THE TY BLOG

Pluralism's Misrepresentation

The Jewish Week published an article in early January 2013 by Shmuel Kaplan entitled "Jewish Religious Pluralism Is A Destructive Idea".  In the article, Rabbi Kaplan posits religious pluralism as ill-conceived and even goes as far as naming pluralism as a "shallow, poorly reasoned idea and most importantly, a destructive force in the Jewish community."

Andrew Fretwell, Young Judaea and Tel Yehudah alumnus and current staff member, shares his response to Rabbi Kaplan's article and assertions and his own beliefs about Pluralism below:

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s piece that admonishes Pluralism is as disappointing as it is uninformative, without either striking Pluralism’s actual ikar or following his own conclusions to their logical, and not so far, ends.

What he speaks of is not pluralism, but instead a half-hearted attempt at inclusion. Pluralism is not the belief in a universal tent under which all mankind, or Jews, sit. Pluralism is the belief that our most effective strategy in our spiritual, social and political growth is by embracing our diversity, and the tent only covers those who embrace it.

Kaplan cites the Latin “E Pluribus Unum” as a basis of Pluralism, which conveniently displays how off the mark his description of pluralism is. Pluralism is in fact a rejection of “the melting pot,” that our best approach is to combine and synthesize our diverse strands so thoroughly that we are left with an “Uberjudaism,” a perfectly processed hybrid of all we once had to offer.

No, Pluralism is the belief that our internal diversity is to be explored, celebrated and retained. Pluralism is not the escape route for individuals or communities from making profound choices; it just acknowledges that one’s choice is not the only valid one to be made. Kaplan’s preferred “we are right and they are wrong and here is why,” approach is rooted in our proud Talmudic history through which we infuse our lives with sincerity and thought and in doing so create holiness. However that approach has a clear danger of self-righteousness and extremism. The Talmud makes room for both principled choices and Pluralism by having present two schools of thought and citing Hillel’s superiority to Shamai in that he listens first and then responds.

Pluralism is also at the heart of the Zionist enterprise, the convening of a global Jewish population with its diversity in race, ethnicity, socio-economics, political beliefs and religious practices and then using that heterogeneousness to create a living, vibrant society, drawing strength from its assorted make-up. However, you can also look to Israel to see the true dangers of the “we are right and they are wrong,” mentality. The ultra-orthodox monopoly of Jewish ritual, which now is now creeping from the synagogues into the street, spreads like a cataract over Israeli society. Professor Alon Tal speaks of the Battle Against Pluralism in a recent post in reference to politicians who use the progressive appeal of Pluralist rhetoric as a fig leaf for oppressive policies.

The real problem is not that Pluralism is unworkable, but that it is almost universally misunderstood in the way in which Rabbi Kaplan misunderstands it. This bizarro-Pluralism is a cheap veneer against principled choices, dulling our intellectual and moral instincts. True Pluralism sharpens them, and prevents us from falling under the ether of dogma. That man’s pursuit of truth is both an intellectual and a social process is in our collective DNA. After all, for all the honor we give Hillel, it is not from him, but from his debates with Shamai, that we have learned.

If you have your own comments or thoughts on this topic, please feel free to share them!

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