When I teach undergraduates about the rise of Jewish denominations in the nineteenth century, I am regularly caught up short by many of my students’ responses. The borders of denominations meant everything to their leaders, who situated their movements as the true Judaism, and the other movements as not at all true. But those borders mean far less to my students, many of whom tell me that there is no such thing as “true” Judaism and that everyone has a right to her or his interpretation of what the tradition means.
On the one hand, my students who voice such sentiments are noble, for their instinct to embrace pluralism is an instinct to affirm all Jews and all expressions of Judaism as worthy of value, and to recoil from saying anything that might hurt or offend anyone — dead or alive (especially fellow students in the room with them). On the other hand, these students are craven, for their instinct to embrace pluralism entails a belief that all expressions of Jewish identity are justified simply because they are declared to be expressions of Jewish identity. What my students are saying when they affirm all expressions of Judaism is that the content of those expressions is immaterial; they therefore have a wholly abstract notion of Judaism. Judaism for these students is not about anything — any specific thing or any specific set of things — at all. Compared with such a (lack of) conception of Judaism, of a vision of the life and acts that Judaism entails, the alleged dangers to a Jewish future posed by intermarriage or criticism of Israeli state policy are small potatoes.
A teacher’s task is to provide students with greater clarity about why they think what they think. And so, it is essential to demonstrate that they are not reporting on the tradition when they make claims about the apparently infinite number of Jewish expressions that are worthy of being affirmed. Indeed, they cannot be. Rather, they are constructing Jewish tradition in a certain way. Perhaps they feel Judaism would be stronger if it was conceived as a “big tent”; perhaps they are fascinated by the panoply of Jewish lives they see and/or read about; perhaps they are ignorant about the tradition, or hold simplistic understandings of midrash. But whatever the reason, the pluralism that they construct entails the corollary conviction that no single conception of Judaism works for all Jews. Just like other people, Jews have varying temperaments, and they will need, therefore, to lead varying Jewish lives.
When Jews who believe in such pluralism acknowledge what is implicit in their own thinking, their Judaism suddenly ceases to be abstract. And this means that they are able to judge other Jews, even if that judgment may, as a result, become awkwardly paired with a deep romance for the variety of Jewish expressions. For example, many of my students (especially those who frequent Chabad) have a deep love for Orthodoxy, even if they are not Orthodox (or even Orthoprax) themselves, because they find comfort in Orthodox spaces. Yet when Orthodox Jews insist that all Jews must, in effect, have the same temperament and act in the same manner — as evidenced by, to give only one example, Orthodox control over marriage and divorce in Israel — my students cannot love Orthodoxy without falling into contradiction. How could they affirm both the value of the variety of Jewish temperaments and those people who refuse to grant that variety any value at all? Similarly, many of my students may be awed by the financial and political power of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, but how can they love someone who insists that all Jews must express their ahavat Yisrael as a love for Israeli state power without, again, falling into self-contradiction?
Many of my students take the need for a variety of Judaisms as an implicit principle of their own thinking and action. Yet they should not confuse this with a need for a variety of Jewish ideologies, a variety of accounts of what true Judaism is and entails. If they do this, then their pluralism only ends up senselessly affirming those who are against pluralism. What my students are actually doing is affirming a variety of Jewish tastes, a variety of takes on which practices might or might not bring satisfaction to Jews. And when they do that, they are taking a side in a debate. For them (as for the great historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem), Judaism has no essence; it is only about aesthetic affect and its motive for action. For those whom they must oppose — certain Orthodox Jews, Sheldon Adelson, and also leftist Jews who reduce Judaism to “the prophetic” — Judaism is only an ideology, only words on paper, only political and theological positions that have more vitality in one’s mind than in one’s life.
The task for Jews who believe in pluralism today is to strengthen their own account of why they desire to be pluralist — of how pluralism satisfies them, empowers them, and motivates them to identify Jewishly in a wide variety of actions in their lives. This cannot be an argument. It can only be an appealing story, one that makes nonpluralists desire the kind of stability that only a taste for pluralism can bring. If Jewish pluralists can persuade others that pluralism is an ideal worth desiring, they could break through the stalemates that so often make Jewish conversations today so boring and predictable.email print