Shmuly Yanklowitz

Prophetic pluralism: Reaching higher truth together

While epistemic pluralism is generally considered to be a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, we can see the beginnings of this thinking in the writings of the Prophets. Consider the words of Micah.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the G-d of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths…He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide…Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our G-d for ever and ever (Micah 4: 2-5).

Micah not only imagined but advocated for a messianic era, when everyone will “walk in the name of their gods.” This does not reduce the prophet’s commitment to the one G-d but he boldly continues to provide space for different relationships to that one G-d.

This approach to the other is not mindless relativism, but respectful and empowering pluralism. I learned this from my revered teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: rav yitz pic

Pluralism means more than accepting or even affirming the other. It entails recognizing the blessings in the other’s existence, because it balances one’s own position and brings all of us closer to the ultimate goal. Even when we are right in our own position, the other who contradicts our position may be our corrective or our check against going to excess … Pluralism is not relativism, for we hold on to our absolutes; however, we make room for others’ as well (For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, 196).

There is a certain humility found in this pluralism, where we acknowledge that we cannot see the full picture ourselves and we need others, even those who are different and with whom we disagree, to help us understand the world around us. Rav Yitz continues:

Relativism…is the loss of capacity to affirm any standards. But the deepest religious response is pluralism—the recognition that there are plural absolute standards that can live and function together, even when they conflict. The deepest insight of plur­alism is that dignity, truth and power function best when they are pluralized, e.g., divided and distributed, rather than centralized or absolutized…. The essential dif­ference between pluralism and relativism is that pluralism is based on the principle that there still is an absolute truth…. Pluralism is an absolutism that has come to recognize its limitations (For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, 201-203).

We must embrace our own human limitations and acknowledge that G-d and truth are far more complex than any one individual or faction can grasp alone. Seeing and talking about these big questions in different ways may offend the absolutist’s sensibilities, but absolutists can always use some shaking up.

Often we get stuck in language, especially when there appears to be a paradox. Certain language affirmations mean you’re on the right track toward truth, while others appear to lead you astray. Hindus may say they believe in many gods, but unless someone truly understood the Hindu theology of an ultimate source, this would be totally misunderstood. So, too, some say they believe the “Torah is not from heaven,” but mean something very different from what might be inferred from the statement. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains this well: rav kook image

There is denial that is like an affirmation of faith, and an affirmation of faith akin to denial. A person can affirm the doctrine of the Torah coming from “heaven,” but with the meaning of “heaven” so strange that nothing of true faith remains. And a person can deny Torah coming from “heaven” where the denial is based on what the person has absorbed of the meaning of “heaven” from people full of ludicrous thoughts. Such a person believes that the Torah comes from a source higher than that! Although that person may not have reached the point of truth, nonetheless this denial is to be considered akin to an affirmation of faith. “Torah from Heaven” is but an example for all affirmations of faith, regarding the relationship between their expression in language and their inner essence, the latter being the main desideratum of faith (Orot Ha’emunah, 25).

Language is limited, and that which is used is a function of what people have encountered before; the meaning of the words coming out of someone’s mouth often does not match the words coming into your ears. The challenge today is not to slide into blind absolutism (my truth is the only truth) or into relativism (there is no truth). Pluralism is an approach that enables us to maintain our own truths with complete rigor while honoring the claims of others as dignified and even possible. This allows one to excel with intellectual rigor, expanded human solidarity, and religious humility. May the day come soon when the prophesy of Micah is fulfilled that all people walk together with G-d in one song albeit with different understandings of the lyrics.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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