Rabbinic Pluralism

By Rabbi Adam Chalom

We are told that the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred of Jew versus Jew. Of course, this declaration in no way ended Jewish argument! The Talmud itself sanctifies disagreements “for the sake of heaven,” though that too had limits. In the continuation of the Ovens of Akhenai story (Bava Metziah 59b), where a divine voice endorses Rabbi Eliezer but the rabbinic court disagrees and the ruling follows their majority, Eliezer is ostracized and all items he had declared pure are burned. Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin (and Eliezer’s brother-in-law), defends the expulsion by saying he acted “so that disputes will not multiply in Israel.” In the end, Gamliel pays the dearest penalty for Eliezer’s mistreatment.

Modern-day metropolitan boards of rabbis are a far cry from the rabbinic Sanhedrin, both in authority and in scope of action. Most of the time, they serve as professional associations to promote collegiality, offer professional development, and connect the leadership of diverse Jewish organizations. A few cities have more than one board, with some Orthodox rabbis refusing to accept more liberal or women rabbis, while many maintain a very wide tent.

Rarely, and unfortunately, modern boards of rabbis act more like Gamliel than is wise. Rabbis trained and ordained in Secular Humanistic Judaism have been accepted by many boards of rabbis (including Detroit, Washington DC, Chicago, and others), and dozens of rabbis affiliated with the movement are currently active in North America and in Israel. They receive multiple years of rabbinic education and training, supervised internships with communities, and must acquire an accredited Master’s Degree in Judaic Studies (or equivalent). This is hardly an instant internet ordination. Yet this year, one of our rabbis was rejected by the Toronto Board of Rabbis with no explanation given.

Perhaps the Toronto Board of Rabbis thought that they would reduce dispute in Israel. Or that they were protecting the Jewish community from another Elisha ben Avuya, whose heresy challenging divine justice and rabbinic authority led some to call him Akher, “Other.” Or that they were maintaining a community hard line in opposition to intermarriage, even if some rabbis on the board welcome such families as congregational members or even officiate quietly à la “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In the end, all the Toronto Board of Rabbis actually did was betray the modern Jewish value of pluralism.

The Sanhedrin, the Talmud, the Jewish world has always been argumentative and diverse. There have been conflicts between specific rabbis, like between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua over the date of Rosh Hashana (Rosh Hashana 25a). There have been rivalries between groups of rabbis like the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, who couldn’t even agree on how to light Hanukkah candles (one and adding or eight and subtracting – Shabbat 21b). Tensions between Babylonian and “Palestinian” rabbis, Maimonidean rationalism versus Kabbalistic mysticism, Hasidim versus Misnagdim – the rabbinate is a very contentious profession. Cannot a modern metropolitan Board of Rabbis transcend these divisions? Must it replicate them instead?

The hard line on intermarriage has already been broken by generations of Jews who keep marrying for love, and by their families who continue to love them, no matter what rabbis say. Rabbinic condemnation of a wedding couple will NOT stop the wedding; they still get married, now with Jewish rejection leaving a sour taste. Some rabbis feel their beliefs prevent them from celebrating intermarriage, and that is their right. And we can argue over studies showing rabbinic intermarriage participation correlated to higher Jewish involvement; it would be very Jewish to do so. But just as a Board of Rabbis has no moral right to enforce one denomination’s Shabbat or kashrut standards on all of its members, the autonomy of individual rabbis to serve the Jewish people by providing supportive celebrations of love should not be infringed.

If there are secular Jews, and everyone knows there are thousands, can they not have a teacher, life cycle and holiday officiant, community leader, counselor, and a philosophic guide who reflects their values and their flavor of Judaism? If that person walks like a rabbi and quacks like a rabbi, serving Jewish needs like a rabbi, they should be accepted as a rabbi. The fact that Humanistic rabbis disagree with some Jewish beliefs puts them in good company – Mosaic authorship of the entire Torah is a minority Jewish opinion (judging by both behavior and rabbinical seminary courses), and so is accepting all thirteen of Maimonides’ Principles of Faith. Just as Boards of Rabbis do not impose Jewish practice, neither should they demand particular theological beliefs.

Most important, in modern Jewish life we celebrate the value of pluralism. Historically, there was Jewish plurality – many options that rejected each other. Pluralism is different. Pluralism means celebrating diversity as a strength. It means approaching Jewish denominations as multiple valid alternatives, not a descending order of validity. It means treating Jewish streams like bagel flavors.

Forty years ago, I remember only a few flavors of bagel; in Metro Detroit, it was egg, plain, raisin, and salt. Forty years ago, most had heard of only three or four flavors of Judaism: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, maybe Reconstructionist or secular Jewish alternatives. Today, bagel stores have dozens of varieties: asiago cheese and spinach Florentine and blueberry and chocolate chip. Some complain and say, “That’s not really a bagel!” Likewise, some complain that modern Jewish identities “aren’t really Judaism.” But the more varieties of bagels, or of Judaism, the more people can enjoy them and find the one that tastes best to them.

In Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, she writes perceptively that reducing dispute in Israel is both dangerous and futile.

We ask our questions, fully realizing that well-meaning people among us may differ – perhaps vehemently – in their answers. It is not our purpose to be divisive. But we are already of many minds. Silencing the concerns will not diminish them; it will not make them go away. Dare we ask these questions? Dare we not ask them? If not now, when?

We are already of many minds on intermarriage, on secularization, on Jewish past and Jewish present and Jewish futures. Rejecting one part of today’s Jewish spectrum will not make it disappear, but it will weaken Jewish solidarity. Perhaps it is too American for Toronto, but I believe every Jewish community is stronger when it follows an old American motto: e pluribus unum – from many, one. There is no one style of Hanukkah menorah, and that diversity of design and ingenuity is good for the Jews. Let us make light together.

Rabbi Adam Chalom is Dean – North America, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.