HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
It Can’t Be About Pluralism
Buzzwords make me nervous. They make me nervous, first of all, because often it’s not clear what people mean when they use them. A buzzword often stands in for a vague cluster of values to which we are all committed, but its fuzziness can stand in the way of people being challenged to think carefully about what they mean when they use the word and about what it would look like to put that commitment into practice in a thoughtful way.
What, at the end of the day, do we believe is at the core of Judaism and Jewish life if the one thing that we can definitively say about it is that it’s pluralistic?
Buzzwords make me nervous, also, because of the powerful pull that their currency and popularity exert on communal life. The power of the buzzword to rally assent can overshadow other core commitments that we ought to hold primary, commitments that may be longstanding and that lack the power of novelty to rally the same excitement and support. And so, even if the buzzword represents the introduction of something important and salutary into communal life, it can at the same time stand in the way of critical discussion about other core commitments on which we ought to focus in the shaping of our lives and our educational agendas.
Finally, buzzwords make me nervous because they tend to take on a life of their own. What may have begun as one element of our educational approach can end up becoming the criterion against which our program is measured and which shapes our decision-making. And a usage that may initially have expressed a clearly thought-out commitment may end up losing that clarity or taking on a meaning different from the one that we originally intended. No matter how carefully we may initially have thought through what we mean, and no matter how well-balanced our initial situation of this particular commitment may have been, the expression of our commitment in a buzzword makes us vulnerable, down the road, to devolving into a less mindful institutional practice than we might have if we had forcefully rejected the use of buzzwords in favor of more complex articulations of our varied commitments.
“Pluralistic” is one example of a buzzword that has increasingly been used to characterize Jewish institutions in general and Jewish educational institutions in particular. What does pluralism mean? Pluralism can refer to a general philosophical or epistemological stance about the nature of truth or of knowledge. Or pluralism can refer to the desire to create a community that is as inclusive as possible—in this case, of Jews who represent a range of beliefs, identities, and practices. Or pluralism could refer to a pedagogical stance—to the idea that allowing different people to approach ideas openly and freely, in dialogue with each other, enables each person to come to a deeper and more true understanding than any one person could on his or her own.
Which of these meanings or of others do people or institutions refer to when they self-define as pluralistic? Perhaps there is a tacit understanding of the word that is shared, even if not usually so clearly spelled out. Or perhaps there is no shared understanding of the word, but that is exactly the point. The pull to embrace something that seems open and inclusive and that celebrates multiple meanings rather than definitive commitments might be the very power of this buzzword, and further inquiry into what we really mean when we talk about pluralism may add nothing to its power or perhaps even threaten to shake up our shared celebration of this value. But different understandings of pluralism might, in fact, point to different practices or policies, and our institutions are impoverished if we rely on a shared embracing of a vague concept rather that taking the challenge of figuring out what we are really committed to and of envisioning how we will give life to that commitment in the day-to-day practices of our settings.
Even if we do have more clarity about what we mean when we use the word pluralism than I think that we do, though, I worry about pluralism taking its place as the defining commitment of communal or institutional life. “But we do stand for something,” I recently overheard a giant of one of Judaism’s liberal movements saying to a colleague—“Zionism and pluralism.” The implication is that the movement celebrates individual Jews’ choices in Jewish life but that, in fact, there are certain non-negotiables even in such a world, and that these do need to be communicated clearly within the movement’s educational settings. I will leave Zionism out of the equation for heuristic purposes and think for a moment about what it means to say, in effect: We believe that each individual chooses his or her own beliefs and commitments, but there is one belief and commitment that is constitutive of Jewish life as we understand it—and that is a belief in and commitment to pluralism. Now, this strikes me as a statement that is at once very attractive and utterly nonsensical. What such a statement might be intended to mean, of course, depends on one’s definition of pluralism, but—by any definition—there is something oddly through-the-looking-glass-like about this statement. What, at the end of the day, do we believe is at the core of Judaism and Jewish life if the one thing that we can definitively say about it is that it’s pluralistic?
In my own work as an educator who founded a non-denominational day school, Beit Rabban, I avoided the word pluralistic, chiefly because of the word’s ambiguity. Would it mean that the school is committed to a certain understanding of the nature of truth or of knowledge (not necessarily); that children from all denominations of Judaism or from none are welcome to the school that I founded and that children are taught to treat each other with respect (true); or that the school believes that open and thoughtful inquiry in dialogue with others, informed by strong skills and knowledge and by the ideas of others who have shared in this same inquiry, is a form of learning that is both authentic to the Jewish tradition and most likely to help children come to their own best understandings of what they are learning and how to shape their life choices? This last was true and, in fact, central to the school’s educational approach across both Jewish and general studies. The school was non-denominational, then, in the sense that we did not attempt to pre-determine the specific understandings and interpretations of the tradition with which we hoped that all children would emerge. We did not believe that children’s inquiry or conclusions should be limited by the understanding held by any particular denomination of Judaism. Such artificial limitations would be inconsistent with our general educational approach, with its emphasis on responsible autonomy, as well as with our understanding of the nature of the richness of Torah and of the responsibility of all Jews to seek their best understanding of Torah and of how to live their lives.
My avoidance of the word pluralism, then, lay mainly in my not wanting to be held to a meaning of the word that I never intended. But it also avoided the two other pitfalls that I mentioned earlier. I would not want pluralism—or any –ism—to define the core agenda of the school. And I would not want pluralism—especially in a meaning in which it was never intended—to end up being the criterion by which the program is measured or that which shapes the direction of the school. Let me elaborate on this last point and then close by discussing what I think ought to be at the core of a Jewish educational institution.
I certainly value the diversity of the Jewish community; participating in and teaching students who come from each of the main movements of contemporary Judaism—as well as students in both the United States and Israel—has enriched my life and challenged me to grow as a religious Jew in numerous ways. And I also believe that it is critical for Jews of different beliefs, practices and religious cultures to come to a better understanding of and appreciation of each other, for the sake both of the ongoing cohesiveness of the Jewish people and of the ongoing vitality and richness of Jewish life. But if pluralism is taken to mean inclusion of Jews representing the broadest possible range of Jewish denominations and Jewish commitments, and if that meaning of pluralism becomes the defining criterion that shapes the educational and religious policy of a school, then that can lead to a watered down version of Jewish life and learning, a version where the key goal is to offend no one and challenge no one—where we succeed to the degree in which (we might imagine that) no one feels marginalized rather than to the degree in which everyone is brought to a deeper engagement in, knowledge of, and commitment to the core texts, ideas, and practices of Judaism.
At Beit Rabban under my leadership, we didn’t try to make a school that was for everyone. What I articulated to prospective parents, whose job it was to choose whether this school matched their family’s educational and religious aspirations, was simply this: “This is a school for families for whom Jewish learning, practices, and ideas are central rather than peripheral to their lives.” And then, of course, I would elaborate as to what this means. It did not mean that families needed to meet particular standards of practice or share particular understandings of questions of Jewish belief. It did mean that children at Beit Rabban were going to engage deeply and effortfully in Jewish learning, and that parents would need to support that work and participate soulfully in family learning activities each weekend. It meant that children would be engaged in Jewish practice at school and would learn extensively at school about Jewish practices that take place outside of school—that, for example, our school would not have a model seder but rather would work with the children for a full month before Pesach so that the children could be the fullest possible participants in their family’s seder. It meant that children would be immersed in acquiring Hebrew and in learning Torah, that Torah study would be central to the children’s experience at school and to the “mattering map” (Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem) of their school culture, and that that would be dissonant for a child if the family did not share in the conviction that Jewish learning matters deeply to their lives.
Which brings me to the issue of the core. A school needs a core, and pluralism cannot be the core. Schools need to talk more about the way they envision their core, and talk of pluralism should not be allowed to divert our attention from what may be a difficult discussion of what is at the core. To my mind, the core of a Jewish school must be talmud Torah, Torah study writ large, Torah study that includes the formation of a person who is steeped in the practices of the tradition, who experiences him or herself as a participant in the ongoing practice of learning Torah and the ongoing quest to understand Torah, and who continually tries to reshape him or herself as a person guided by the teachings and the spirit of Torah. Pluralism—whether it has an epistemological, communal, or pedagogical meaning—can be an element of the mode of talmud Torah in which children at the school are engaged. But pluralism has to be about something—has to describe the way in which we do something—and at a Jewish school it should be about the search to know and to understand Torah, the quest to grow as Jews, and the commitment to serve others and to help shape a vibrant Jewish community.
Now what exactly talmud Torah means, what it looks like and how it is practiced, what standards of knowing are to be met and what kind of knowing shapes the kind of person and community that a school aspires to cultivate—all of this too needs to be clarified if talmud Torah is not to be another fuzzy term that garners broad assent but gives scant guidance in shaping educational practice. But if schools talked more about talmud Torah and worked hard to articulate what that means in their own educational visions, then they would be focusing on a practice that moves us outside of ourselves toward something that is worthy of taking a central place in our individual and communal lives.
If, instead, it is pluralism that we focus on as defining our educational institutions, then I fear that this may be just a form of communal solipsism, a celebration of the multiple we’s that constitute our community, rather than a focus on what it is that, in our plurality, we are committed to. That is not all that much better than the individual solipsism that characterizes so much of contemporary life. That’s not what Judaism is about, and it’s not what education should be about. ♦
The founder of Beit Rabban, Dr. Devora Steinmetz currently serves on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar, and has taught rabbinic literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Drisha Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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