Two Jews, Three Opinions? In Search of Pure Pluralism
Dov Friedman

In February of 2007, Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, said that Jews who conduct services that do not "accord to Jewish custom"—meaning Orthodox custom—should not be allowed to pray anywhere along the Jewish holy site. For those familiar with the ongoing struggle between the Orthodox authorities and feminist activists at the Western Wall (anyone who wants to pray there must abide by Orthodox regulations mandating modest dress and a partition between the genders), Rabbi Rabinowitz's suggestion comes as no surprise. It is what he said afterward that should raise eyebrows. "It makes me sad," said Rabinowitz, "that there are people who do not want to respect the [Western Wall] as a place of unity and togetherness for the entire Jewish people."

"Unity and Togetherness?" There is irony here. Over the past two decades, religious zealots have thrown everything from chairs to eggs at egalitarian prayer groups at the wallwithout rabbinic authorities making a peep. Yet Rabinowitz tries to speak as a pluralist, extolling unity and togetherness.

Why would Rabinowitz use pluralist language to support a policy that seems explicitly anti-pluralist? Reading Rabinowitz's comments cynically, one could argue that he was merely trying to make a divisive policy sound reasonable. Or not. Perhaps Rabinowitz truly believes that his policy proposal—making sure that the most traditional worshippers are comfortable during their prayers—is the best way to foster unity. In other words, Rabinowitz was catering to the most traditional common denominator and earnestly calling it unity, or pluralism.

Of late, Rabinowitz and his fellow Orthodox Jews have hardly been the only ones claiming the mantle of pluralism. Indeed, it seems all Jewish groups are doing so. But "pluralism" has many connotations.

There is one central division among Jews with regard to proposed unity of religious practice. In one group are those who believe that Jewish law is binding on all Jews because that law is mandated by God. These Jews also believe that living their lives according to this law represents the single authentic way to practice Judaism. In the other group are those who see Judaism (and sometimes religion in general) as housing an infinite number of truths, all of which attempt to connect with one aspect of God or another.

For those who believe that law is fundamentally correct and that other conceptions of Judaism are incorrect, their theology precludes them from creating and joining in communal practices that deviate from their understanding of Jewish law.

Alternatively, those who believe that Judaism houses an infinite number of truths are always at risk of losing a coherent foundation upon which to build their community; they may build a pluralist community, but what would tie such a community together? It would have nothing to rally around except pluralism itself—making pluralism the end instead of a means to a more harmonious community.

For those who believe in the value of pluralism, it is an ominous reality to be faced either with traditionalism that may stamp out pluralism, or with pluralism that may stamp out tradition. In order to understand what a fully "pluralist" perspective entails, we must examine the ways in which the term is used.

First, a quick disambiguation of different forms of pluralism. Israel activism, for example, can be one kind of pluralism. Though different groups of Jews may disagree about Israeli policy and, unrelatedly, about Jewish observance, they may find that they agree on Zionist principles. They can then move forward, discuss, and find common ground upon which to agree about how to advocate for Israel. Another example is cultural pluralism. Two Jews who disagree about everything in religious practice and observance may find that they both have a deep affinity for chulent (a stew that is a staple food for many on Sabbath) or Woody Allen. Culture can then serve as another jumping-off point for forging a relationship despite disagreement on most other issues. These pluralisms are important among Jews and, for that matter, between Jews and non-Jews. But they are also easy. We can't be so self-congratulatory if we base connections on only the simplest grounds.

Then what about pluralism within religious ritual practice? What kind of philosophy or Jewish approach is meant when a ritual practice is termed "pluralist"?


One of the key differences between the Modern Orthodox movement and its more traditional progenitor is Modern Orthodoxy's openness to the secular intellectual tradition. On the surface, this value seems to fit nicely with the idea of pluralism—that respect for and engagement with other traditions is necessary for a deep understanding of Judaism. Yet in examining the philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy's founder, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, it becomes clear that engagement and openness to the wisdom of other traditions is limited.

In a review of Soloveitchik's The Halakhic Mind, biographer David Singer writes that what signifies Soloveitchik's break from traditional orthodoxy is his acknowledgment of Western philosophy's power. "It is inconceivable," Singer writes regarding Soloveitchik's beliefs, "that Orthodoxy might move forward in the 20th century without entering into serious dialogue with Western thought." But openness to dialogue does not mean critical examination of core beliefs. According to Singer, Soloveitchik never seeks to "defend the basic core of traditional Jewish belief; rather, he takes it as an absolute given, on the basis of which he enters into a dialogue with Western thought." This posture allows Soloveitchik and his followers to engage with Western philosophy only as support for or justification of the core beliefs—in other words, the immutable traditional Jewish legal system. As a result, Orthodox Jews who follow Soloveitchik's brand of Modern Orthodoxy will have little inclination to respect and appreciate alternative belief systems within Judaism, let alone within other religions.

In the summer of 1996, Commentary magazine printed a symposium on Jewish pluralism with articles by rabbis and lay leaders from the various American Jewish denominations. Rabbi Saul Berman, a prominent modern orthodox thinker, opened his piece with an affirmation that the Torah is the expression of God's will for Jews and "for all humanity." Berman then asked rhetorically, "Does Judaism command or only desire; does it create a community with common duties or only one with common voluntary practices?" For Berman, the binary between belief in the obligatory nature of the law and belief in observance as a voluntary practice is absolutely central. Put bluntly and unapologetically by Berman, one is correct and the other is incorrect. He then added that he is skeptical about the prospects for unity, arguing that there is no hope for having Jews "unified" under traditionalist conceptions of Judaism.

However, Berman would welcome such unity were it realistic. We can deduce, then, that Berman would also welcome interaction and collaboration with other types of Jews, as long as no Jewish legal violations were committed. This type of pluralism is the one routinely touted by Orthodox and other law-based Jews. Let us call this "legalistic pluralism:" I am happy to collaborate with other Jews as long as my Jewish obligations are not compromised.

Thus, a conception of pluralism that strives toward unity in religious practice is impossible with the Orthodox. Because the ideologies of Soloveitchik and Berman are based on the belief that Jewish law is binding and immutable, it would be impossible to compromise with less traditional Jews on any aspect of this law. It seems contradictory to say, "I am willing to forge a relationship and a common religious experience with you as long as we follow my vision of Jewish law completely," and call this stance pluralism.

For the Jews who believe there is a multiplicity of truths within Judaism, the important conception is that of the imperfect human attempting to discern the perfect will of God. Because humans are inherently flawed, they cannot reasonably believe that they understand and interpret God's will more accurately than others. This Jewish outlook has been advocated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder and spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement and affectionately called "Reb Zalman" ('Reb' loosely means 'teacher') by his students and followers. Though his roots are in Hasidism, Reb Zalman was influenced by LSD experiences with Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary and by Howard Thurman, a teacher of Zalman's at Boston University and a proponent in America of Gandhi's non-violent resistance.

I spoke with Reb Zalman by phone about his theory of Judaism and Jewish pluralism. He argued that everything is a manifestation of God, even using our telephone conference as an example: this is "God doing Zalman" and "God doing telephone." What led Reb Zalman to such theological perceptions? He said that "after the experience with LSD, I see Judaism as one possible construct, but not the only necessary construct. I learned to wiggle my mind into all other possibilities." Reb Zalman rejects Rabbi Berman's idea that the Torah is the expression of truth not only for Jews but also for all humankind, as it confers preferential status on Judaism.

Reb Zalman's pantheistic ability to see truth in a wide range of philosophies separates him from Orthodoxy. Based on this, devotees of Reb Zalman's Jewish Renewal believe that Judaism has no monopoly on godliness and true spirituality. The logical conclusion from this belief system is that Jews must appreciate not only the practices of every Jew but also the devout practices of other religions as true expressions of the divine relationship with humanity. This philosophy can be called "pure pluralism" because it sees truth in all practices; it feels comfortable building a community around many different theological views and religious practices. Yet it is not easy for groups to build a shared communal religious practice when all they agree upon is that every conception of God and every religious practice contains truth. When such a community wants to figure out what it believes in—outside of pure pluralism—problems arise.


How then shall we balance these extremes of legalistic pluralism and pure pluralism? Part of the answer comes from Rabbi Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Gillman agrees with Reb Zalman theologically. As Gillman said, "No one really knows what God wants, and all of us Jews are struggling to figure out what that is. Since there is no right answer, we have to accept everyone's conception of what that is." When pressed about the relativist and pantheist implications of his conception, Gillman agreed that he was advocating theological relativism, but rejected pure relativism with respect to religious practice. "Christianity is an answer that our community has not accepted. But the range of what our community has accepted is very wide. It's very hard to be a Jewish heretic." But not impossible. Gillman preserves the idea of multiple truths without venturing completely over the line to relativism. Critics might assert, however, that Gillman creates no standard for drawing the line between truth and untruth. Gillman recognizes the criticism, responding with a reiteration: "There is a boundary in believing that God became flesh. Our ancestors said no to that but they said yes to a lot of other things that are not normative, centrist, or conventional. The line is necessarily fuzzy because we don't have a dogmatic tradition." Where Orthodoxy and relativism fail, Gillman succeeds. He preserves the idea that humans cannot absolutely know God's truth while managing to shun pure relativism and the resulting incoherence.

Gillman's idea of pluralism is a theoretical, theological one, as opposed to one that reflects a desire to introduce pluralism into religious practice. Let us call it "theoretical pluralism." For him, pluralism is a mindset with which to approach understandings of God and one's own beliefs within the realm of Jewish thought. Gillman's pluralism is quite distinct from the idea of unity in religious practice, in which he places little stock. "If you disagree with the community, you leave the [synagogue]," he said. "You find yourself a [community] that agrees with you ideologically. There are nice things about a reform [prayer service], but I don't want to pray there. Nor do I want to pray out of an [Orthodox prayer book]. I'm not sure I want unity. It could be boring."


The pursuit of pluralism, unity, or both is made even more difficult by the question that looms over all denominations: "Who is a Jew?" This question is especially problematic for Gillman as a Conservative Jew. Both Gillman and Jack Wertheimer, Provost of JTS, noted that Conservative Jews are affronted that the Orthodox do not grant legitimacy to Conservative conversions, and yet the Conservatives turn right around and dismiss the Reform movement's judgments on who is considered Jewish. Gillman is again ready with an answer, saying that the true test of pluralism is not ideological, but pertains to the Jewish legal system. He then poses the hypothetical situation of Reform, patrilineally-descended Jews who walk into the rabbi's office and want the rabbi to officiate their wedding (traditionally, one's status as a Jew is determined matrilineally—based on whether one's mother is Jewish). "Patrilineally-descended Jews are just melting into the population. These de jure barriers are there, but de facto they are not. I do not think that the Jewish law will officially change but I do believe that it will be subject to benign neglect." Gillman seems to have no qualms about the disappearance of this distinction between who is and is not Jewish. This may be one practical application of his theology: though he accepts the traditional understanding of who is a Jew, he seems unconcerned that this it is fading into irrelevancy.

Yet Gillman is no advocate of unity, and thus his artful theological position has no practical application. Put differently, Gillman does not want to take his belief that there can be multiple authentic Jewish practices and apply it to the religious practices of his community. This is where the conception of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, leader of the Reform KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in Chicago, becomes helpful. "If I don't think I'm always right, then I have to be open to other people's views in order to get closer to the truth," Wolf said.

The basis of Wolf's pluralism is slightly different than Gillman's. Wolf removes abstraction from the idea of multiple truths. For Wolf, it is not considered "pluralistic" merely to recognize that one's conception of God is not inherently correct; one must open one's practice to other views. Wolf's pluralism entails working to incorporate many views into a communal religious practice, thereby moving closer to God's truth. We may call this "practical communal pluralism." The question for Wolf remains: how far is one willing to take it? The efforts of one community to include disparate ideas in a unified practice seem genuinely pluralistic, but what is done when Wolf's theory is universalized? How would Wolf construct a wider pluralist doctrine? Despite its shortcomings, practical communal pluralism is the closest we have come so far to true pluralism.


Perhaps as a result of the denominations' botched attempts at pluralism, today's Jewish youth seem increasingly unsatisfied with the cookie-cutter brands of Judaism that have been prominent for the last century or so. As such, recent years have seen younger Jews work to spread philosophies that reject the denominational structure. The blog, which posts opinions about grassroots Judaism, the problems with the establishment, and Jewish social conscience, is an example of this. Its founder, Dan Sieradski, is motivated by disgust for denominations—he believes that each is interested only in the "preservation and advancement of its 'market share' as the 'licensed vendors' of Judaism." Another Sieradski project,, helps regular Jews find communities that meet their specific needs. In this way Sieradski hopes to give increased exposure to underexposed niche communities, which will help foster more diverse Jewish perspectives. This contributes positively to pluralism to the extent that it increases Jewish voices outside of the traditional denominational framework. The more viewpoints get exposure and garner followings, the richer the variety of communities from which to choose or with which to engage from the outside.

Yet despite his contribution to pluralism's potential, Sieradski's vision of pluralism seem to have no interest in forging interconnectedness or unity among communities. He echoes Gillman in writing that "you can't satisfy everyone. You can't make a space for everyone in your community and stick to a concrete mission." Sieradski writes further, "Leave me the hell alone and let me be Jewish the way I want. Don't try to get me to go to your shitty [synagogue]... don't foist one of your no-talent rabbis on my community as its supposed spiritual leader...Yet do not deny me the resources I need to live Jewishly." To Sieradski, the crucial "resources" come in the form of support from places like regional Jewish federations that allocate money to different Jewish groups. Thus we can call Sieradski's vision "financial pluralism" because it depends predominantly on equality of Jewish funding. Sieradski believes Jewish federations should not give preeminence to the standard movements over niche communities with different approaches.

There are two problems with Sieradski's vision. First, the desire for equal funding raises questions, such as whether Neturei Karta (radical "ultra-orthodox" Jews who reject a Jewish state without the arrival of a Messiah and therefore call for Israel's destruction) should be funded as much as other Jewish organizations. Is financial pluralism really the value we want to promote? The other problem is that Sieradski has no interest in bringing Jews together in religious practice. Though it is noble that he works hard to gain a forum and funding for many different kinds of Jewish expression, he advocates a limited and potentially problematic form of pluralism. In essence, Sieradski wants to tear down the handful of stale denominations so that smaller and more specified Jewish affinity groups can rise in their place. But all Sieradski seems to be doing is supporting grassroots and independent Judaism over its corporate counterpart.

Another example of the shift against denominations is the cross-denominational group "Jews in the Woods," a worthwhile case study of the promise and pitfalls of pluralism. Jews in the Woods was started in 1997 by college students from the northeast and, after a several-year hiatus, was reconvened with pluralism as a primary basis of its existence. Twice a year Jews in the Woods convenes for spiritual weekend retreats. The group actively courts participants from different denominations and is therefore compelled to address questions about how to create an environment of religious practice that is comfortable for everyone. Such a situation is the ideal incubator for pluralism, and Jews in the Woods has come up with some innovative answers to facilitate different Jews' ability to pray together. One such innovation is the "tri-chitza." Whereas traditional Orthodox prayers separate the men and women with a mechitza (partition), Jews in the Woods has revived and re-popularized the tripartite mechitza—a three way partition that allows for separate sections for men and women, and a section for mixed seating for those inclined. Further, Jews in the Woods instituted a so-called "quorum check." In Orthodox services, ten men are needed in order to recite certain prayers. In other services, the requirement is ten people, men or women. To accommodate the plurality of views, Jews in the Woods has devised a system in which everyone looks around and decides for him or her self whether a quorum is present, and if it is, that person raises his or her hand. If ten hands are raised, then the prayers requiring a quorum of ten are recited.

Certainly Jews in the Woods has contributed to the pluralist conversation, but its failures are contained in its successes. Despite innovations with the tripartite partition and the quorum check, the only people who can lead the actual prayer services are men. This is because there is no way to reconcile female prayer leaders with the traditional Orthodox rule that women cannot help fulfill the prayer obligation of a community because they do not have the same level of obligation as do men. At the end of the day, Jews in the Woods still caters to a fairly traditional common denominator. Sure, it has attracted an Orthodox contingent that is willing to bend—but not break (with Orthodox practice on the issue of women leading services, for example). Thus the entire community, including those women who are deprived of an opportunity to lead, are bound by this stricture.


Given the shortcomings of these many different pluralist visions, how can we build a truly pluralist greater Jewish community based on religious practice? It seems to me that the success of Jewish pluralism depends primarily on relinquishing the idea that halacha—Jewish law—is the preeminent Jewish value. We must adjust our values and begin to see community—the value of unity amongst the greater Jewish community—as preeminent.

Each local community develops a unique relationship with Jewish religious practice that is contoured to its members' needs, and we as individuals must then choose the community which most appeals to our own religious inclinations. Yet when we are not with our chosen communities, we must deemphasize the standards of our local communities for the sake of the larger Jewish community. We must understand that Judaism can be molded into many different truths. Under this system, no practice is then deemed better than any other; rather, alternate practices are equally rational and equally enlightened even if they are not our preferred "home" practices. If we walk the ideological tightrope of Rabbi Gillman—if we see many truths at the same time as we see that the extent of truth is bounded by necessarily fuzzy lines—we can allow our personal practices to shift when we are not within our own communities. Thus, we will essentially become "chameleon" Jews, willing and able to adapt our religious practice to foster cohesiveness between different local Jewish communities and within the Jewish world at large. We can adopt the norms of the communities we visit and merge disparate norms when two or more communities come together in Jewish practice. Jewish law then becomes a common framework from which to launch discussion about Jewish practice, not a rigid legal imposition. Jewish pluralism can only flourish fully if we reconceptualize Jewish law as not an end unto itself, but a means for maintaining the local community while strengthening and interconnecting the greater Jewish community. This is the only true definition of pluralistic religious practice: law and tradition remain important only in the service of unity among the Jewish people.

In anticipating criticisms of this approach to pluralism, it is important to tackle the issue of Jewish education. More specifically, how does one's knowledge of Judaism facilitate or inhibit one's ability to be a "chameleon" Jew? Speaking personally, as an alumnus of a Jewish community day school and of a year-long intensive Jewish studies program in Israel, I have a certain knowledge base that facilitates smooth transitions between a wide variety of religious perspectives and expressions. The Jew who grew up with little or no formal Jewish education, though, will have great difficulty fitting into the wide variety of Jewish communities. Education, it seems, is the common currency—the common language—that enables individuals not only to make informed religious decisions, but also to know what it is that they are not choosing. This is because education in Jewish texts, laws, and history is an effective tool to help shape one's personal outlook on Jewish expression. Only with a solid educational foundation can Jews effectively move between Jewish communities and adapt to their respective standards seamlessly. Education, then, is emancipation—with sufficient knowledge of Jewish text and law, individuals not only have the power to choose their own ritual standards, but also have the freedom to adapt these standards in the interest of Jewish unity.

How is this vision of pluralism different than the others I have enumerated? Unlike legalistic pluralism, it is not limited by the strictures of Jewish law, which force Orthodox and other legal-minded Jews to draw distinctions between "right" and "wrong" methods of practice. Unlike Reb Zalman's pure pluralism, my vision allows tradition and law to remain the font of each community's expression and creativity. My pluralist vision is closest to that of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. But whereas Wolf is interested in expanding the inclusiveness of individual communities, I am interested in the individual mindset of adaptability for the sake of unity. Wolf wants each community to broaden itself as much as possible, but there are inherent limits to how far each community can go before it loses coherence. By focusing on individuals, my vision of pluralism does not force communities to broaden and thus lose internal distinctiveness and coherence.

This conception of pluralism is the truest. It is also fair to say that the odds are stacked heavily against it. Denominations are entrenched, and law-based Jews (mostly the Orthodox) are not going to simply give up their perceived obligations because of a theory of true pluralism. Wider Jewish education is a more modest and attainable goal, and one that can create more educated, non-dogmatic Jews. One potential benefit of working toward such a goal could be increases in the number of Jews who find meaning in "chameleon" pluralism. In the meantime, on an individual basis, we may strive every day to move closer to the pluralist ideal. Much like the Platonic forms, Pluralism is an ideal, and we cannot truly grasp the Form of Pluralism in this world. For that, as Rabbi Wolf succinctly put it, "We may need the Messiah."

Dov Friedman, The Current's Senior Editor, is a junior in Columbia College spending the semester abroad studying archeology in Egypt.

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