The principles of communal unity

By Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, October 10, 2008
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We traditionally respond to cultural freedom by rejecting it, or embrace it and cast off our Judaism. But a third way is gaining ground: passionate pluralism.


What happens when a couple of Jews sit down with an evangelical Christian, a Hare Krishna monk, a Muslim activist, a secular humanist, and a Catholic priest to discuss how moderate believers should respond to the appeal of religious extremism? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it actually happened this summer when I was privileged to host a round-table discussion with an unlikely group of participants. Despite our many differences, we shared a common concern that extremists have hijacked religion, to the detriment of our society as a whole. The purpose of the discussion was to develop a strategy for each of us, within our own faiths, to understand and address fundamentalism's appeal.

At its conclusion, I walked away feeling that we had addressed only one half of the problem. Fundamentalism doesn't exist in a vacuum. The need for certainty, and the willingness to accept that certainty from a higher authority, is influenced by a number of factors. The rapid pace of change in modern daily life fosters uncertainty, as do the isolation and lack of rootedness that our overly mobile society encourages. Another factor is the impersonal presence of technology in just about every aspect of our lives.

We are becoming disconnected from such basic human essentials as family, nature, community and faith.
But uncertainty, isolation, depersonalisation and technology - all of which help to produce a fertile ground for fundamentalism - are merely symptoms of the issue; the root cause of the return to fundamentalism is modernity itself. Fundamentalism is a response to modernity (or post-modernity), as is its opposite - religious apathy. Fundamentalism and apathy are simply the flip sides of the same coin, one which began spinning when Napoleon tore down the ghetto walls just over 200 years ago. Before then, Jews could not engage significantly with wider society. But, once out of the ghetto, Jews were presented with two possible, broad responses to the modern world. The first entailed metaphorically rebuilding the ghetto walls, rejecting modernity and maintaining Judaism in its traditional form. The second possibility was to embrace modernity wholeheartedly, reducing (or ignoring) the demands and obligations of Judaism, and surrendering to the forces of wider secular culture. The first choice led to Jewish religious extremism; the second resulted in assimilation and apathy.
Peter Berger, in his classic book, The Heretical Imperative, describes these two responses as the "deductive" (protecting Judaism by fencing it off from modernity's pressures) and the "reductive" (reducing Judaism's demands in order to adapt to the wider culture). Today, certain segments of the Jewish community still live in a virtual ghetto, walled off from the rest of the world by a sense of certainty about what God demands of them. They live passionate Jewish lives, detached from secular values. At the opposite end of the spectrum, assimilated Jews are immersed in the secular world, with the result that their Jewish lives have, at best, shrunk into superficial expressions of Jewish culture. Neither fundamentalist nor assimilated Jews, however, have truly engaged with the complexities of the modern world. These include globalisation, multiple identities, radical choice, and permeable boundaries between communities and faiths. Both sets of respondents have made an either/or choice, rather than create a dialectic between them. But is there not a way to remain committed to authentic Jewish life without turning our back on modern complexities and opportunities?
Peter Berger offers a third option, which he calls the "inductive" response to modernity. This requires finding a middle ground between fundamentalism and apathy, remaining passionate about Jewish tradition and being open to the modern world. A Judaism of this kind, both passionate and open, would ideally be expressed in multiple ways, enabling its adherents to belong to multiple communities which share basic values. Advancing multiple responses would fuel an open discussion and debate that would in turn bring about a rich and vibrant Jewish community. As the success of Limmud has shown, pluralism is not the same as parve. Pluralism can engender passion and energy. It recognises and celebrates difference as a constructive challenge, an opportunity for growth. Passionate pluralism is the antithesis of both fundamentalism and apathy. Passionate pluralism demands engagement while not insisting on a singular truth. It is the "third" way, an inductive response paving the way for a Judaism that engages with modernity without being swallowed by it.
Various forms of "passionate pluralism" are already being practised within several Jewish denominations and in a number of "post-denominational," "trans-denominational" or "multi-denominational" initiatives. The UK is home to one of the most creative and vibrant examples of passionate pluralism: Limmud. This has been such a roaring success that it is now being replicated in numerous countries around the world. Other collaborative educational initiatives include the Alma/JCC Manhattan's Tikkun Leyl Shavuot and cross-denominational co-operatives like Chicago's City North Kehillah. Even institutions are getting into the game by providing pluralistic learning experiences. Machon Pardes and the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem are both attracting significant numbers of students and rabbis from all denominations, as is Yeshivat Hadar in New York. Boston's Hebrew College even goes so far as to offer the option of "rabbinic ordination in a trans-denominational setting," believing that it is not only possible but desirable to train different streams of rabbis under one roof.
Each of these initiatives or institutions is, in its own way is attempting to cultivate passionate pluralism. Whether or not this turns out to be a permanent force in Jewish life, it is clear is that these initiatives are responding to the question raised at my round-table discussion: How can moderate faiths respond to the appeal of extremism? The passion of certainty can be replaced by the passion of dialogue. Rather than a monolithic answer from a higher authority, these initiatives offer multiple answers. The dialectic process of differing voices generates the passion, while the diversity of the community guards against that passion turning into fundamentalism or extremism. Such initiatives are the manifestation of Peter Berger's inductive option to modernity.
So what can we learn from these various initiatives? What basic principles do they expect members of the community to embrace? I see four key tenets which all of these initiatives share:

1) Personal choice. An individuals has the autonomy to navigate his or her own way through a multiplicity of choices. There is no one, authentic pathway that everyone must follow. Each person must be true to him- or herself while engaging with others to form a community of seekers.

2) Egalitarianism. While men and women are not necessarily seen as identical, they are treated equally in terms of access to leadership, learning and engagement. Each person's individuality is acknowledged (with their gender being part of that individuality), and no one faces discrimination or limits based on gender.
3) Inclusivity. Instead of raising barriers to participation, the institutional culture invites people in, helping them deepen their Jewish commitment and learning, without expending energy on defining who belongs and who does not.

4) Engaging deeply with Jewish texts and tradition. While each of these initiatives allows individuals to find their own way, the authentic Jewish voice is maintained through an unmediated engagement with Jewish texts and tradition. Participants are expected to study and grow by engaging with Jewish texts and each other. Different interpretations are welcomed, and critical thinking encouraged.

These four factors emerge from my own reflections on the passionately pluralistic conversations in which I have engaged throughout my career. Many flow from my years of work at the Wexner Foundation, where we cultivated this sort of dialogue. Our participants came from all branches of Judaism: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Conservative, Chasidic, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Cultural, Secular and "Just Jews." The common factor was a passion for Jewish life and an openness to being part of a pluralistic learning community.

My introduction to the UK came through Limmud. Accordingly, I came to believe that the UK Jewish community contained special expertise in creating passionately pluralistic communities. In fact, I was so inspired by Limmud UK that I returned to the USA and immediately began working with a group of people to create Limmud NY.

Who knew that my life journey would later give me the opportunity to live here and contribute something from my own experience of creating passionately pluralistic communities in the USA to this wonderful UK community? My fervent hope is that I can transfer and adapt some of this expertise for the benefit of the UK Jewish community.

The Reform Movement, my present place of work, is one of several institutions open to passionate pluralism. Not only does it embrace pluralism within its ranks by encouraging each individual to pursue his or her own Jewish journey, but it also pursues pluralistic dialogue with other denominations who embrace these values.

The round-table discussion that I mentioned at the beginning of this article was convened to celebrate the publication of the Reform Movement's new siddur. Interestingly enough, that siddur, which was 10 years in the making, embodies the four factors outlined above - not that I can claim any of the credit for that. Indeed, many people devoted countless hours to the siddur's preparation before I was on the UK scene.

The siddur is relevant not only to Reform Jews, but to any serious Jew, and that is because it embraces my four principles of passionate pluralism. It requires the individual to make choices about how he or she prays (personal choice); it includes material from a vast range of sources, written by both men and women, always in gender-neutral language (egalitarianism); it invites people in by providing transliteration of the Hebrew, rather than raising barriers to people trying to participate in prayer (inclusivity); and it returns to the traditional matbeah (framework) of Jewish liturgy, with commentary, so that people can deepen their understanding of Jewish prayer (engaging deeply with Jewish texts and tradition).

Not for a second do I believe that a prayer book can change the world. But I do believe that a community of people who embrace these four values can. I also want to create more initiatives in the UK Jewish community that promote passionate pluralism. I want to nurture a "middle way" - multi-denominational and allowing all passionately pluralistic denominations to collaborate on issues of shared concern. That's why Jeneration.org, a website sponsored by the Reform Movement, is proud to promote any event for young adults that ascribes to the four values outlined above. So long as the event holds to our shared values, we want to support it as a valid option. The goal is not to compete with each other, but to create a vibrant community where a pluralistic discussion is the source of our passion.

My interfaith friends sitting around the table expressed concern about fundamentalism. Personally, I lose more sleep about its flip side, apathy. Let's combat both by creating more initiatives like Limmud, Jeneration.org, and Jewish Book Week. Let's create pluralistic schools like JCoSS and pluralistic ethics societies like ResponsAbility, so that passionate pluralism becomes the mainstream voice of British Jewry. I am convinced that the majority of UK Jews are not only passionate about Jewish people and ideas, but are also committed to maintaining openness to diversity and multiple truths. If I am right and Limmud is not just an anomaly but an ethos, then let us work together to create the co-operation between institutions that would make passionate pluralism a reality.

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the executive director for the Movement for Reform Judaism

    Last updated: 2:09pm, October 24 2008