Can Pluralism Create Unity
Cheston Mizel is a member of the Los Angeles 09 Wexner Heritage Program. In addition to being a practicing attorney, he is the Founder and Chairman of Jconnect (www.jconnectla.com), a 501(c)3 non-profit devoted to creating Jewish connectivity, continuity, and unity in Southern California and beyond. Cheston can be reached at Cheston@JConnectla.com
In a recent Wexner seminar, somebody brought in an advertisement from dontfundterror.org. This group has diverse organizational backing that represents every recognizable Jewish denomination and political ideology. Groups that have been at odds with one another from inception have come together to advocate U.S. energy independence. This uncommon expression of Jewish unity was impressive, despite the harsh reality that inspired it.
We devote substantial communal resources to promote Pluralism, but have failed to produce results that come close to those that arise out of fear of an existential threat.
One would think that, given its centrality in the modern Jewish conversation, that there would be a universally accepted definition of the word. Nevertheless, a Google search on the term “Pluralism” reveals a plurality of understandings.
Dictionary.com features at least two different definitions that have vastly different implications for the Jewish community: first, “A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society [combined with] the belief that such a condition is desirable or socially beneficial;” and secondly, “The belief that no single explanatory system or view of reality can account for all the phenomena of life.”
After a year in the Wexner Heritage Program, I am still not completely clear which one the Jewish establishment has embraced. Is our ideal to find ways of working together despite our differences? Alternatively, must I accept the legitimacy of differing theologies to rightfully be considered a Pluralist? If I don’t, am I bigot?
Over the last year, I have learned with and from a group of impressive teachers and classmates. Along with abundant information and insights about Jewish life and Jewish history, it has been an invaluable opportunity to hone my skills at politically correct Pluralistic diplomacy. In an environment that is designed to be open and agenda free, I sometimes have an aching feeling that I need to carefully choose each and every word as not to run afoul of some unspoken ethos that shuns any approach that is advocated as truth.
Several weeks ago I found myself at a discussion about “Peoplehood” at the Jewish Funders Network in Phoenix Arizona. In the course of yet another collective discourse on “Who is a Jew?” I noticed something interesting. In Pluralist Jewish circles, there is an almost universal acceptance that a Shomer Shabbat person with two Jewish parents, who also believes in Jesus, is not Jewish. However, few would question the Jewishness of the patrilineal atheist who gives to Federation.
It stands to reason, with the history of Christian anti-Semitism and missionary activity, that the community is threatened by Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, those Pluralists who espouse an essentially relative nature of religious truth have no legitimate philosophical basis to exclude our Messianic brethren from the fold. If what I believe is true for me and what you believe can be equally true for you, what justification do any of us have to exclude any group of Jews based on their beliefs alone?
The irony is that I have more than once felt excluded from full participation in certain “Pluralistic” Jewish activities precisely because my beliefs and practice tend toward the Orthodox side of the spectrum.
Whether it be attending a weekend conference that was held at a venue that is not Shabbat-friendly, or eating a pre-wrapped TV dinner while my co-religionists dined on high end “kosher-style” cuisine, I have more than once felt like a second class citizen as I have attempted to engage the broader Jewish world. I have even heard some pretty anti-Orthodox statements from some so called Pluralists. It seems that they have a problem with Orthodoxy’s inherent exclusivity. Can a true Pluralist really deny the Orthodox the right to believe something just because it is incompatible with their own ideology?
After experiences such as these, I am not surprised that many Orthodox Jews view “Pluralism” as an assault. This commonly shared experience keeps alive the antiquated notion that dialogue with non- Orthodox legitimizes the violation of Torah and the degradation of its honor.
All that being said, if legitimacy is measured in numbers of adherents and economic power in the Jewish world, one might argue that it is the Orthodox that are struggling for legitimacy. To the extent that we define Pluralism in essentially religious terms, such that it justifies inclusion of all like-minded relativists, at the expense of the sensitivities of Orthodox believers, we will never have the unity we so desperately seek.
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to playing politics with religion, the Orthodox world is not without culpability. The intractable issues relating to marriage and conversion in Israel only add fuel to the fires of intra-Jewish divisiveness. Nevertheless, it may be in the acknowledgement of the political nature of the problem that will bring greater peace to our communities.
If we look to the world of politics, a different notion of Pluralism takes hold. In a world with a multitude of political parties, often with ideologies that vehemently diverge, we somehow find ways of coming together on issues of common concern. A right wing Republican can cross the aisle to join with a left wing Democrat when there are issues of national interest at stake.
In our times the issues that face us are so grave, so substantial that we cannot afford to let ideological battles stand in the way. We must move toward a pragmatic political model of Pluralism. Pluralistic engagement should not focus on finding theological common ground. Such dialogue is ultimately a fool’s errand. Rather, we need to focus on real issues of common interest.
It is unfortunate that it takes an existential threat to Israel, such as the possibility of a nuclear Iran to galvanize our communities. Nevertheless such a crisis plays an important role in creating the realization that no matter what we believe or how we practice, we are all in this together.