A friend recently defined “pluralism” for me as a form of coexistence between people of different values. The idea, in my mind, is that I was raised with a set of values and ideals that I hold to be truth, but this is not a definitive, universal truth. I live by my Orthodox values with full understanding of the fact that my peer may have been raised in a Reform Jewish home and his or her values have every right to be as valid as mine are.
It’s funny because I never really considered that something like pluralism might be called a “value”, or an entity that one might hold in high regard and use as a platform for making decisions. The question that really arises is: What is the point of quality in pluralism? What aspect of being open to the validity of values other than one’s own in fact comes to enhance one’s Jewish experience.
I could give the classic lawyer answer that “you need to understand the opposing argument in order to affirm your own”, but I dislike this competitive outlook on Judaism. If we are constantly looking to undermine the values that other people, never mind other Jews, hold dear, than we have no hope of ever achieving real unity as a nation. Such an outlook breeds resentment and tension among the sects.
Here’s what I think: It’s all about humility. Humility is not a sentiment that one is unworthy. On the contrary, a truly humble person is fully aware of his or her own strengths, but also of his or her own weaknesses! Valuing pluralism is about having humility with regard to the specificity of our perspectives on Judaism. We are fully aware of the strengths of our individual arguments as to why one sect of Judaism might make more sense over another, but across the board, we share the same weakness: We are not G-d. Ultimately, the Torah is our source of derivation for “G-d’s will”, but the interpretations of the Torah are so diverse, that G-d’s will looks quite different to every individual.
Imagine if everyone, even beyond the Jewish people, approached his or her ideals with just a little sprinkling of humility. Maybe then we wouldn’t feel the need to kill each other over a little difference of opinion. It is not enough to just “agree to disagree”, because we all know that we walk away from that discussion with that snide little voice in our head convincing ourselves that our opponent is clueless.
Instead I propose that we take a good, hard look at ourselves and ask why we think that our own logic is flawless. If we were brutally honest, all of the most brilliantly formulated arguments cannot shield us from the aforementioned weakness that simply comes with being human. Live by your values and hold them close, but get over yourself. Take a look outside and realize that you share the Torah with a colorful variety of people who care about their Jewish values just as much as you do.
I recently attended Limmud New York, and to say that it was a life changing experience would be an understatement. I felt that the Los Angeles-based columnist, David Suissa, gave the most all-encompassing description of the event. He called it “Judaism without and agenda”. This is a highly individualized experience. No one is asked to give a session, and no one is denied the opportunity to give a session whatever topic he or she chooses. Anyone who comes on Limmud to teach also comes to learn from others. No one attends Limmud to reaffirm his or her own ideas. We go to talk and to learn from one another, in the hopes of strengthening the bonds of the Jewish nation.
It was a humbling experience, to say the least. Most of the people that I met did not affiliate with the Orthodox movement, and I’ve never seen such a fierce passion towards Jewish observance. Ultimately I came out of Limmud determined to incorporate pluralism into my set of values. The struggle to balance denomination-based values with pluralism is tricky, no doubt. I truly believe, however, that even the attempt to maintain such a balance just might be the key to achieving some real unity, or achdut, across the board.