Hilchot (the laws of) Pluralism

What makes true pluralism possible?

Bunch of Jews with arms around each other
A bunch of Jews of different stripes together at the National Havurah Committee retreat.

Back in the day, my friend (now Professor) Bey Dreyfus wrote up hilchot (the laws of) pluralism on his blog. It's a sprawling eight-part series (you can find the whole thing down on the sidebar if you want to rabbit hole) that was written starting around 2006 or so.

The idea was this: There are a lot of times when Jews of different stripes, different religious orientations, different outlooks come together. How can we make things work? How can we agree on prayer standards, or what stringencies of kosher the potluck should be if not everybody keeps a the same kind of kitchen?

Anyway, he's brilliant, I've always loved this, and I think it's a fascinating text not only for Jews, but for non-Jews as a case study in the vicissitudes of trying to create community across difference.

Here's a condensed version of I and II. Let me know your thoughts!

Taxonomy of Jewish Pluralism (and more)

by Ben Dreyfus 

Just as there are different stages of moral development or cognitive development, there are also stages of development in Jewish pluralism. These stages characterize organizations and communities (I'm not mentioning any specific organizations, so classifying them is left as an exercise to the reader), but can also characterize individuals. Just as a 1st-grade teacher would become frustrated if s/he taught on the assumption that his/her students were at the formal-operational stage, it is difficult to bring people into Stage 3 pluralism if Stage 1 is still a stretch for them.

I don't think that all Jewish organizations/communities should be fully pluralistic (in the sense of accommodating everyone); there is also a need for organizations/communities that advocate a particular ideology. In fact, true pluralism is impossible if the participants do not have the opportunity to refine their own ideologies and identities. Therefore, this taxonomy should not be seen as an attack on non-pluralistic Jewish communities. However, it should perhaps be seen as a prod for communities that seek to be pluralistic but are underdeveloped in that regard.

Each of these stages represents not a particular solution to the pluralism question, but a way of framing the debate. Within each stage, many different solutions can arise, but the discourse rests on a particular set of assumptions.

Stage 1: "Frummest [most observant] common denominator". In this stage, Orthodox practice is the standard for the whole community, and is believed to be the most inclusive. E.g. if some people can only have a man leading birkat hamazon [the Grace After Meals], and other people can have a man or a woman, then the answer is to have a man lead birkat hamazon.

The problem with this approach is not only that Orthodox practice is accepted as the communal standard, but that Orthodox cognitive frames (forbidden/permitted/required) are accepted as the communal meta-standard. Those who can claim that egalitarianism is a halakhic [Jewish legal] imperative for them have some success arguing against these policies, but those liberal Jews who hold a different understanding of Judaism (and therefore don't hold the trump cards of saying that something is forbidden/required for them) are simply silenced. Some might be "uncomfortable", which leads us into Stage 2.

Stage 2: "Let's make everyone comfortable." I wrote the following to an email list a few months ago (and the discussion on that list was specifically about prayer, but this can be applied to other areas):

Where I think the emphasis on "comfort" comes from:

Many of us have strongly-held beliefs that translate into forms of communal davening [prayer], whether we believe in the equality of people without regard to gender, or in a form of halacha that draws sharp distinctions based on gender. But the pluralism conversation rarely focuses on the merits of these beliefs (and probably shouldn't), for two reasons:

1) Saying "I think your deeply-held beliefs are wrong" isn't a productive way to open a conversation. By having the conversation in the first place, we've implicitly agreed to disagree on some of these things.

2) Everyone realizes that they're not going to be struck by lightning if they daven once in a manner that wouldn't have been their first choice, and thus can't convincingly say that they can't daven that way – especially those who are egalitarian (who can thus have no problem in principle with a man leading, since in their ideal world, men would be leading 50% of the time anyway, not that anyone would be counting) and those who recently became Orthodox ("Dude, what do you mean you can't daven egal? You davened egal last month!").

So instead, we use the language of "comfort": "I'm not comfortable with X, but would be more comfortable with Y." "How can we find a solution that makes everyone comfortable?" I think this is bad for several reasons:

·       "Comfort" is a vague term that elides the distinction between comfort mamash [literal] (like sitting in a recliner) and deep convictions. "I'm uncomfortable in this itchy sweater" vs. "I'm uncomfortable with our government sitting back while the AIDS epidemic decimates Africa's population."

·       This elevates comfort mamash, and encourages people to stay in boxes, and boxes to stay firm. Innovation and creativity are sacrificed on the altar of comfort. "This is how I'm comfortable davening" = "This is what I'm most familiar with" = "This is how I must daven every time".

·       Conversely, this denigrates deep convictions, because if deep convictions are nothing more than "comfort", then they are open to the criticism of "everyone should leave their comfort zone and try something new", with no qualitative distinction made between singing unfamiliar melodies and doing something which one believes to be a violation of halacha, human dignity, etc.

Stage 3: The dialogue focuses not on forbidden/permitted/required, and not on comfort, but on identity. I can visit someone else's community and participate in something that I wouldn't have chosen for myself, and it's not the end of the world for me, but at the same time I'm quite conscious that it is not my community. Therefore, the questions for the pluralistic community are: How can we (as a community) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we (as individuals) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we form a community that all of us identify with as our community? How can we (as individuals) make sure that our communities reflect our identities?

In order to make this kind of pluralism possible, it is necessary for the various Jewish identities to be robust and confident. The insecurity and ignorance in some parts of the Jewish world would make those parts be swallowed alive under this model, which is one reason that this stage is not so widespread yet. We don't yet know what pluralistic communities will look like when more of them enter Stage 3; this is a story that we still have to write.


Hilchot Pluralism, Part I 

The two-table system is an approach to kashrut for independent Jewish communities, and can be extended as an approach to other issues in communities that are striving for Stage 3. (To stave off the inevitable criticism that Kol Zimrah, the NHC [National Havurah Committee], etc., aren't pluralistic because they don't include everyone, I assert that a community can be pluralistic within a limited range of Jewish practice and identity even if it doesn't encompass the full possible range. For example, the Kotel [Western Wall in Jerusalem] is in some ways a pluralistic davening space. Certainly egalitarian davening is unwelcome there, but it is a place where Ashkenazi and Sephardi men can pray side by side according to their respective practices.)

Two approaches to communal decision-making have existed in the past: authoritarian (a rabbi or other authority makes the decision for the community) and democratic (the people in the community make a decision, by vote or consensus). Neither of these approaches are appropriate for today's grassroots communities, for several reasons:

1) We have no "rabbis". (We have individuals with semicha [rabbinic ordination], but no one serving in a rabbinic capacity.) The community does not defer to an external authority.

2) We don't agree on ideology. Unlike the institutional movements (which have ideologies that everyone at least pays lip service to, even if not everyone follows those ideologies in their personal lives), the independent minyanim [prayer group] form communities that are brought together more by sociological and aesthetic commonalities. (One could argue that the movements, too, are held together more by sociological and aesthetic commonalities, but the leaders of the movements don't argue that, and therefore their policies don't reflect this.)

3) Therefore, there is an incredibly wide range of ideology and practice brought together in a single community. And since the community doesn't affiliate with a movement that has a particular statement of belief, there is no metric to determine which practices are more in line with the "correct" ideology.

4) We're secure enough in our own practices that we're not afraid to coexist with people who have other practices.

5) For better or for worse, we want immediate gratification. This is the Internet generation, which never extends Shabbat invitations before Wednesday. The time it would take for the community to hammer out a policy that satisfies everyone would be wasted time when we could be doing something more productive.

Therefore, instead of having a process (however democratic or authoritarian) for making decisions about Jewish practice, we find ways of avoiding making those decisions at the communal level, while creating an atmosphere that respects everyone's individual decisions. Hence, Kol Zimrah has adopted the two-table system for potluck dinners.  Here's the way it's worded in the email:

KASHRUT: Kol Zimrah acknowledges the diversity of kashrut practices in our community, and in order to ensure that everyone can contribute and everyone can eat, it is requested that all food adhere to ONE of the following two standards:
1) Vegetarian, with only vegetarian ingredients. (Fish with fins and scales is also ok as long as it is labeled or self-evident.)
2) Still vegetarian (plus fish, as above), and all ingredients are marked with a recognized kosher symbol (more than just "K"), cooked (if applicable) in a kosher kitchen that uses only hechshered [kosher-certified] products.

There will be a separate buffet table for each category, so that everyone can be fully informed. Feel free to email if you have any questions.

(RDR adds: So basically: One table for veggie food cooked in whatever kind of kitchen. One table for strictly kosher-labeled food prepared in a kitchen that only uses kosher-labelled products. This was a formative practice adopted by a number of communities in the ecosystem. These days most lay it's a three-table system, with one table being vegan, I believe. Each item is accompanied by a list of ingredients, noting whether or not it's gluten-free, etc.)

So let's look more carefully at the two-table system:
Ok, yes, it does assume a cultural milieu in which it's acceptable to make every meal vegetarian (with the occasional lox or tuna). To mix a metaphor, meat is a tougher nut to crack. But let's assume that milieu for now.

If the whole world were table 1, then people who had specific requirements regarding hechshers [kosher certification] or utensils wouldn't be able to eat. And if the whole world were table 2, then people whose kitchens did not meet this standard wouldn't be able to cook, and would feel like less-than-full members of the community. And if the community were to work out some compromise between tables 1 and 2 (everything must have a hechsher except cheese, etc.), then (a) lots of time would be spent hammering this out, and (b) at the end of the day, some people still wouldn't be able to eat, and some people still wouldn't be able to cook.

This doesn't produce divisions in the community, because this division is only for the buffet tables, not for the tables that people are sitting at. Nobody really pays attention to where other people are taking their food from.

Of equal importance to the two-table policy itself is the language and framing. It is very intentional that one table is called "vegetarian" and the other is called "vegetarian with a hechsher". Neither table is called "kosher" (implying that the other table isn't kosher). To some people, everything at both tables is kosher (since there is no meat from non-kosher animals, no milk and meat together, and no meat from animals that were not properly slaughtered). To other people, it is important to have a printed guarantee on the package that this is the case. But no one should be put into the trap of saying "I don't keep kosher" because they eat vegetable products without the OU imprimatur or because they don't believe that hot cooking utensils store and transmit taste. There are multiple approaches to kashrut, and all can coexist in the same community. And meanwhile, some people really really don't keep kosher or claim to keep kosher (by any standard), and also participate fully in the same community.

Hilchot Pluralism, Part II

I reiterate that a pluralistic community can be defined for our purposes as a community that includes multiple sets of beliefs, practices, or identities. Multiple; not necessarily all. Therefore, these ideas apply both to communities that seek to include the full possible range of Jewish identities, limited only by willingness to be part of a community with other Jewish identities (e.g. Hillel, Limmud NY), and to diverse communities that include a narrower subset of the whole (e.g. Kol Zimrah, the Kotel).

Furthermore, nothing in this series should be construed to mean that a "more pluralistic" community (i.e. one that encompasses a larger set of identities) is inherently better. The only intended value judgment is that (following Rabban Gamliel's requirement of tocho kevaro ("its inside is like its outside"); see Talmud Berachot 28a) a community should be honest with itself about the extent of its pluralism. I.e., the community's policies and practices should encompass the same range of identities as the population that the community seeks to include, no more and no less. Problems occur when a community claims to be inclusive but its practices fail to reflect the full range of its constituency.
With all that in mind, here are some axioms that define a pluralistic community, with commentary. (Note: The names Reuven and Shimon are chosen as a nod to their use as generic names in rabbinic literature, not to be sexist.)

Community C is a Stage-3 pluralistic community that includes {Reuven, Shimon, ...} iff for all Reuven and Shimon in C:

Reuven can participate in the community without being compelled to violate any of his core values, whether explicitly through his own action or inaction, or implicitly by being identified with the community.

Values are a central part of identity, so if Reuven cannot participate in the community in a manner consistent with his values, then the community does not include Reuven's identity.

Assuming tocho kevaro, as above, the second part of this axiom ("or implicitly by being identified with the community") is almost a tautology: the set of values that are so inherent to a given community that anyone who identifies with the community implicitly identifies with those values, defines the scope of the community's pluralism to include only people who hold those values. "Include" here means include as a full member of the community, not merely as a visitor.

Pluralism doesn't mean that everyone should compromise equally; it means that the community should structure itself so that no one has to compromise. That is, no one has to compromise on core values. But participants in the community should otherwise expect to make some adjustments to their expectations. Innovation and unfamiliarity should not be feared.

2) If Shimon's practices are contrary to Reuven's values, Reuven has no basis to prevent Shimon from carrying out Shimon's own practices, except to the extent that this interferes directly with #1.

If Reuven could require Shimon to follow Reuven's practices, then this would not be a pluralistic community that includes both Reuven and Shimon; Shimon would be merely a guest in Reuven's community. Shimon might be very welcome as a guest as long as he follows Reuven's practices, but that's not pluralism, that's kiruv [outreach].

3) Reuven and Shimon are free to discuss and argue their differences, and each is free to call the other one wrong.

Pluralism doesn't mean that we all agree, and doesn't mean that we all think that all of our points of view are equally valid.  Supporting pluralism, and creating a forum for multiple viewpoints, does not preclude arguing forcefully for one's own viewpoint.  If Reuven and Shimon are part of a community that includes both of them, this provides a more conducive forum for discourse than if Reuven is a guest in Shimon's community or vice versa.

This is all theoretical, so let's look at a simple concrete example to see how these axioms can be translated into reality. Suppose that Reuven does not write on Shabbat, and Shimon writes on Shabbat, and they are both part of the same pluralistic community.

1) The community should not engage in an activity that compels each individual to write on Shabbat, and it goes without saying that the community should not pass an official resolution saying that Jews should (or should not) write on Shabbat. Thus, Reuven can participate in this community without writing on Shabbat.

2) Shimon may write on Shabbat in the context of this community, and Reuven has no basis for claiming that Shimon shouldn't write on Shabbat. If Reuven's idea of a "Shabbat atmosphere" is one in which no one is writing on Shabbat, then Reuven isn't really interested in being in a pluralistic community with Shimon. Not that there's anything wrong with that; see above. And Reuven and Shimon can still get along. But let's call a spade a spade.

3) Now that Reuven and Shimon and Dina and Tamar and Zevulun and Asenat are all in a community together, they can freely discuss why they do what they do. Reuven says that writing is one of the 39 melachot [forbidden labors outlined in the Mishnah] that are forbidden d'oraita [from the Torah], and Shimon says that writing is his method of creative expression that best captures the spirit of Shabbat as a day of rest, and Dina says that creative expression is exactly what should be avoided on Shabbat, and Tamar says that writing isn't about creative expression for her but is a way to jot things down so that they can be remembered later, and Zevulun says that Shabbat is about living in the present and not worrying about what comes later, and Asenat says that Shabbat is about temporarily creating an ideal world davka [specifically] so that a taste of it can be carried into the rest of the week, and they go back and forth about these questions until they see three stars in the sky, and then they all make havdalah [the ritual ending Shabbat] together and live happily ever after. The End.


  • What do you think about this?
  • What do you think Ben gets right?
  • What do you think might be missing here?
  • How might this apply to other communal contexts, religious or otherwise?


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