Many years ago, when I was a student at JTS, I was first taught about the idea of pluralism. I found it to be an inspiring and uplifting idea. It was wonderful to think that we can accept more than one idea as legitimate.
For example we learned that if two Jews have slightly different views of kashrut, they should be willing to eat in each other’s kitchens. We learned that there are different views of whether one can turn on lights on Shabbat. Underlying these views, however, was the principle that Jews should consider halacha, or Jewish law, binding, and should observe laws of kashrut and Shabbat among many other areas of Jewish observance. This “pluralism” did not include those who had fundamentally different views of Jewish law.
The word “pluralism” has increasingly been used by denominational institutions to describe their worldviews. Rabbi Aaron Pankin described HUC in this newspaper last month as “the largest pluralistic Jewish seminary in the world.” Similarly, the Jewish Theological Seminary describes its theological approach in its “Norms of Religious Identity and Practice” as pluralistic. At the same time, the institutions are espousing their denominational approaches.
When denominations use the word “pluralism,” they are referring to a range of viewpoints within a denominational philosophy. They are right, in a sense. However, using “pluralism” to define the nuanced parameters of a single movement — what does it mean to be a Reform Jew or a Conservative Jew? — differs dramatically from identifying pluralism as the fundamental guiding principle of an institution or a community.
Many “pluralistic” JTS students would find themselves outside the “pluralistic” parameters of HUC. Similarly, many “pluralistic” HUC students would find themselves outside the “pluralistic” parameters of JTS. Neither JTS nor HUC is a fully pluralistic institution. They use the term pluralism to describe that diversity which is to be found within their respective denominations. In contrast, The Academy for Jewish Religion’s defining commitment to pluralism makes it a seminary where all of these students could not merely find a spiritual and academic home but would grow from classmates who bring with them dramatically different perspectives, backgrounds and understandings of Jewish tradition. That is pluralism.
Personally, it wasn’t until I began working at The Academy for Jewish Religion, an institution founded on the idea of pluralism in 1956, that I saw what a range of approaches could be. The philosophy at AJR for almost 60 years has been to approach all Jewish viewpoints as valid. We know that we all learn and grow as Jews not only by respecting difference but also by cherishing the broad diversity within our community: a diversity so broad it could never be encompassed by a single denominational movement. This means that there are those of us at AJR who feel bound by halacha and those of us who don’t. There are those of us who feel that our main approach to prayer is through traditional liturgy, and those who find that connection through meditation. There are those of us who study the Torah as written by God, and those who feel that the Torah is the product of human creation. We have many different views of God, many different views of Jewish practice, and many different views of the nature of Jewish community. Yet, we learn, pray, and live as a community, and have been doing so for almost 60 years.
True pluralism is enriching, growing, inspirational and very difficult. It entails a community that is willing to be unified through its approach to diversity. It involves an openness of spirit to the other, a willingness to share ideas with those whose religious perspective not only vary dramatically from one’s own, but that negate one’s own, and to then see how each of us can learn and grow from this connection. It means that we spend real time outside of our comfort zones, but that our comfort zones themselves grow and enlarge to involve ideas and practices that we had never heard of before, but that become important parts of our lives.
I think we do a disservice to our understanding of Jewish life when we muddy the waters and are not clear in our terminology. It is important to differentiate principled interdenominational or post-denominational pluralism from the narrower spectrum of denominational diversity. Denominations should be proud of their denominational affiliation, and should not hesitate to define themselves as such. They should not, however, claim to be what they are not. Pluralistic institutions should celebrate their cherished diversity and their mission to serve Klal Yisrael. These are different philosophies and different understandings of the nature of the Jewish community. There is room in the Jewish world for all of them.
Dr. Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and dean of The Academy for Jewish Religion.