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The Pragmatics of Pluralism

"A person might think 'since the house of Shammai declares unclean and the house of Hillel declares clean, this one prohibits and that one permits, how then can I learn Torah?'" Scripture says "Words...the words. These are the words." All the words have been given by a single Shepherd. One God creates them, one Provider gave them, the Lord of all deeds blessed be He has spoken them. So make yourself a heart of many chambers. Bring into it the words of the house of Shammai and the words of the house of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean." (Tosefta, Sotah 7:12)

The heart must be open to include even contradictory judgments. The heart must be humble enough not to insulate itself in one room, locking out all others and maintaining that it alone possesses the heart beat of God.

Inclusiveness and humility struggle against the hard disjunctives that would compel us to choose either/or. That hardness is the way of idolatry that deifies a part as if it were the whole. The power of monotheism is to search for both/and. This is the dialectic thinking that characterizes our sages.

In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:2) Rabbi Yanneh offers the following insight: "Had the Torah been given as one cut (i.e. as one final unchallengeable decision in all matters) without possibility for divergent opinions, we could not stand on our own feet." We have been given a gift. We are graced with understanding and discernment. This is our glory and our blessing. And it evoked from the rabbis a benediction that rejoices in pluralism. "If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one should say: 'Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other." (Talmud Berachoth 58a)

Quotations are not enough. How can we create the conditions that will enable us to address an assembly of Jews with different judgments and different minds and greet them with this blessing of pluralism?


Something must be done to bridge the gap between theoria and praxis in regard to the principles of pluralism. I offer three proposals to readers of Sh'ma.

1. I have these last two years introduced a Keruv pluralistic outreach program to the community. This includes the synagogued and un-synagogued Jews who wish to renew their Jewish spiritual roots as well as "unchurched" non-Jews who are interested in exploring Judaism.

Relevant to our discussion is the fact that the faculty that teaches this group of four hundred people on a weekly basis is drawn from prominent Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregational rabbis. The response of the audience has been overwhelming. Clearly, the people crave signs of Jewish unity and look to their rabbis for example. There is much joy in sharing the teachings of Judaism on a common platform. God did not create denominationalism.

2. As in the past, this coming year I plan to present a series of sermon lectures on "The Best of Judaism" in which I deal with the fears and aspirations of each of our four movements, as well as sermon lectures dedicated to Satmer, Lubavitch, and the secular Yiddishist Movements.

We are challenged to consider what it is that is these movements for many of our people. This project is an exercise of empathic pluralism that has proven to be of considerable help to me and to the congregation. The Cantor plays an important role in this appreciation. He chooses the liturgical music of each movement to complement the sermon lecture. To enter with imagination, the mind and heart of other movements is an act of self-revelation. It leads to a deeper respect for the other and strengthens our own self-respect.

3. It is our children who have been paying dearly for our divisive denominationalism. Our children who belong to NCSY and NFTY and USY live in a world of defacto apartheid for which we bear responsibility. Our children do not play together or pray together. They are kept apart from each other. A small people is made smaller yet by our smallness. The critical mass so vital for Jewish companionship and marriage is reduced even further by our denominational factionalism. Ironically while we may not be successful in preventing mixed marriage, we will be triumphant in seeing to it that Jews do not marry other Jews.

The alienation of our youth from each other is a terrible legacy with which to leave our century. It conjures up images from the twenty-second chapter of the book of Joshua in which fear is expressed about the consequences of the divisiveness among the tribes: "In time to come your children will tell our children 'What have you to do with the Lord God of Israel.'" We are rapidly approaching that tragic event.

Where are the intercongregational young people's choirs of our synagogues and temples to sing together and present their artistry on Purim or Chanukah? Where is the community wide Jewish youth drama society to express the celebration of Jewish life? We owe our children more than rhetoric. I appeal to rabbis and especially to youth directors in synagogues and Jewish centers to join forces in order to cultivate Jewish talent and energy to help overcome divisions we create. What a great service can be rendered to the ideals of pluralism through the vitality of the Jewish arts in concert with the youth of our communities. We have heard the rabbinic endorsements of unity in diversity. We cannot live only a life of quotation. It is time for institutional implementation.

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Sun, July 5 2020 13 Tammuz 5780