The Challenges of Building Pluralistic Jewish Peoplehood: Towards a Different Kind of Pluralism
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
We need 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, as a means to help us further refine and deepen our Jewish understanding regardless of your own religious approach.
by Anat Barber
In the field of epistemology, the study of knowledge, Pluralism is understood to mean that the more data points or opinions you have on a given topic the deeper a sense of understanding you will emerge with of that topic.
The multiplicity of voices actually remain distinct from one and other but exploring each approach allows the seeker to gain a deeper understanding of the issue at hand.
In the case of Jewish Peoplehood as we seek to exhibit a greater sense of understanding of what connects us and consequently a greater sense of connectedness, we too often use a language of pluralism which undermines this very goal. In most Jewish conversations about pluralism it is used to convey a sense religious pluralism built on the foundation that all Jewish narratives are true Jewish narratives and that none holds more weight than any other. However if we are trying to cultivate Jewish Peoplehood which is inclusive and celebrates shared values then we have already undermined our goal by excluding Jewish groups whose views are built on the a set of assumptions seen as ultimate truths, not relative truths. In order to honestly build a sense of Global Jewish peoplehood we actually need to discard the traditional narrative of Pluralism as having many truths, because the writers of this narrative have opened the door only to those who share their own basic core values. 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, as a means to help us further refine and deepen our Jewish understanding regardless of your own religious approach.
Currently the sense of connectedness between Jews of distinct backgrounds and opinions is attenuated, but still exists. This connection is most evident when different Jewish groups are angered and hurt by the vitriolic and insult-laden speech with which we address one and other. If in fact we were totally disconnected from each other we would have no reaction. Still, this is hardly a vision of connectedness and Peoplehood that we want to endorse. As a community architect I see our work needing to focus on cultivating opportunities to experience and connect with Jewish People who are dissimilar to us and by extension with Jewish Peoplehood. It is our role to provide the respectful and appropriate language for the conversations which need to be had. We need to cultivate communities where respect and tolerance are ever-present through language, culture and policy and where a desire for klal Yisrael encourages the conversations which will foster it. At the core of our ability to do this will be re-centering ourselves on our shared value system and shared textual history including the most fundamental elements of Torah, Derech Eretz (respect of others) and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness).
A truer sense of Jewish Pluralism would be better served by a value system which encourages a multi-cultural approach in which different voices are acknowledged and celebrated and in which true open dialogue between Jews of different opinions can occur. An approach such as this would require a high level of respect and tolerance for one and other and could only be achieved if we truly are committed to learning about “the other”. In reality, the way we can maintain a sense of connection to each other, which is one of the ultimate goals of Jewish Peoplehood is by respectfully acknowledging our differences and disagreements through ongoing conversation with each other, rather than ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist. Further understanding of our respective viewpoints, will allow us to identify those areas where our core Jewish values overlap.
For too long, we have shied away from conversing about the things we perceive as differentiating us, and as a result we have distanced our selves from each other on a more existential level. That has brought us to the current situation where Jewish Peoplehood can feel tenuous at best. We have become two parallel communities, those who believe in Pluralism and those who do not. The recent elections in Israel and the most recent New York Jewish Population Study clearly illustrate the growing Haredi communities domestically and internationally. 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.
Granted, this conversation is not without difficulty. The focus of our work on Jewish Peoplehood should be on learning our shared past and respecting the different interpretations thereof. It behooves us to re-engage in deep Jewish textual learning so that we can articulate our respective narratives and convey them respectfully to others. Ultimately our shared cultural, textual, linguistic and religious history will become the corner stone of conversations of this nature and ultimately of rebuilding Jewish Peoplehood. I saw this play out acutely during the inaugural speech of Knesset member Ruth Calderon. During her drash on a passage in the Talmud she was interrupted by a fellow knesset member from a religious party. Granted they are very different in their approach to religion and politics, but the Talmud gave them a shared platform on which to converse. To her credit Knesset member Calderon welcomed his comments as the beginning of an ongoing chevruta. Similarly engaging Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities with civic enterprise within our communities and in the State of Israel will further provide the shared set of Israeli experiences to inform conversations which can lead to truer manifestation of Jewish Peoplehood in the State of Israel.
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. This will be a Jewish Pluralism in the epistemological sense such that through these deep conversations wherein we learn about many different Jewish approaches, we will also gain a deeper understanding of who the Jewish people are and what unites us.
Anat Barber is the Planning Director in the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of NY.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.