reality but also holds the promise of a richer approach to our Jewish commonality.

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