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.