We Need Radical Pluralism

This was a rough week for Israeli-American Jewish relations. The New York Times reported the embarrassing story Israeli Minister Says Reform Jews Are Not Really Jewish(July 7, 2015) “Israel’s strictly Orthodox minister of religious services, David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said Tuesday, “The moment a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel, let’s say there’s a problem. I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.” Mr. Azoulay called American Reform Jews “people who try to fake” Jewish interpretation. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that this statement did not reflect the views of the government, he did not demand that Azoulay step down, as many of us believe he should have.

At the Western Wall/Kotel, a woman was banned from the Kotel because she was wearing a kippah. After refusing to accompany the police to the station, she was forced to take a cab leaving the Western Wall area.

Further, recent progress on conversion laws and local religious authority also suffered setbacks. (See: Two Giant Steps Backwards.)

At the same time, nearly 170 rabbis of all denominations, from North America and around the world, gathered at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We spent 10 days studying Jewish texts, wrestling over their profound lessons for today’s world. The theme, Justice and Righteousness: Personal Ethics and National Aspirations, was explored through learning in Bible, Talmud, Jewish philosophy, theology, history and mysticism. The faculty of leading scholars led us through explorations of Jewish values of Justice and Righteousness and their application in the North America and Israel. It was a striking counter-balance to the frustrating news from the Israeli religious authorities.

While learning at Hartman, I was once again struck by the enormous power of the pluralistic Jewish community assembled there. I have always gravitated to pluralistic venues and groups, appreciating the value of shared learning and leadership. Now, it seems that this moment calls out for greater need for pluralism. Dramatic changes sweeping the American religious landscape and challenges straining the American Jewish community’s attachments to Israel call for new intentionality. As commitments to Jewish unity give way to individual choice, we need to reinvigorate the collective that gave strength to our people in the past.

The Jewish streams that empowered 20th-century American Jews have been weakened during this time of change. Surely, denominational affiliation offers a sense of identity and belonging to American Jews. Now, we need more than these structures; we need what I would call radical pluralism to augment the value of our organizations. These times call for greater breaking down of barriers between us.

The strength of the American Jewish community and Israel depends upon a commitment to maximize shared learning and experiences. The more we do together across lines of affiliation and organization, expanding Jewish discourse, the more likely those “giant steps backwards” will be reversed.

The good news is that our people has been down this road before. We must, and we can, renew our people with radical pluralism.

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