Pluralism: Why It Just Doesn’t Do It For Me

Pluralism.

The latest, arguably most prominent, It concept in Jewish community.

A value any self-respecting Jew espouses to.

Of course we respect all kinds.

Of course we make space for different practices and beliefs.

Of course every person, regardless of background, affiliation, or values, has a unique role within the greater Jewish community.

Of course we authentically respect what each person or community adds to this diverse, nuanced ecosystem.

Of course.

I often find myself in very pluralistic settings, in many different capacities.

As a Jewish communal figure, educator, leadership fellow (go Wexner!), writer, artist, woman, speaker and more, I am very often surrounded by people who hold a different space than I do, in some way or another, in the broader Jewish community.

I am typically the token (or one of the few!) hasidic/orthodox/sephardic/halachically observant/worldly/creative/outspoken Jewish woman in a group- I check off all sorts of boxes, in tandem, that rarely seem to collide for many around me. And there’s usually a sense of shock or awe that there exists out there someone like me: “Wow! I never encountered a hasidic/orthodox/sephardic/halachically observant/worldly/creative/outspoken Jewish woman like you before! So interesting…”

Yup. That’s me.

And really, I’m fine with that. A part of me thrives in that role. I love being an enigma and afforded the opportunity to show others what’s possible, even in identities we tend to imagine so differently. (The most shock is around being such an ‘open-minded’ hasidic woman. That seems, for many, to be extra hard to swallow.)

As these encounters tend to happen in more diverse settings, I ask myself- what makes these environments, these groups that I find myself in, authentically pluralistic? Is it something beyond diversity?

What does pluralism really even mean?

If you have a pie dish that’s full of pie slices, each of a different flavor (cherry, peach, apple- you get my point) – how, if at all, are you really creating one pie? Is the physical proximity of all those pieces to each other enough enough to feel like there’s some purpose for them to be squashed together into one dish? Or are we just creating an illusion of closeness?

What, essentially, are we gaining when we bring Jews of different types together? Creating dialogue? Opportunities for learning? What is the real benefit of exposure? How do we create bridges that reach further than simple novelty?

Last year, I took my family to Isabella Freedman for Rosh Hashanah, and the year before, for Sukkahfest.

In case you’ve never been, these programs are probably Jewish Pluralism at its finest. Three of four minyanim – Renewal, Traditional Egalitarian, Carlebach/Orthodox – teachers from all backgrounds, lots of families from all over, representing the very whole spectrum of Jewish life. My kids played with everyone. They saw women in kippot and bare-headed men, together, praying in their own ways. They danced with throngs of Jews, so vastly different, in a large field, holding onto beloved Torah scrolls, their feet pounding on the wet grass as their voices melded into one. They stood in a large circle for Havdalah, surrounded by all types, swaying to a familiar melody that seemed equally comfortable to all those present. And yes, they had questions. Hard ones. There were some tough conversations, like why do we even keep halachah? Why did we choose to pray in the minyan that we did? Why does our community at home look so different?  Does Hashem love me more if I do more Jewish stuff? And in truth, I had questions, too. It was so special to sit with others and show that curiosity, express my fascination and wonder, and have it received so warmly. I left feeling like it was an enriching experience- though still, in some strange way, lonely and apart.

And some of the questions I encountered at those programs or in my fellowship or at Jewish conferences or coveneings where pluralism is celebrated have only gotten stronger over time. It doesn’t feel like it’s enough to bring people together and create dialogue. There’s more that needs to be done.

Here are some of the harder questions, I believe, we need to ask ourselves and each other:

How – and why – is it that the lowest common denominator in any diverse group of Jews is Orthodox practice? And while I am not suggesting it be otherwise, do we, as Orthodox Jews, show enough empathy and appreciation to our fellow Jews that this is the defacto reality?  How would it feel if it weren’t the case? If our more stringent practices around kosher, prayer and other observances weren’t honored in diverse settings? What would it look like to stop and share thanks and awareness that our values sometimes impact others in ways they would not necessarily choose?

Why are the causes and struggles of the Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic communities less compelling, in a pluralistic environment, than the ones that face other segments of the broader Jewish community? Are we really not as innovative? Sexy? Worthy? Significant? Why does it feel like we need to be extra, all the time, to gain similar opportunities in funding, advocacy, partnership and visibility? Why are issues in education reform, abuse, inclusion, gender roles and more not as evocative, not as vital, not as gripping, as similar issues in other segments of the Jewish community? Is it about numbers? Judgements? Assumptions? A sense of ‘what’s coming’ to a community that seems to choose isolation over integration? And what will it take for this to change? As someone who grapples, almost constantly, in this messy space, I encounter this frustration almost all the time. On the best days, it feels like Jews across the spectrum are moved by the work in my community, even if they name it ‘niche.’ On the worst days, I feel shut-out, judged, marginalized, and passed-over, for something that others claim feel far more ‘universal.’

Are we really willing to let go of our judgements of one another? Do we truly see that we need each other? That yes- we need reform temples, conservative camps, Orthodox schools, gatherings for the unaffiliated, female Rabbis, greater queer representation, Hasidic learning centers, opportunities for the XO communities, and more, because we need each other. Because that’s the Divine plan– not just because it’s more interesting that way. Where is the sense of collective responsibility and authentic interest in one another? Are we just playing lip service to each other? Do we secretly believe ‘our way’ is the best? 

Why is tolerance such a lauded value? Is it even enough? Along with some acceptance, a sprinkle of curiosity, and in best cases, some trust, is there not more than a splash of judgement mixed in that cocktail, too? I don’t want tolerance of my choices and values. It’s not enough. I want- and aspire to give- deep respect, appreciation, space, compassion, visibility, opportunity and room to make mistakes. Please, let’s raise the bar. Tolerance is meek. We can do better.

Pluralism isn’t enough. It just doesn’t do it for me.

And maybe it’s not about pluralism at all. Not about different people coming together to try to form something together, learn ways to respect differences and tease out a common, even fractured, language.

Maybe it’s really about Unity.

The awareness that underneath it all, despite our differences, we share so much in common.

Something so deep and visceral and real.

Something G-dly.

Yes, we  make different choices.

We do things differently.

Like prayer.

Some with a mechitzah, some egalitarian, in partnership; some with chanting, some in Hebrew; some with a quorum, some in solitude; some only in a synagogue, some only in a field; some with women leading the prayers, some with women in the back, whispering in silence; some only on the Days of Awe, some three times a day; some from a well-worn prayer book, some only with their own words, different every time; some only in joy, some only in pain; some as a political statement, some as song; some to Gd, some to the spirit within.

Yet we all pray.

Isn’t that what’s most important?

Every 19th of Kislev, a Hasidic holiday, the teachers at my school give a special lesson to the preschoolers. It is absolutely my favorite lesson of all. They sit around the rug and the teacher lays out all kinds of candles: a shabbat candle, havdalah candle, oil lamp, menorah, tall candle, short candle, candelabra and lantern and more.

“Friends, what do you see?”

They each call out a another type of candle. They each point out how different they are, one from the next.

“Now let’s turn off the lights.”

Slowly, each candle is lit. Slowly, the room fills with light.

“Friends, what do you see?”

“We see flames! We see light!”

“Yes. Even though each candle looks different on the outside, each one has a flame. Each one gives light. So too every person in this world. We may look and act differently on the outside, but inside each one of us, we have a flame.”

And in this way, they encounter the Soul.

What would it look like if we started our conversations there, at the points of convergence, in the space where we are ultimately one, unified, intimately bound?

What might happen if instead of seeing Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Progressive, Chabad, or any particular political stance or agenda, we saw a Jew? A person? A soul?

I’m not suggesting we dismiss differences or pretend they are not there.

I am not suggesting that we are all the same.

I am suggesting that to radically recognize those things that make our communities so unique, we need to start with a different frame.

The question is not, how we can all co-exist despite our differences?

The question is, how we can all thrive, in light of what unites us all?

When you look at me, do not see me as someone that somehow needs to represent or apologize for every hasidic/orthodox/sephardic/halachically observant/wordly/creative/outspoken Jewish woman.

Do not judge my work according how important you think the Orthodox Cause is. Do not assume my worth by how much you imagine I am comfortable outside of my inner circle.

It is not the Orthodox Cause. It is not about more opportunities for the unaffiliated. It is no longer about amplifying the voices of the marginalized.

It is about our brothers and sisters. About our families. About our fellow people who are each charged with a unique mission in this world.

It’s about those that feel close to us, a part of us, so deep inside.