Pluralism: It’s not what you think

Pluralism is a big tent. And I’m going (to try) to love everyone in it.

In his book, “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations,” Dr. Misha Galperin said, “There are two ways to deal with new information: assimilation and accommodation. You can assimilate new information into your old understanding. Or you can accommodate new information by changing your paradigm to adjust to new facts.”

It seems that everyone is trying to sway your opinion. We are exposed to constant information bombardment. Literally an avalanche of words and voices careening into our ears and eyes and minds.

I take respite from this cacophony through quiet introspection. Quiet introspection is hard to come by. You have to want it. Seek it. Make time for it. In it, I am able to take time to follow Dr. Galperin’s advice to assimilate and accommodate.

Quiet introspection did not take dedication on my part in my youth. (Although that’s not the term I would have used to label activity — or lack thereof.) Simply, there were fewer inputs, and the quiet space was more natural. More available. (I recently reminisced with my husband about the hours I whiled away laying on a grassy hill next to the house I grew up in, just watching the clouds roll by and thinking.)

This time for reflection, this quiet space, was a gift. One I fear we’ve not (I’ve not) sufficiently passed on to my children. Today, quiet space is a tool that enables me to assimilate and accommodate information and integrate it into my vision, and to plan for its actualization.

It was in this space that my dedication to pluralism was born. I am a feminist, a product of my generation, with my formative years coinciding with the movement called Women’s Lib. I grew up at time when women were questioning the restrictions of our gender and were pushing back — hard.

As a young girl I remember questioning my rabbi about why I was not permitted to read Torah or count for a minyan. (Let’s just say the situation was complicated and slightly dysfunctional. I came from a secular non-observant family. We were members of a traditional Conservative synagogue led by an Orthodox rabbi, Martin Schlussel z’l.) Rabbi Schlussel was patient with me. He did his best to answer my questions from the only framework available to him. But alas, he also used a black ballpoint pen to cross out the word “Shabbat” on my bat mitzvah certificate, lest anyone should think that a girl would have a Shabbat bat mitzvah on his watch. (My bat mitzvah took place on a Sunday, and there was no Torah — but I did chant the haftorah. Please see previous comment about “complicated.”)

Fast forward 13 years, and I am a Jew who is seeking. At 26, I am exposed for the first time to the notion of Conservative egalitarian prayer. After years of seeking, you might have thought I’d jump right in. But the notion took getting used to. (This “getting used to” process included re-learning to read Hebrew and learning to leyn Torah. A process of readying myself.) Once I was there, I was all in.

Shortly thereafter I acquired a wonderful mentor, friend, and colleague. One of the debates we often engaged in was the notion of egalitarian vs. non-egalitarian prayer. You can imagine what side of the argument I was on.

These debates were devoid of vitriol. Rather, they were how we passed the time while carpooling to professional group meetings. After five years (yes, five years) of debate my (Orthotive-Conservadox) friend offered the following, “My father would not have prayed in an egalitarian setting. As such, how can I say Kaddish for him in one?” And just like that he won the argument.

Just like that, he opened my mind.

I assimilated and accommodated this aha moment into my foundational approach to my work. It enabled me truly to appreciate that everyone seeks meaning, and hopefully finds a way to express it in ways that are personally meaningful to her or him.

Fast forward 10 years. Now, it is me who is saying Kaddish for my father. My friend and I are at conference. It is a free evening, and everyone is scattering. I am running around looking for 10 people for a minyan. I get to nine — and the only other person around is my friend. Without a word, he walks into my minyan. Without a spoken word, I understood that he walked in to make 10 for my minyan because he understood that this was for my father, and this was how my father prayed. For my father, this was kosher. And because my friend believes in the power and necessity of pluralism, he led by example.

He stood for me and with me. In doing so he completed, what turned out to be a 14-year lesson to his student.

This commitment to pluralism provides a foundation for my work and my thought. I know that there is no single right answer. I know that I can value and appreciate what others value, even if it is not my choice. I know that I am privileged to share that framework with others.

Ultimately, we are one people. Ultimately, we are stronger together. I have been there when we have come together during times of crisis. I pray we will improve at coming together when we are not in crisis. That we can learn to appreciate and value one another in authentic ways.

For sure, I am not perfect at it. I must remind myself to be open to truly listen to ideas that conflict with my beliefs. This does not always mean that I adapt to them, merely that I honor the speakers and their right to speak. That I seek areas of commonality with these speakers and that I assure them a place at the table, so they may add freely to the cacophony of ideas and opinions that ought to be heard.

About the Author
Lisa Harris Glass is the Chief Planning Officer of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; and is a frequent lecturer to religious non-profits. She resides in Springfield, NJ.
Related Topics
Related Posts