Judaism is Pluralism

Today is the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing with the Torah") when Jews the world over celebrate reading the end of Deuteronomy and restarting the cycle reading the beginning of Genesis. I say "the world over" but, this excludes Israel, and Jews who follow the Israeli calendar (many progressive Jewish communities). These communities celebrated yesterday... today is a regular day for them. (The reason why is for another post on another day). In fact everyone did celebrate yesterday - really, everyone - and today is a 2nd day of holiday but only for some, as explained noted. However, what a great idea: important legal strictures, thousands of years old, that distinguish when to celebrate very important holidays, that require different behavior according to where you live. And it's even weirder at Purim.

So for me, having grown up on the Israeli calendar, I always find these particular days complicated, ambiguous, uncomfortable. There are many approaches to overcoming this discomfort, and one of them is for me to spend the time with my family, but sneak in a little work here and there, and feel OK about blogging. Many of my friends will spend hours in synagogue today, and would certainly not use a computer... but they remain my friends because they basically have a pluralistic view of the Jewish community.

In this context the definition of pluralism (adapted from Answers.com) would be: a condition in which distinct groups, with various modes of expressing their Jewishness, are present and tolerated within a community, and the belief that such a condition is desirable or beneficial.

Pluralism can be seen to be commanded by God and Jewish tradition in various ways. The first angle is that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). That concept is well known and yet very mysterious. In terms of pluralism it requires us all to acknowledge the spark of the divine in every human. We may disagree with them, and even believe they are wrong, but if we are inspired by, or believe literally, in the words of the Bible, then we have to look every human in the eye and acknowledge they are made in God's image, no less than we.

This leads to another definition of pluralism that I like: to acknowledge and embrace the place of a person within the community even if we know they are wrong. This goes beyond the wishy washy cultural relativism of "everyone's OK, no-one has the only truth, ...", and this allows for the committed, the sure, the devout, to find a way to pluralism. You do not have to admit that maybe they are right and you are wrong. For many committed Jews (or, name your own religion), there really is a single truth, a single law, and those who do not follow it are just plain wrong. Pluralism is where they are able to maintain a community with all those who share basic values and identity, even if on some matters, you believe that they are wrong.

Another interesting text, relevant to this time of year, comes from the beginning of the liturgy in the opening to the Yom Kippur service. In a choreography that creates a Bet Din (a court of Jewish law), the liturgy begins with (from Birnbaum Machzor):
By the authority of the heavenly court
And by the authority of the earthly court,
With the consent of the Omnipresent One
And with the consent of this congregation,
We declare it lawful to pray with sinners.

Wow - the opening to the most solemn prayers on the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, and we are letting everyone know it is lawful to pray with sinners. In fact, this is apparently based on the legal arguments of the Talmud where it is noted "that even a Jew who sinned is still considered a Jew."

I rest my case: Judaism is inherently pluralistic and we can be in a community with those we know are wrong.


Anonymous said...

So how has this insight changed your behavior?

Richard Dale said...

Gregg corrects me, by reminding me (teaching me) that Shemini Atzeret is a two day holiday and Simhat Torah is an observance that occurs on the first or second day Shemini Atzeret depending on location.

Gregg also reminded me that Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School at Gann Academy, presented the "image of God" formulation for pluralism at a parents event we both attended. It was not the first time I had heard this approach, but I should give this attribution.