Recent protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem against the opening of a parking garage on Shabbat and the ongoing struggle by Israel’s chief rabbinate over control of conversions beg the question of pluralism. Does Judaism tolerate more than one opinion – especially more than one halachic (Jewish legal) opinion?
As Americans, we take for granted that our constitution guarantees church-state separation and grants all religions the right to practice freely. But does Judaism maintain that same ideal?
I just returned from another summer in my three-year Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. More than 25 rabbis of all denominations from across North America are fellows in this program and we are constantly taught that the answer to that question – is pluralism Jewish? – is a resounding "yes."
Pluralism maintains that "I am right and you are right," that no one owns the truth; in fact, there is not one truth. Pluralism ensures that everyone’s opinion is treated with respect. This may sound reasonable, but if one believes that the Torah is God’s word, then it may be difficult to understand how there can be varying interpretations of God’s word. The more literally one understands the phrase "Torah-true Judaism," the less likely one would be to listen to another interpretation.
But, in fact, pluralism is an ancient rabbinic concept. We may be familiar with the schools of the great Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, who lived approximately 2,000 years ago. The school of Shammai is known for its very strict reading of the law and is sometimes known for its unfriendly attitude toward the "other." The school of Hillel is known for its creative interpretation of Jewish law and is sometimes known for its friendly attitude toward the "other."
Sometimes their interpretations of law could have resulted in different understandings of Jewish identity issues, however, they insisted on maintaining that their children could marry one another – for the sake of Jewish community. The school of Hillel also maintained that when law was taught, Shammai’s opinions would always be taught before Hillel’s. Why? Because eilu ve’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – these and those are the words of the living God.
More than 1,000 years later, rabbis were trying to understand how to maintain relationships with the Karaite Jewish community. Karaites define Jewish practice by what’s written in the Torah and they reject rabbinic interpretation of Jewish law. A millennium ago, when Jewish communities were more close-knit, rabbinic Jews wondered how to deal with those Jews who refuse to listen to their teachings. Maimonides was asked whether a brit could be held for a Karaite baby on Shabbat. The question itself assumes that Karaites are still Jews, but asks whether the Shabbat could be violated for a Karaite as it would be for a rabbinic Jewish baby. Maimonides easily answers, in less than a page, that Karaites are of the seed of Jacob and therefore the brit should be held on Shabbat.
These are just two examples of many that could be brought to highlight the value pluralism has in Judaism. The problem is that many on the right today are not interested in being pluralistic. They see the value of their opinion, they see the importance of educating their community based on their own interpretations, and they see that other opinions may possibly dilute the importance of their position.
However, we don’t have the luxury to be particularistic today. Jewish affiliation rates are going down. Jews are looking for nondenominational communities (Shabbat dinner clubs, independent minyanim, etc.). And the Jewish birthrate is precariously low. All combine to cause us to ask how we can strengthen the community today, not dilute it. We need all traditional segments of the community to work together, to see the value of the other, so that we can grow and thrive.
The Hartman Institute has been trying to promote these pluralistic ideas for years, but reaches a relatively small audience every summer. We need to push behind the scenes in creative and nonthreatening ways to get all sides to sit together. Our Jewish federation, the Washington Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Relations Council are leading local institutions that should be in the forefront of pushing these pluralistic ideals. In my last year as president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, I will move this agenda forward because I know that it is only when we work together that we can fulfill the dream of the ancient prayer, l’takein olam b’malchut shaddai – to improve the world under the sovereignty of God.
Jonah Layman , rabbi of Conservative Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney/Silver Spring, MD, and president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This article originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week .