The Hard Road To Unity

The Hard Road To Unity

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Some years ago, when he was a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Tsvi Blanchard was asked to mediate a dispute between two Jewish groups on campus. The participants in the traditional Friday-night minyan at the Hillel house were complaining that the newly installed Reform service upstairs, with its live guitar music, was impinging on their own concentration and enjoyment.

Blanchard met with both groups, discussed the issues, and asked them to think about it some more and meet again. At the outset of the second meeting, the leader of the Reform group, which had been holding its service in a nearby house prior to moving into Hillel, rose and said the problem is solved. He explained that since it would only be an inconvenience for his group to go back to holding services in their former house, it would be unethical of them to insist on staying at the Hillel for services at the expense of the traditional worshipers.

“There was a moment of stunned silence,” Blanchard recalls, “and then the leader of the traditional group got up and said, ‘My God, you’re more religious than us.’ ”

“That moment,” he says, “was worth a million dollars.”

For Blanchard, 53, an Orthodox rabbi with doctorates in philosophy and psychology who has spent his adult life seeking to engage all kinds of Jews in constructive conversation, that campus exchange underscored the best of Jewish pluralism: Each group came away having learned from and gained respect for the other.

For the last six years Rabbi Blanchard has been at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, the foremost institutional advocate of religious pluralism and post-denominationalism. He and his colleagues — rabbis and educators from all streams — provide leadership training for lay leaders and Jewish professionals. The goal is to “promote respectful conversation among Jews,” says Rabbi Blanchard, the director of organizational development.

Thoughtful, learned and articulate, he readily admits that “pluralism is a hard road” fraught with turf battles, fear, distrust and demonization. But pluralism is not about erasing differences, he insists. “It’s about appreciating the differences, and having multiple conversations — with no one having to compromise his or her personal integrity.”

Rabbi Blanchard is hopeful that the pluralism model will become more acceptable in the coming years, and he believes the 21st century will see fuller and more varied forms of American Jewish life that will increase participation.

“We as a community need to learn what everyone else in our society knows already — that you succeed by finding people where they are and providing them with what they need,” he says during a recent interview. “You don’t blame someone for not buying your product. You give them more opportunities and options.”

Successful synagogues, he says, are the ones that do not change their primary prayer service but add others to meet various needs. Similarly, Rabbi Blanchard foresees the emergence over the next several decades of a boutique style of Jewish life, with multiple forms of practice and programming, more experimentation and fewer claims by one group or another of possessing the absolute truth for all.

Rabbi Blanchard grew up in Rochester, N.Y., experiencing many truths. His family at various times belonged to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues, and he says he learned from each experience.

During his college years, he became increasingly committed to Jewish study and spent two years learning in a “black hat” yeshiva in Israel, and then four years at a similar style yeshiva in St. Louis.

“It was enormously open and challenging for me,” he says. “I found a dense, intellectual and sophisticated tradition. But I never felt Orthodoxy was apart from the world. I maintained many of my most important values. I continued to object to the Vietnam War and to work for civil rights.”
A conscientious objector at the height of the war, while teaching at a Conservative religious school he wore a black armband on Moratorium Day and as a result was not rehired. “I’m a believer in participatory education,” he explains.

Rabbi Blanchard, who is strictly Orthodox in his personal observance and wears his payot tucked neatly behind his ears, says he has always been a religious pluralist. “I never felt it was an either/or choice. I always saw opportunity. Each denomination has something positive to offer.

“Not that everything falls neatly into place,” he adds. “The effort is ongoing and not easy. What’s exciting about pluralism is that it opens possibilities — and what’s anxiety provoking about pluralism is that it opens possibilities.

“Most people want peace and certainty in religion. But the 21st century will be about dynamism, lack of ease and no one answer.”

What Rabbi Blanchard and his CLAL colleagues are trying to advance is the notion that Jews should stop compartmentalizing their Jewish experiences, limiting them, in their minds, to attending synagogue or reading the Bible, when in fact every facet of their lives can be infused with Jewishness.

“We try to teach doctors to practice medicine Jewishly and lawyers to practice law Jewishly,” Rabbi Blanchard says, “to look for the holiness in what they do every day. It’s about freeing people up in their heads, and it’s the most frustrating part of our job because Americans have been trained to think of religion as a separate part of their lives.”
The major problem with Jewish life today, he believes, is boredom, disinterest and a lack of vitality. Experimenting with different models may be scary for some because of uncertainty, but it is preferable to the status quo. “We have to get people to speak about what their lives are about, how they live and what matters to them and help them see the Jewish component,” Rabbi Blanchard says.

Being Jewish, he points out, is more than religious practice. “There are many ways to lead Jewish lives.” Another challenge is harnessing the forces of change within communal institutions.

Though most Orthodox leaders refrain from participating in religious dialogues with Conservative and Reform leaders, lest they appear to be granting them legitimacy, Rabbi Blanchard dismisses this notion as “a red herring.”

“If I meet with a Buddhist, will people come away thinking I now believe in Buddhism?” he asks. “I wouldn’t be having the dialogue if our views were the same.” Similarly, he says that acceptance of others should not be confused with acceptance of others’ views. “I value my wife without accepting all of her views,” the rabbi says.

“I want to get past the culture wars and get to the point where we hear each other, where each person leaves the discussion thinking he or she learned from the others. It’s not about winning,” Rabbi Blanchard says, “it’s about talking and listening.”

He says that “no form of Jewish expression in America today steals people away. It’s the absence of conversation that destroys us.”

Despite those who worry about the future of American Jewry, Rabbi Blanchard thinks of American Jewish life as shifting rather than unraveling. “So while one part is leaving, another is developing.”

Rather than expend energy putting others down, he believes “we should work on the things we can do, together. We should say to each other, ‘I’ll support you as long as you don’t claim yours is the only answer.’

“We have our differences, but differences need not become divisions. Keep your particular theology or lack of it. You don’t have to commit to anything new. All you have to do is care what happens to the Jewish people.”

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