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Jewish Religious Pluralism Is A Destructive Idea

Jewish Religious Pluralism Is A Destructive Idea

The slogan of “religious pluralism” has become a banner around which the American Jewish community has gathered and found common purpose. Pluralism — being accepting of and equating all ideologies and religious expressions — seems to be a wonderfully progressive idea in which all but the most “bigoted” or “narrow-minded” Jewish  religious fanatics (read hareidi, Orthodox) can find common cause.

After all, is not E Pluribus Unum (out of the many, one) the very core of the American notion of tolerance and social harmony? Indeed this American notion has been such an extraordinary blessing for the Jewish community in particular enabling the historic success of our community.

However, while religious pluralism may sound good in theory, as is the case with most such popular slogans it is shallow, poorly reasoned idea and most importantly, a destructive force in the Jewish community.

Let me explain by relating a story. Some years ago, a leading Jewish communal figure and a longstanding personal friend shared with me the news that a new Jewish community high school was being established in our city. When I asked do we really need another high school when the city already has almost half a dozen Jewish high schools, including a few Orthodox and a Conservative and Reform school in the development stage? The answer was that this was exactly the point. This new school was to going be built on the principal of pluralism: inclusive of all affiliations and ideologies. My response stunned my friend. “It’s a terrible idea,” I said and completely opposed to such a school.”   

I believe the purpose of Jewish education is not just to produce educated Jews but to produce passionate Jews committed to the values and history of our people and our religion. Anything less is of minimal value to the future of the Jewish community.

A “pluralistic” school cannot produce the kind of Jewish education described above for many reasons. For example, is kashrut an antiquated relic of pre-modern man that has no relevance to us today (the classic Reform ideology)? Is it an inspired religious practice, albeit one that needs to be modified and updated to fit our times (the Conservative ideology)? Or is it a Divine commandment that is immutable, including every detail of its Divinely inspired oral law (the Orthodox ideology)?

If the answer is “any of the above” then all of it is essentially meaningless. You can now repeat this same scenario for almost every important Jewish subject to be taught in a pluralistic Jewish school. Jewish education requires clarity of purpose, values and message. Anything less cannot produce the enduring results for the future that our people require.

Would the graduate of a pluralistic Jewish school, a few years down the line, abandon a potential spouse for a multiple-choice value system? The fact is that you simply cannot develop a foundation of commitment and passion for one’s Judaism based on a vague and confused set of educational values.

What we need is for each denomination to have its own schools. The Reform should teach that their view of Judaism is correct and teach why they think the Conservative and Orthodox philosophies are wrong. Let the Conservative and the Orthodox do the same thing: let them boldly state that “we are right and they are wrong” and here is why. That is the kind of education that can succeed in producing committed and passionate Jews.

I did not succeed in persuading anyone to abandon the idea of starting the local pluralistic Jewish day school. Ten years and $20 million in Jewish philanthropy later, the school has closed for lack of interest.

Teaching pluralism may be a way of showing respect for others but in the process it demonstrates a lack of commitment and confidence in what you believe in and is therefore destructive to successfully transmitting it to the next generation. 

Yes, all Jews do have much in common, a shared history and some core values, but that is not enough to foster the conviction and commitment that will overcome the sacrifice and struggle necessary for us to survive in our free and open society.

The remarkable success of the Orthodox community in America — despite all the predictions and odds — should prove conclusively the validity of holding fast to one’s values. It is time for the rest of the community to come to grips with this reality and abandon the easy foolhardy and naïve banner of pluralism that leads nowhere.

Notwithstanding the provocative opinion that I have shared here, nothing that I have stated above should take away from my healthy respect and love for all of my fellow Jews, however they identify themselves and as wrong (or right) as they may be. Such an attitude is indeed the imperative of our shared history and core values.     

Shmuel Kaplan is a rabbi in Maryland.

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