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Can Jewish Pluralism Be Salvaged?

"Children Dancing in a Ring" by German painter Hans Thoma. Altered by 2015-2016 Rising Voices Fellow Noam Green.

Every Thursday, the Jewish Standard, a community newspaper catered to the diverse North Jersey and Rockland County Jewish populations, is delivered to my house just in time for Shabbat. When I was younger, I used to look forward to its arrival. I would straighten out the pages and perch on the couch like the adults I saw on television, immersing myself in the cultural happenings of my local Jewish community. The Jewish Standard was especially scintillating during middle school when I could always count on reading my peers’ bar/bat mitzvah announcements in the “Simchas” section. These past few years though, I’ve found myself turning less and less to a publication which used to bring me so much joy. I attribute this primarily to my personal politics, which have taken a sharp left turn over the course of high school. Meanwhile, the Jewish Standard hasn’t changed, seeing that it reflects and caters to my moderate, if not slightly right leaning local community. Granted, I don’t see an issue with this. I’m not at a loss for radical, Jewish news sources. What has perplexed me the most is the question of pluralism.

Jewesses with Attitude contributor, Leora Jackson, in a post titled “The Dark Side of Jewish Pluralism” raises this exact question with an anecdote quite similar to my own experiences with the Jewish Standard. In it, she details the letters to the editor section in her regional Jewish newspaper. She highlights two letters in particular, one commending the Israeli authorities who arrested the Women of the Wall at the Kotel and another which berates the local UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation for endorsing the Toronto pride parade. Jackson concludes her piece by questioning the plausibility of Jewish pluralism- “How do I practice as a feminist (straight) Jew in solidarity with queer Jews under the same religious umbrella as the men who wrote these letters? And how do our massive Jewish communal organizations negotiate the mission of serving Jewish communities when different Jews have such widely disparate notions of what it means to serve?” Jackson ends her post ambivalently, leaving her query unresolved.

I can’t say I have a definite answer to Jackson’s question, seeing that it is one that I have been struggling with myself. That being said, a further exploration of this topic feels imperative, especially for our current Jewish community leaders. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a proponent of intersectionality, and of the decompartmentalization of our identities. There are infinite moving parts to our identities and by acknowledging how they interact with each other, we can better understand our privilege and the space we take up in society. When we talk about pluralism, whether it be Jewish or not, we enter into a sticky situation. How do we create an inclusive community without stepping on anybody’s toes?

Jewish pluralism is an idyllic concept- we, the “underdogs,” unite together to share in our faith/culture/ethnicity/heritage in one big, happy global celebration. In reality, it isn’t that simple. What happens when we all want to gather together and dance the hora in this hypothetical situation? Some Jews aren’t permitted to touch, let alone witness the opposite gender dance. Okay, so we split up the celebration by gender. But, wait! What about the non-binary and gender non-conforming Jews? And then what happens when we all want to sit down and eat together? Who will determine what is kosher enough for all of the Jewish people? What is Jewish food anyway? Will we take into account all of the regionally specific dishes of the countless Jewish communities? What happens when it comes time to pray together? Not all Jews are familiar with the traditional prayers. Not all Jews feel comfortable with the overtly messianic, Zionist, and patriarchal standardized prayers. What happens when ingrained prejudice results in a clash of values?

There is so much diversity in the Jewish community that to try and cater to us all feels like a gargantuan task. Despite the difficulties, I am hesitant to let go of the prospect of Jewish pluralism. Perhaps a modification to the typical understanding of a pluralist community is in order. Instead of bunching together the Jewish community solely by region, it will be more helpful to do so by creating more intentional pluralist Jewish communities. When I say intentional, I mean communities that are built upon a respect and acknowledgement of both the commonalities and the differences among us Jews. This can be done by consensual involvement and self-awareness. I’m not sure whether this is practical on a large scale, but I have witnessed it being pulled off quite successfully in smaller settings, whether it be on a shabbaton (a Jewish weekend event centered on learning and the celebration of Shabbat), a conference, or a publication. We shouldn’t give up on Jewish pluralism, but maybe it is time we stop falsely labeling Jewish communities as pluralist when they truly aren’t.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Green, Noam. "Can Jewish Pluralism Be Salvaged?." 5 February 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/can-jewish-pluralism-be-salvaged>.

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