The ingathering of the meshpucha – Jewish Pluralism

When our sages taught about the destruction of the First and Second Temples, they made it clear that these tragedies occurred for vastly different reasons (Talmud, Yoma 9B).  Sexual immorality, wanton murder and idol worship brought about the demise of the First Temple.

The Second Temple, however, was destroyed for one reason alone. In Hebrew it is called “sinat chinam,” a phrase that means hatred without cause. No matter that the Jews of the day studied Torah, observed the mitzvot and donated to charitable causes. None of those activities could ameliorate their despicable personal behavior one to another.

The more traditionally observant Jews would slander their fellow Jews for holding differing beliefs and point the finger at those Jews whose halachic observance was not the same as their own. Jews from other sects were gossiped about and their beliefs and customs ridiculed. Jews embarrassed one another in public. For this the Second Temple was destroyed. Yet, because we Jews seem to continue to engage in “sinat chinam,” baseless hatred of one another, the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt.

There has never been a time in our history when a pluralistic approach to Judaism has become more important than it is today. The number of Jews worldwide is declining, synagogue membership is at a new low and denominational differences that often result in synagogue snobbery has driven many Jews away from traditional observance an belief.

Yet, in the face of all of these difficulties, it would seem that a new openness might emerge. One might expect that we Jews would set our specific denominational differences aside and widen our embrace of Jews of all stripes and colors. It would seem that the timing couldn’t be better for a Pluralistic approach.

Pluralistic Judaism is based on the Jewish concept of “Tarbut HaMachloket,” which, in Hebrew means “freedom of thinking and speech,” and includes behaviors which help Jews of all backgrounds live successfully alongside those Jews with whom one might not agree. Tarbut HaMachloket dates back to ancient times when conflicting views of Judaism were represented by the polar opposites, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  Hillel’s more liberal views often took precedence over Shammai’s more strict interpretations, however the sages emphasized that both views, although sometimes contrary one to another, were valid.

Pluralistic Judaism offers a practical application of Tarbut HaMalchloket in the following ways:

Pluralistic Judaism is open and welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds. This means that all Jews who attend a pluralistic synagogue accept the full participation of women and extend the hand of Jewish welcome to interfaith families, gay and lesbian partners and their children. Traditionally observant Jews are respected and made to feel at home alongside Jews who are new to or returning to synagogue observance. The pluralistic synagogue welcomes B’nei Anusim, Jews from lost or hidden communities, marranos and conversos, who are beginning to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.

Pluralistic Judaism is non-denominational. This means that the Pluralistic synagogue does not subscribe to any particular stream of Judaism, but is open to the thoughts and ideas of each denomination. Pluralistic Judaism respects each person’s background and ascribes to the philosophy that “labels are for the jelly-jars, not the Jews.”

Pluralistic Judaism does not distinguish between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jews-by-Choice. Those who are born Jewish and those who have chosen Judaism are equal and are treated as such by the rabbi and congregation.  Comments like “She’s a convert” have no place in the Pluralistic synagogue.

Pluralistic Judaism is organizationally independent and is not affiliated with any Jewish organization or umbrella establishment. There is no bureaucracy or hierarchy. This means that each individual pluralistic synagogue organizes services, festivals and life cycle events to meet the needs of the group.

Pluralistic Judaism asks that each synagogue be self-supporting. There are no set dues or fees. Instead the pluralistic synagogue follows in the tradition of Moses when he asked for donations to support the building of the mishkan; “give when your heart is moved.” The rabbi in the pluralistic synagogue often holds employment in the secular world and serves the community on an ad hoc basis. The pluralistic synagogue often shares space with an existing community organization, paying its way as it goes.

Pluralistic Judaism respects the Jewish traditions surrounding the Hebrew language. This means that services will include some Hebrew but no one need be a Hebrew speaker or Hebrew language student (or expert) in order to participate. Each person’s level of expertise is respected and Hebrew snobbery is not tolerated.

Pluralistic Judaism respects Halachah (Jewish law). In the pluralistic synagogue Jewish law is explained and each person makes her/his own choice as to level of observance. Pluralistic Judaism acknowledges that the word “halachah” is based in the Hebrew root, “holech,” which means “to walk.” Thus halachah is a changing phenomenon, implying that Jewish law moves forward and embraces new knowledge.

Pluralistic Judaism is dedicated to achieving a balance between Jewish tradition and new ideas so that Judaism becomes and remains relevant to modern life. We subscribe to the joyful aspects of Jewish observance and we dedicate ourselves to maintaining warm relationships with each other and with the larger community. We extend the hand of Jewish welcome to everyone. We support Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place and leave individual political beliefs, parties and persuasions at the door. We love Israel and honor those Jews who live there as well as those who chose to live in the Diaspora. We offer a home to every Jew.

Sinagogue Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in the south of Italy in 500 years, offers a pluralistic approach to Jewish belief and practice. Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman rabbi in Italy and founder of the synagogue, which extends the hand of Jewish welcome to all.

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots