These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Fellows Dvar Torah] Pluralism

Posted on October 31, 2011 by Barer

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[This is a slightly emended version of the D’var Torah I gave to the Fellows last week:]

“We have benedictions for all occasions…And on beholding a Jewish audience [of 600,000 or more] the Talmud [Berachot 58a] prescribes a special benediction: [“Baruch chacham harazim sh’ein da’atam dome zeh la’zeh v’ein partzufeihen domim zeh la’zeh”]  Blessed is He who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”  It is a blessing in praise of God, who creates diversity in our world, and rejoices in different minds, perceptions, judgments, visages.  It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism.  It is one thing to acknowledge the pluralism among us, it is another to acknowledge it as a blessing.  It is one thing to love Jews because we share a common fate, it is another to love Jews who hold different theologies, different modes of ritual and religious practice, different politics.  Religious and ethnic parties have entered a stage on the brink of sectarianism, denominationalism, schismatic movements.  The signs of aggravating incivility abound.  A small Jewish world is made smaller yet by factionalism with impenetrable mechitzot.” (Harold M. Schulweis, The Pendulum of Pluralism  from In God’s Mirror: reflections and essays, 2003)

I remember sitting in the Beit Midrash at the beginning of last year, listening to one of the first speeches David Bernstein gave to us as a student body.  He said that he did not like when the word ‘pluralism’ was applied to Pardes.  On one level, I really do hear what he was saying: Pardes, while accepting students of so many different backgrounds and current practices, does set certain standards that are not particularly malleable.  They are liable to change over time, but the compromise made by considering Pardes a ‘halakhic’ institution does mean that certain things must be above question (kashrut, no classes on chag, the list goes on and is different depending on who is ultimately calling the shots).  On the other hand, I think that Pardes is davka pluralistic based on its makeup.  If pluralism is “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, or sources of authority coexist” (Oxford English Dictionary), then I contend that Pardes is a pluralistic institution, at least on some levels.  And so the question for me is what does that look like practically; what is the ideal balance; and, given that I have shown a pretty serious interest in Pardes, what is it, if anything about pluralism that I find attractive?

For me, the importance of pluralism is highlighted most when contrasted with my other major source of Jewish education before Pardes.  Going to an orthodox yeshiva, where the height of the differences in opinion expressed by the students amounted to whether one wore a black hat while davenning or not, really brought home for me, who always felt like something of an outsider in that community, the stifling effect that the conformism being preached in my yeshiva had.  Without even knowing it, I yearned for a Jewish learning environment where people were able to openly declare the backgrounds they were coming from, the assumptions they were making, and then to discuss common Jewish texts and issues with each other in a respectful manner.  Pluralism, in this context, does not mean ‘each to his or her own’.  I do not wish for a space where we bottle up our own biases while respecting everyone equally.  I want them out in the open, and I want each and every one of us to feel free to express why someone else’s assumptions strike us as wrong, hurtful, etc.  More dialogue, not less.

However, ground rules must be set.  In order to create a setting in which we can have true dialogue — where there is no fear of offending people when we are only questioning their ideas — we must first admit that there are many equally valid paths one may pursue in life, ‘multiple truths’ if you like.  Like the famous story in the Talmud relates (Eruvin 13b): “after three years of arguing, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai heard a heavenly voice decree “Eilu v’Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayim” — “These and those are the words of the living God” — yet the halacha is like Hillel.”  And nonetheless, the gemarah relates elsewhere (Yevamot 14b) that neither House would refrain from marrying into the other House, even though they had many halakhic differences of opinion on matters of marriage and divorce.  The lesson the gemarah draws is: “to teach that they interacted with each other with amity and companionship [chiba v’reut], to fulfill that which it says: “And the truth and the peace they loved” (Zecharia 8:19).”

Looking at the passuk and the context it is in gives more strength to the ideal being communicated in the gemara.  Hashem tells Zecharia that the nation must do the following in order for Hashem to “benefit Jerusalem” (Artscroll): “Speak truth between each other; truth and just peace shall you judge in your gates” (8:16, my translation).  And the verse where the gemarah quotes from is talking about how considering these virtues to be fundamental will change the fast days that the Jewish calendar includes into days of celebration.  However much the Houses of Hillel and Shammai strove to fulfill this vision of Zecharia’s, we know that they never succeeded because the fast days remained fast days, and the notion of them becoming days of celebration is but a messianic ideal.  So too, then, are the virtues spoken of in connection with the fast days.

I think, therefore, that the bat kol and the verse cited are ideal templates by which I envision interacting with the pluralistic community at Pardes.  We must first acknowledge that there is truth in each one of our perspectives irrespective of where we are coming from, and we must put aside our differences when matters of community building are under discussion — that is what Zecharia meant by loving truth and peace, loving them above considerations of who ultimately is right, seeing the truth in each other, and thereby achieving peace (Mishna Eduyot 1:4).  Otherwise, theological, political, and other ‘serious’ debates will derail the community we are trying to build, splintering us into cliques of like-minded individuals, exactly the scenario I am trying to distance myself from.  Or, in the words of the prophet, we will continue to mourn the sin’at chinam — the baseless hatred — that is traditionally held to be the cause of a number of the fast days.


On a related note, here is a similar message applied to the State of Israel