Post- and Anti-Pluralism

While this is most certainly not news, it is an issue I have yet to see brought up here at Jewschool, and I notice a dearth of speech about this topic within Jewish circles.
Long ago in 1998, when the worst news from the White House involved adultery, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks came out with a call against Jewish pluralism. Pluralism, he said was the problem, not a solution. He instead called for a different concept: Jewish inclusivism.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain and the United Kingdom, called on Jews to support inclusivism and reject pluralism.
“The solution to the present disunity within the Jewish people is to embrace only one Judaism, but to be tolerant of the way in which other Jews worship.” (…)

While obviously the rabbi was speaking from an Orthodox perspective, could perhaps the rabbi’s words be understood literally? That all Jewish people should “embrace only one Judaism”? “Pick a Judaism and stick with it”?
I was recently engaged in a conversation with a prominent member of the frum Brooklyn community in which I live. He told me that Jewish outreach — kiruv — had been going on in Europe long prior to Chabad-Lubavitch programs for Russian Jews and was still being done by more old-world Chassidic organizations which predated Chabad. I was surprised and asked at their progress, assuming Chabad to be more “effective”, after all, they get a greater number of mitzvos done, no? I was taken a bit aback by his reply:
“Chabad wants to make affiliated Jews, [this other organization] wants to make frum Jews.”
That, if I had to transpose it into the above dichotomy, sounds “exclusivist”, whereas the Chabad approach of “do something for Hashem” to encourage affiliation — granted, often with the Lubavitch movement — sounds to be more “inclusivist.”
A particular Breslov rabbi in Jerusalem, a respected rabbi in a mainstream Orthodox yeshiva, had a student who married a non-Jew. Upon finding out, he called this student. The student, obviously embarrassed and out-of-touch with his former rabbi (and, incidentally Judaism), explained that “he wasn’t keeping Shabbat, he wasn’t keeping kosher, and was living with a non-Jew.” The rabbi replied that one’s status of intermarriage and one’s observance are two unrelated things — that one is still a Jew and this fact remained, and will always remain, constant. He wanted him to stay affiliated if not “observant.”
Is inclusivism a viable option for Jews in America? Should we be encouraging Jews to stick to “a Judaism” instead of the two now-extant approaches: “everything is valid” or “only one is valid”? Like Rabbi Sacks said, even if one will say that “not all Judaisms are Judaism”, one can never deny that all Jews are Jews. Could the way to stop religious differences from effecting disunity between Jewish people be to acknowledge our differences to their fullest extent (yes, the person across the table may consider you to be an apikoros and your most dearly held beliefs to be heretical) without trying, in futility, to force ideological compromise?

17 thoughts on “Post- and Anti-Pluralism

  1. When Sacks says that everyone should “embrace only one Judaism”, I don’t think he means one Judaism per person (with room for differences among people), he means that everyone should embrace the same Judaism (even if they don’t personally live up to it). Furthermore, he assumes that this one Judaism will be his form of Judaism — I don’t think he’d be happy with conforming to my version of Judaism, even in the name of Jewish unity.
    So I don’t buy it at all. If I don’t endorse making Orthodoxy my personal ideology or practice, then I’m also not going to endorse making it the communal standard and making myself a second-class citizen, even one welcomed with open arms.
    I agree much more with your approach, “to acknowledge our differences to their fullest extent … without trying, in futility, to force ideological compromise”. But I would argue that this isn’t post- or anti-pluralism, but is a deeper form of pluralism than many Jewish communities currently have.

  2. Right. That’s what I was getting at by “Granted, the Rabbi is speaking from an Orthodox perspective”. But taking that one statement of the Rabbi and running with it IMO produces nice results.

  3. About the “frum” and “affiliated” – Chabad does not want to make either frum or affiliated Jews: it wants to make donors or kiruv agents. “affiliated” means with chabad, not with Judaism. therefore, “frum” is much more inclusivist, since anyone can be at least a little “frum”.
    We should all refrain from saying good things about chabad.

  4. i suppose a lot of the debate about integrational approaches v. pluralistic approaches is semantic. That is not to say it is unimportant.
    Plural-ism implies that things are going on simultaneously. For instance, UPenn Hillel has largely separate Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative communities which do their own davening, social programing, and various other sorts of programing. Other folks are welcome to attend any of the services and the hillel supports all the groups. This is Pluralism, three things going on at once. At the other end of the spectrum is a place, like many indy minyanim, that draws folks from many different backgrounds into a single space. This is not exactly pluralism as it is integrational. They aren’t parallel things going on, so it is a different approach to diversity. It is not necesarily useful to lump these two approaches into one term “pluralism”. Better to make a distinction as the visions and outcomes are quite different.

  5. As far as I can tell, there has never been “one” Judaism, and I like it that way. How can he expect all Jews to agree to one option when the way we study our holiest book is through constant discussion and interpretation and argument? My own personal practice is influenced by my early childhood at a Reconstructionist shul, my teen years at a Conservative shul, 6 years of solo practice at home, and my current membership at a non-denominational shul, in which I’m active in both the Liberal Minyan and the Traditional Egalitarian Minyan. If Judaism didn’t allow for this diversity of practice and custom in my life, I’m certain I wouldn’t be as active and involved as I am.

  6. Good article Y.
    If I may, allow me to modify your Brooklyn frum community member’s take on Chabad’s goals: Chabad certainly does not try to make people “frum”. Nor is the goal “affilliation”. If anything, Chabad would rather that we all learn to transcend labels such us: frum, chareidi, chiloni, reform, lubavitcher etc. The Rebbe once stated to a young woman: (in response to her request that she wanted to become his “chosid”). Not verbatim but the gist of it was: “If there is any Jew that is willing take a single step in their own life to add in the service of Hashem, whatever positive action they take, I will be happy to consider that person my chosid.”
    Rabbi Sacks himself is a fine example of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s views. It was the Rebbe who encouraged him to take up Rabbincal school, and in fact provided him with a scholarship to do so. The Rebbe did not expect any quid pro quo “affiliation” in exchange. Though not your typical Borsalino sporting Lubavitcher he is certainly a student of the Rebbe’s teachings in thought and spirit.
    It may surpirise you to know that the activities you learned of in Russia were financed in large part by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (and his predecessors) who risked his very life to pay Jewish underground teachers – not exclusively “Lubavitchers” but any Rabbi willing to carry on the tradions to the next generation.
    We – the Jewish people – are all in the same boat, lets remember that.
    Its a fairly simple concept, but as Y points out, we need to constantly remind ourselves lest we fall in to partisan bickering and lose sight of our true goals: One nation, one Torah worshipping one G-d.

  7. I’m not so sure I like this idea, Y-Love. This idea of focusing on inclusion and affiliation rather than observence and thought might seem very promising in creating unity, but on the other hand, since we need to ’embrace only one Judaism’ then we’re going to need to look for a least common denominator. That denominator would simply be peoplehood. That has two problems. The first is technical, are all Jews Jews? To bring up old arguments, think of Brother Daniel, or go back further – Karaites, Christians, Samaritans. The second problem, is that by reducing our identity to simply affililation it seems we reduce religion and ethical imperitive with nationalist identity. Do we want that? Do we want to be like the French, German, Italian?

  8. Heaven forbid that I would ever suggest that the pan-national eternal identity of “Jew” should be watered down to the point it can be equated with “French” or “Italian” (or “Israeli”). Do I consider a child born of a non-Jewish mother to be a Jew? No. So he can’t blow shofar for me, or say kiddush for me. Is it axiomatic that this must create animosity?
    I’m not saying “everyone embrace the same Judaism”. That’s what the rabbi said, and while I think such a thing would be an ideal, I don’t think it will be effected by any less than Moshiach or a Divine revelation. That being said, I think encouraging affiliation is one of the only things that is going to foster unity.
    Unity coming from the fact that “I have a Judaism and you have a Judaism”. There are religious — sometimes quite fundamental — differences, but within reason (obviously a secular humanist and a Chassid are not going to see eye to eye) virtually everything is surmountable. While you can scream to the heights “this is not Judaism” it is quite hard to say “this is not a Jew.”

  9. I wanted to clarify my stance about chabad, and through that, about this entire post. I think “affiliation” with Judaism as a positive thing in and of itself is a very problematic notion. If Judaism is a national/ethnic thing, then “affiliation” is nothing but nationalist patriotism, with all the issues that come with that. Think of all the people who were anything but “affiliated” until they met Meyer Kahane (shem reshaim yirqav), who “affiliated” them. would it not be better that they intermarry and their children turn into honest, law abiding goyim?
    If Judaism is a religious thing, however, then “frumkeit” – according to any definition of that – would trump “affiliation” any day. Serious engagement with Jewish tradition and lifestyle – any sort of engagement – is obviously preferable to being a dues-paying member, or even a big philanthropist, of a big Jewish organization.
    That being said, chabad obviously prefers the latter: serious engagement out (unless you become chabad), affiliation and identificaiton in. Chabad will take your money – but they will never take you. That is why chabad is never, ever “inclusive”. it is inclusive only to George Washingtons and Benjamin Franklins printed on dollars.

  10. I am newish to Chabad. I go to their JLI classes, have accepted some shabbat /Yom Tov invites. I have found everyone to be lovely and inviting. I have never felt like I was a “donor” and in fact probably give more in the Pushke than the reform shul’s country club dues structure.
    I actually feel more like a donor at the reform place. One time they tried to ban me from High Holy Days cause I missed the misc. 20 fee they charged me as I am on auto bill pay. They told m to keep my kid home from school ( oh btw, I TAUGHT the class!) I stopped going there for services.
    In my area affiliation usually equates to social status,not observance.
    Orthodox..modern…rich Judgmentals
    Conservative…rich social Jews, go there to be seen
    Reform..intermarrieds, other social outcasts, femisits,middle class to poor
    Chavurah…middle class, mixed observances
    Minyans..break away orthodoxy, immigrants, usually wealthy
    Chabad..actual eruv like neighborhoods.observant but welcoming, immigrants,some wealthy but not showy
    But our sweet Chabad Rabbi told my dad…labels are for shirts.
    It would be great if something OTHER THAN reform movement started groups/shuls in suburbs that are not centers of cities.
    I have to drive 30-40 miles to go to the Chabad we go to. Or I can go 2.3 miles to the reform shul and get nothing spiritually there.

  11. Amit I’m ready to tear keri’ah over this depressing view you have of Chaba”d. I’m sure, on an intellectual level, you realize that Chaba”d — especially today — is comprised, in the Chutz l’Crown Heights diaspora, largely of shluchim or former shluchim. These people, dispatches of the shlichus office, have often drastically different ways of doing things. I feel sorry that you found a bad apple in the bunch.
    Crown Heights itself is a different story. I have heard so many stories ranging from “Chabad saved my life” to “Chabad ruined my life” from that particular collection of blocks that I don’t make judgment calls on it.
    However, Chaba’d as a movement is a wonderful thing, and does want to see Jews do mitzvot. (And intermarriage is never something you advocate.) Your blanket generalizations are totally your own and may not reflect the actual status of World Lubavitch, Inc.

  12. World lubavitch is a very problematic organization which espouses nationalism and racism, as well as messianism. That chabad rabbis are nice people makes no difference: so are the missionaries in Africa.

  13. oh, and Y-Love, you’re forgetting that in Israel they are not shlichim at all. And the last time I checked, Israel was not part of crown hights.
    (BTW: “unity” is a bad thing. The people who built the tower of babel were united, look where it got them)

  14. It hit me as I read that: you’re totally right, I’m speaking strictly chutz la’Aretz. Unity IS a good thing, see what the Chofetz Chaim said in his commentary to Genesis about the Tower of Babel, when Jews are united, Hashem even lets idolatry go on because peace is abounding.
    The Chabad racism thing — I’ve heard this from people close to the Rebbe — is totally blown out of proportion and Chabad’s inaction with Ethiopians wasn’t due to the Rebbe, but rather to certain people within Lubavitch, Inc. (And if you’re talking about racist Lubavitchers, what, you think just by learning Tanya a person can undo the racism which is pandemic throughout the Ashkenazi frum community?)
    What nationalism? Zionism? Chaba”d is (b’shita) non-Zionist.

  15. I can’t think of a single time in Jewish history where we were united in our ideas of how to serve God. In Egypt there was the golden calf chevre, in temple times there was the Sadducees and Pharisees, and in the 10th-11th century most of the worlds Jews were Karaites. There has never been “one Judaism.” I doubt that will change.

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