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Irvine Hebrew Day School

Just What Do We Mean By “Pluralism?”

Ah, that word again—pluralism. How can such a proud and positive modifier be panned and slammed, disparaged and misunderstood?   
    An institutional attempt at developing Jewish pluralism can probably be traced to 1974, when Rabbi Irving Yitz Greenberg and Elie Weisel established Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Clal’s mission was simple (and ambitious), aiming to promote “Jewish-Jewish dialogue and intercommunication with respect between the trends in contemporary Judaism… conducted in a spirit of pluralism.”
    I’ve been at this pluralism thing for a long time—in Young Judaea, in the JCC movement, in Hillel, in Day Schools. As a Jerusalem Fellow—as part of a raucously pluralist cohort that included tzitzit-wearing, self-identified “settlers” (their word, not mine), “post-Zionist” academics and rabbis from every modern denominational movement—we ran the gamut of belief, observance and practice. While there were plenty of disagreements, there was also an explicit recognition of our commonality. Notwithstanding divergent opinions about… pretty much everything, we still—stubbornly—acknowledged our common inheritance. The same Land, language, Torah, history, values. The same 3,500 year-old lineage. The same danger from the outside world.
    Pet peeves: those who lambaste pluralism as “anything goes” or worse, as the rationale for accepting the “lowest common denominator.” No—and no. Even that well-intended low bar of “tolerance” is just that—a pretty low bar. Tolerance seems to me the pluralist’s equivalent of a toddler’s parallel play; it’s very nice, of course, when the two three year-olds are playing next to each other, tolerating each other—but not truly engaging with each other. 
    Take that parallel play and kick it up a notch; that engagement with each other gradually morphs into empathy with and for each other. It does not jeopardize the individual’s identity; it doesn’t muddy everyone’s personality into one, grey mass. More often than not, it solidifies each person’s own identity, while it allows for a more mature understanding of someone else. Ditto for mindful pluralism in an institutional setting. Achdut—unity—is not conformity. The celebration of commonality is not the loss of deeply held convictions.
    Here’s one of my go-to descriptions of why and how this is so important. Traditional perspectives on Jewish prayer has led to the custom of staying seated when one says the Shema. The rationale is that when one is already seated, standing might lead to a break in concentration. Therefore, before the recitation of the central statement of Jewish theology, one remains in the same physical position, so as to devote every fiber of one’s being to focusing on the words and the meaning behind them. It makes sense.
    In most “liberal” denominational settings, the practice evolved into standing when the Shema is recited. The rationale here is the conventional custom of rising when addressing someone of importance. When a monarch, or a judge or one’s grandparents (or for some, a professor) enters the room, it’s often the moment when one rises out of respect. It too makes sense.
    So what do we have? Focusing on two different reactions (‘they” stand— “they” sit) misses the point entirely. Each is elevating the importance of the prayer, each is recognizing the centrality of the Shema. They’re just doing it in different ways. Is that important—yes. But is it enough to lose sight of the common thread between them?
    Our goal is to construct an educational environment in which our students learn with and from each other, and from their teachers who also span the range of Jewish affiliation. We are steadfast in creating a shomer Shabbat, shomer kashrut school, in which our Texts and our history and our language are celebrated and embraced. At age-appropriate moments, students will absolutely learn about “differences” and why and how they developed—sometimes over centuries, sometimes over millennia. At the same time, they’ll gain an appreciation of a shared past and a common future.




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