What Is Jewish Pluralism Today?

Giving Direction to Modern Jewish Thought

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Ask most American Jews if they see pluralism as an important part of their religious beliefs, and the answer will be overwhelmingly affirmative.  But ask them to define Jewish pluralism, and you’re likely to get lots of vague answers and furrowed brows, as you’ve just stumped all but a handful.  Why is the former question so easily answered while the latter tends to confuse most?

The Multitude of American Judaisms

American Jews are individuals par excellence.  Therefore it’s hardly surprising that America is home to a multiplicity of denominations of Judaism.  Beyond the old traditional categories of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, there are Reconstructionist, Conservadox, Modern Orthodox, a plethora of different Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic sects, Jewish Renewal, Humanistic Judaism, and Green or Eco-Judaism, just to name a few.

Like all Americans, Jews in the United States love variety and the choices it affords them.  So varied are they in belief that really all that American Jews share is the fact that they are Americans and Jews.Far from being a restatement of the obvious, this point goes a long way in explaining why Jews in America naturally identify with Jewish pluralism even while lacking a clear definition of the concept.

Being an American Jew — that is a self-identified American citizen, not merely a Jew who happens to reside in the United States — internalizes two conflict narratives.  American egalitarianism — and to a large extent Western liberalism in general — is predicated on the universal, emphasizing the identity of the individual while eschewing special group ties that segregate them from society as a whole.  Yet Judaism distinguishes the Children of Israel as a “chosen” people, selected for a unique role in history.  It strongly encourages communal continuity and is rooted in traditions and beliefs very distant from Western notions of individualism.

Jewish Pluralism as Reconciliation      

Yet for all the apparent contradictions between the two essential strands of American Jewish identity, there are few signs of any rift; few feel any troubling inconsistency embracing both egalitarianism and Judaism.  Jewish pluralism has been an effective conciliator between the two, binding them and enabling coherent visions of American Judaism to thrive.

The success of Jewish pluralism is rooted in the very same reason it is so poorly defined — it’s flexible and versatile.  Rather than posit an explicit, detailed dogma merging traditional Jewish sources with modern liberalism; Jewish pluralism recognizes values in both and, acknowledging strains of egalitarianism even in traditional Jewish sources, implicitly understands the two as having greater similarities than may be apparent at first glance.

This brings us to our present dilemma.  If Jewish pluralism is effective because of its vagueness, how do we promote a vigorous Jewish identity in the United States?  How do Jewish educators promote Jewishness if it rests on what appears to be such unstable ground?  Is there way to make Jewish pluralism an independent voice, and not merely an echo of others, whether it be Western individualism or a Jewish Orthodoxy untied to egalitarianism?

A New Kind of Jewish Educator

Teaching Jewish pluralism and grounding that concept in sources both traditional and modern, is most certainly achievable.  However, it does require a different model of Jewish education.  In place of the generic, one size fits all approach, Jewish education needs to shift from conveying ready-made lessons to a mode of teaching that is more customized, dynamic, and flexible.  Educators — both formal and informal — need to be ready and able to address the specific audience they’re teaching and be able to not only respond to but anticipate the kinds of questions and conundrums a given audience will have.

In general, there are two requirements contemporary programs must meet.  First, Jewish Ed needs to be decentralized.  Programs should be community oriented, unique and adapted to local needs and sensibilities.  Simply regurgitating the same message the educator picked up in training will often be inadequate or fail to engage students.  Secondly, educators need to be well-versed in primary sources, enabling them to tailor their lessons effectively.

Leading the Change

This new approach to Jewish Ed is hardly a novelty.  The Hebrew University’s Melton Centre — the pace setter for Jewish education in academia — has already adopted these principles in its Jewish Education degree programs.  One such degree track has even been made available for American participants.  Taught entirely in English, the program enables teachers to retrain while continuing to work by including online semesters during the regular school year.  During summer vacation, when their schools back home are on break, participants come to the Hebrew University’s Jerusalem campus for an accelerated summer semester.

The new Melton Centre program gives educators the kind of strong background in the wide range of primary sources and Jewish tradition necessary to craft meaningful lessons addressing the variety of issues congregants or students may face.  More importantly, the program challenges educators to innovate; to look inwards and better understand what Jewish pluralism means to them so that they convey a message from the heart, rather than simply information.

All this augers well for Jewish education in America.  Not only is Hebrew University a top destination even for Americans, the Melton Centre has long been a trendsetter for Jewish studies the world over.  What begins there is likely to trickle down to schools in North America and Europe.

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About the Author
Shlomo Lifshitz is the founder and CEO of Lirom Global Education (Study in Israel LLC) and hopes to fulfill the vision of making Israel a center of global education by bringing oversea students to study abroad in Israel, the Start-Up Nation. In his past, he founded and ran Oranim Educational Initiatives for 25 years bringing almost 150,000 young people to various trips to Israel.
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