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Reconstructing Pluralism through Conversation

(This piece was originally published on the Times of Israel blog at this link.)

Pluralism is dead. Long live pluralism.

American Jews helped to bring to life the 20th century concept of pluralism, a key facet of civil society that is becoming increasingly endangered. Through intentional engagement with Judaism, North American Jews have the tools to make pluralism relevant again in an age of division and disengagement, but only if we engage in the hard intellectual and communal works that’s needed.

What do I mean by pluralism? A quick Google search yields a definition of pluralism as “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.” Promoting coexistence has been a key strategy for embracing the diversity that defines American life.

Prominent 20th-century American Jewish thinkers insisted the diversity of ideas, practices and people was an inevitable outcome of the modern era. They taught that it could be harnessed toward creative coexistence in the American environment and internally within the Jewish landscape. Horace Kallen, the first Jewish scholar to teach at Princeton, advanced a philosophy of cultural pluralism that taught that racial and ethnic diversity strengthened America, challenging a “melting pot” ideology and pushing against racist exclusionary practices. Mordecai Kaplan and his circle advanced pluralism in the religious sector, writing about the importance of Jewish peoplehood across time and space. In the social sector, Jewish federations and Jewish community centers validated ethnic and civic constructions of Jewish identity alongside religious manifestations. Jewish community relations councils and defense organizations led the way in intergroup and interfaith conversations. And millions of Jews celebrated Jewish distinctiveness while also seeking to understand and build relationships and coalitions with non-Jews. We engaged in this work because we needed a concept as robust and embracing as pluralism to make space for us, as Jews and as Americans, as we came to maturity as a Jewish community.

We prevailed. There is widespread recognition that diverse opinions and expressions are legitimate, in both the secular and Jewish milieus. In the North American Jewish community, no authority mandates the sole “right” way to be Jewish. Indeed, much of the community expresses outrage when the ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbinate, empowered with state authority, presumes to take such steps.

Predictions of pluralism’s demise have been around as long as pluralism itself. Back in 1986, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg raised eyebrows with his influential article that asked “Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000?” Today, it often seems we have taken the pluralist project as far as it can go. Like the broader American landscape, different camps in the Jewish community are ensconced in our own echo chambers, speaking to ourselves and either ignoring or shouting down those with whom we disagree. Finding a middle ground seems to have gone by the wayside. The digital revolution and the level of disruption in the organized Jewish community exacerbate these dynamics. There is little sense of connection or meaningful engagement across that difference, suggesting grim prospects for the future.

At a time of disruption and fragmentation, the Jewish community must enact the next iteration of pluralism to help us find connection and care across difference. We must go beyond civil discourse, which presumes objectivity and neutrality. We can learn from the energizing work of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project and others, which teach that meaningful pluralism is based on substantive encounter and real relationships. Other heartening models include Resetting the TableEncounter and the On Being Project. We can all do this work paying close attention to structures and practices of power, bringing voices at the margins into conversations, further diversifying and strengthening them.

Reconstructionist Judaism was founded on the premise that embracing diversity across the Jewish people and the civilization we create are vitalizing. We have long built on the foundations of pluralism and multiculturalism in our work to integrate the diversity of identities and lived experiences of Jews into the fabric of Jewish life and the Torah of Jewish wisdom.

Our work now is to model covenantal conversation and sacred listening—to demonstrate how to vitalize pluralism in these divided times. This is distinct from the Talmud’s makhloket leshem shamayim, literally, “controversy for the sake of heaven,” which presumes argumentation and controversy and both mirrors and intensifies the breakdown of conversation into argument, relationship into confrontation. Instead, we draw from the Shema, the central prayer in Jewish thought, which raises up sacred listening (“Hear, O Israel.”  “Listen up, Israel.”  “Take heed.”  “Pay attention.”).  Rather than argument, we prioritize listening intensively, with the possibility that we will be transformed by the encounter. We can pair this sacred listening with covenantal conversation, the recognition, born out of Jewish speech ethics, that, like God, we create whole worlds with words. We must speak not from a visceral place but with intentional language that can enable us to join ourselves into webs of mutual connection and obligation.

Reconstructing Judaism is pursuing this essential work in many places, and most concentratedly through Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, an online platform with conversation-sparking essays and live discussions featuring thought-leading rabbis, leaders and creators on urgent issues of our day. Evolve brings multiple voices together to listen to one another’s point of view and to interact respectfully. Our goal is to cultivate constructive, respectful, groundbreaking conversations on the most challenging topics, both online and in-person. Through careful curation, we post a wide range of views, including those we don’t necessarily endorse. The values undergirding this cultivation of constructive debate include tzelem Elohim (regarding and treating all people as created in the divine image), kavod (respect), and redifat shalom(pursuing peace).

In the midst of a heartbreaking conversation about how broken the Israel conversation is in American Jewish life, and how many believe that sharply critical opinions are illegitimate, a lay person shared a beautiful insight. “I don’t expect us all to agree on politics. But I want us all to be able to come together to say Kol Nidre on Erev Yom Kippur.” She spoke a powerful truth from deep within Jewish tradition. In the Temple, among the spices required for a sacrifice, was included helbenah (galbanum), which was known to have a foul smell, yet it was combined into the ketoret, the incense the priests mixed to make a beautiful and complete offering. The Talmud offers this as a prooftext that everyone—even and especially the “sinners,” however they are defined and by whatever authority—is required for a fast to be “true” (Keritot 6b). If we are to be the caring, abiding, vital Jewish community we aspire to be, we must find ways to combine and connect with those who are challenging or even repugnant to us. We must do this by stepping out of our comfort zones and into new practices and new relationships. We must evolve how we talk to and with each other. Please join in our covenantal conversations and help us build the Jewish communities of the future. I invite you to participate in one of our upcoming webinars on Evolve’s newest topics: gender identity, anti-Semitism and spiritual practice. Together we will learn the content and skills to transform our communities.  Together, we can reconstruct pluralism for our time.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network