“Pluralism is the ‘political correctness’ of the theological world.”
Thus begins the statement of intent, or re-statement, of a group of ultra-orthodox rabbis in the UK who wish to scare people out of going to the annual interdenominational Limmud conference.
This first sentence alone tells us where we are, we are locked in a system of thinking wherein “political correctness” is self-evidently misguided. Any parallels with the Bible’s ethos of welcoming the stranger, of remembering that we were once the oppressed people, enslaved to the mighty Egyptians, are ignored. There is no consideration of the ways in which encouraging people to overcome their natural sense of threat when encountering difference is an important step towards building an exemplary community which is warm and welcoming. No, we are in a xenophobic mindset, where ‘political correctness’ may as well be equated with ‘moral weakness’.
We perhaps suspected that such a mindset existed in the anti-Limmud camp, now we know for sure.
In this politically incorrect world, we might now turn our attention to that other great evil – pluralism. For a group of people who presumably spend a lot of their time immersed in the Talmud, the blindness to the sense in which that is a text which embodies many aspects of pluralism is striking. Never mind the story of the heavenly voice who declared of the fractious Hillel and Shammai that ‘both these and these are the word of the living God’ (eiruvin 13b), never mind the idea that there are 70 modes of interpreting Torah – shivim panim laTorah, never mind that we are instructed to read the Biblical text on four levels of different meaning. Notwithstanding all of these, the Talmud is from start to finish a set of discordant voices, a multiplicity of opinions, a cacophony of wildly divergent theological opinions.
It is of course true that sometimes the discussion seeks to resolve these arguments, to conclude decisively on one halakhic way or another, but, many times, particularly when dealing with the ‘theological world’ it simply doesn’t. Opinions are recorded and then left, sometimes probed deeply, sometimes not. There is no sense in which every account of God and his ways needs to be consistent, universal, dogmatic. There is an appreciation that the language of theology resembles the universe of music, different notes and structures strike different ears differently, what resonates for one will not always resonate for the other. Brahms does not become invalid if he doesn’t do it for you, one simply chooses not to listen to him.
The rare occasions when the Talmud does come down fiercely against someone are usually in response to a failure in coping with the demand for discussion, for tolerating the opinion of others, for ignoring the moment and being stuck in their ways. Shammai, Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Eliezer are all harshly criticised for this, sometimes being excommunicated.
Indeed the next sentence of their edict, “The upshot of this is that even though opposing philosophical viewpoints are espoused, no one is deemed to be wrong” does actually sound pretty close to a description of the Talmud.
They, of course, are actually mocking such a position, even though their lazy use of ‘the upshot of this’ bears witness to the fact that they really haven’t bothered to spell out the steps in their argument, to share with us the depths of their understanding of pluralism. No, it is an angry phrase, a statement of impatience, intolerance, the explosive outburst of a group who simply can’t believe how far from the truth the rest of us have strayed.
Their statement of singular and univocal faith then follows:
As religious Jews, however, our fundamental bedrock is that there is only one truth – the Torah B’ksav and Baal Peh which is of Divine origin.
I want to note the presumption here, that they are able to speak for all religious Jews. In making this move they are also avoiding any individual responsibility for their claim, they are trying to refer back to some universally apparent position, something which should be so obvious to us that their helpful reminder of it removes any further need for them to support it.
Well, Rabbis, there is nothing obvious about your claim, so please do enlighten us. (Why not come to Limmud and run a session showing that this is so?)
There is an immediate absurdity in the fact that they cite two versions of Torah – the written and the oral – as part of the ‘one truth’ they purport to cling to. The relationship between these two bodies of thought is complex, their side by side existence seems to bespeak the realisation that any written text will always need a living and engaged interpretation, that truth can never be expressed unequivocally once and for all time.
The famous story of Moses visiting Rabbi Akiva’s lecture embodies this spirit Rabbi Akiva is innovatively expounding hundreds of new ideas from the written Biblical text and Moses doesn’t recognise any of them. He starts to weaken out of confusion and distress, before Rabbi Akiva explains to one of his inquisitive students that all of these ideas are ‘Halakha Le’Moses Mi’Sinai’ – ‘a tradition of Moses from Sinai’. Moses recovers his strength, and expresses newfound appreciation for the genius of Rabbi Akiva.
There is a paradox revealed here which lies at the core of Torah – there was a singular moment when God revealed something of his will and vision to Moses and the people at Sinai, but this truth could only ever be partial and would need, by design, to be constantly expounded and renewed by the intellect and creativity of human beings. There must always be variety, for the limits of language are such that no words can ever maintain consistent meaning and purpose across time, their usage and context are forever shifting.
The idea of ‘one truth’ is a befuddlement. When Rabbi Yehoshua rebuts God himself with the verse ‘It is not in heaven’ he is asserting that Torah is not a closed book, but that it is given to mankind, and it is for him, in his infinite and confusing complexity to decipher and apply it, with all the variety that will necessarily entail.
Even within the written Law there is nothing resembling one truth: from the minute He creates a humanity which disobeys and deceives Him, God himself is on a very steep learning curve. Throughout the Torah and prophets God is tested and challenged, and any sense of one approach, one method, one all knowing perfect Being is simply absent. Monotheism, as none other than Freud reminds us, was a radical and innovative idea, a rejection of the polytheistic and totem worshipping religions of the day. But to equate one God with ‘one truth’, that is a confusion, a category error which completely misunderstands the sort of thing ‘truth’ actually is.
Moving on to the Holy Writings of the Bible, the Ketuvim, our ‘theological world’ becomes even more rich and varied. The Psalms alone contain thousands of visions and images of the Divine, with no concern for coherence or compatibility, no attempt to make them universal. The soul is moved, and it expresses itself in myriad ways. There is a concern with authenticity, with true expression, but this is different from a closed and hermetically sealed truth, from an exclusive and excluding singular dogma.
More variety. The gentle wisdom of the Proverbs is entirely different from the more pessimistic Epicurean vision of Ecclesiastes. Neither of these are of the same spirit as the impassioned love of The Song of Songs, which again could not be grappling with more different issues than the tortured character of Job.
We have inherited a veritable smorgasbord of truths, of wisdoms, and it is a peculiarly rigid desire which seeks to make them ‘one’, which seems to undermine and subvert their pluralistic and multivocal richness.
We could, by its nature, spend pages exploring this inheritance of pluralistic variety, taking in the different Gaonic and Medieval philosophers, and the later expositors of Mitnagidic, Chassidic and Mussar based philosophies which certainly were not commensurable with each other. But let us return to our statement of concern.
Their concern with Limmud is that it ‘blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism’.
Again, it is presupposed that we are familiar with this distinction, that we have a clear and sharp sense of what is ‘authentic’ in contemporary forms of Jewish expression and what is merely ‘pseudo’. Well, we don’t, and one can only register the hateful dismissiveness which could come up with such an offensive and demeaning insult as labelling someone’s heartfelt religious worship as ‘pseudo’.
I suspect that their idea of ‘authentic Judaism’ relies on their notion of ‘one truth’, on an unbroken and uninterrupted tradition which has been transmitted without difficulty from Moses at Sinai until the present day. We have already brought many texts which dispute such a monolithic vision, let us consider another. The Talmud tells us that in the period of mourning for Moses three thousand laws were forgotten. Joshua and the other prophets told the people not to panic – again using the idea ‘It is not in Heaven’. Tradition doesn’t stay alive through the perfect reproduction in every generation of exactly what transpired in a previous age. It stays alive because there is commitment and continuity and dedication, spirited engagement and creative application. Otniel seeks to rediscover, in that story, something of what was lost, but he uses creativity and intellect, he doesn’t run back to God to fill in the gaps. From the breach there was creation, from death sprang life.
The last two hundred years have seen multiple challenges and cataclysms for the Jewish people. It is perhaps not surprising that some have reacted to this trauma by trying to freeze the past, by projecting back into history a rigidity and fearfulness which was never there. But such a move is spiritually and emotionally and intellectually catastrophic, and will be the true undoing of the Jewish people and its heritage.
Let us consider now the final passage, that anyone ‘who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably by the Ribbono Shel Olam’ should avoid Limmud and its fellow corrupting influences.
Whenever I hear such claims I am reminded of Moses’ famous discussion with God. Moses is frustrated, he wants to know something of God’s essence, to grasp the mystery of his ways, to see the fullness of His Being. God is clear on this point ‘No human shall see me and live’. No human being can know God’s ways, not even Moses himself. God tells Moses to wait patiently in the cleft of the rock, and once God has passed he will see the shadow of his back. There is no direct knowledge of God’s ways, of God’s will, the entire revelation is shrouded in smoke and clouds, in difficulty and terror.
These Rabbis would perhaps do well to remember this story, this profound philosophical principle, and resist the temptation to confuse the respect people give them with the tyranny of fundamentalist authority, a force for evil which has only brought pain and destruction upon the world.
I will be at Limmud. I will be talking about all of these topics, encouraging as much discussion and disagreement as the 2500 other participants care to throw up. I invite these Rabbis to come and be a part of this discussion, to re-enter Jewish history, to re-engage with the full spectrum of the Jewish people and to leave behind the traumatic rifts of the past in the spirit of renewal, creativity and rebirth. ‘Chadesh yameinu kekedem’ – may our present days be renewed in the spirit of the past, may our future be sculpted with full consciousness of the glorious multiplicity of our varied and nurturing past.