Separated at Birth?
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 1). She is Executive Director of the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK.
In some ways, it was inevitable that Limmud and Wexner would intersect one day. They are, in some ways, like twins separated at birth; similar genetics, but different upbringings. For example, they differ significantly in their target audiences: Wexner is unabashedly elite, a leadership program, while Limmud is adamantly democratic and open to all who wish to attend. At their core, however, both embrace a single unifying value, what I call “Passionate Pluralism” – an approach to Judaism that celebrates difference and complexity. Passionate pluralism moves beyond the notion of “tolerance” of difference. Rather, it recognizes the value of creating community with those who share certain core values, but differ in how those values are actualized. Instead of presenting a monolithic answer from a higher authority, passionate pluralism convenes diverse groups of Jews and allows multiple answers to emerge from their dialogue with each other. Passionate pluralism believes that well-educated Jews are best positioned to enhance Jewish life, but does not offer a single model for that education. Rather, passionate pluralism provides a platform for engagement, where the participants define the limits of the conversation. The dialectic process of differing voices generates the passion, while the diversity of the community guards against that very passion disintegrating into fundamentalism and extremism.
It is my experience of both Limmud and Wexner that has helped me to develop this concept of passionate pluralism and the principles which underlie it. Those principles consist of the common factors required for passionate pluralism to flourish, and they are present in both Limmud and Wexner programs:
1) Personal choice – Individuals have the autonomy to navigate their own way through a multiplicity of choices. There is no one pathway that everyone must follow to be authentic. 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), but no one faces discrimination or limits based on his or her gender.
3) Inclusivity – Instead of raising barriers to participation, the institutional culture invites people in. Efforts are made to welcome people and help them deepen their Jewish commitments and learning, without expending energy on defining the boundaries of who is in and who is out.
4) Engaging deeply with Jewish texts and tradition – 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.
In short, I view Wexner and Limmud as the flip sides of a coin. Wexner is about leadership training while Limmud is for everyone. Wexner is funded by major donors, while Limmud’s magic depends on its culture of voluntarism. Yet, both initiatives demonstrate that passionate pluralism creates a vibrancy and an energy that enrich Jewish lives and leaves both leaders and followers inspired.