The prin­ci­ples of com­mu­nalu­nity

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - SHOSHANA BOYD GELFAND

WHAT HAP­PENS when a cou­ple of Jews sit down with an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian, a Hare Kr­ishna monk, a Mus­lim ac­tivist, a sec­u­lar hu­man­ist, and a Catholic priest to dis­cuss how moderate be­liev­ers should re­spond to the ap­peal of re­li­gious ex­trem­ism? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it ac­tu­ally hap­pened this sum­mer when I was priv­i­leged to host a round-ta­ble dis­cus­sion with an un­likely group of par­tic­i­pants. De­spite our many dif­fer­ences, we shared a com­mon con­cern that ex­trem­ists have hi­jacked re­li­gion, to the detri­ment of our so­ci­ety as a whole. The pur­pose of the dis­cus­sion was to de­velop a strat­egy for each of us, within our own faiths, to un­der­stand and ad­dress fun­da­men­tal­ism’s ap­peal.

At its con­clu­sion, I walked away feel­ing that we had ad­dressed only one half of the prob­lem. Fun­da­men­tal­ism doesn’t ex­ist in a vacuum. The need for cer­tainty, and the will­ing­ness to ac­cept that cer­tainty from a higher au­thor­ity, is in­flu­enced by a num­ber of fac­tors. The rapid pace of change in mod­ern daily life fosters un­cer­tainty, as do the iso­la­tion and lack of root­ed­ness that our overly mo­bile so­ci­ety en­cour­ages. An­other fac­tor is the im­per­sonal pres­ence of tech­nol­ogy in just about ev­ery as­pect of our lives. We are be­com­ing dis­con­nected from such ba­sic hu­man es­sen­tials as fam­ily, na­ture, com­mu­nity and faith.

But un­cer­tainty, iso­la­tion, de­per­son­al­i­sa­tion and tech­nol­ogy — all of which help to pro­duce a fer­tile ground for fun­da­men­tal­ism — are merely symp­toms of the is­sue; the root cause of the re­turn to fun­da­men­tal­ism is moder­nity it­self. Fun­da­men­tal­ism is a re­sponse to moder­nity (or post-moder­nity), as is its op­po­site — re­li­gious ap­a­thy. Fun­da­men­tal­ism and ap­a­thy are sim­ply the flip sides of the same coin, one which be­gan spin­ning when Napoleon tore down the ghetto walls just over 200 years ago. Be­fore then, Jews could not en­gage sig­nif­i­cantly with wider so­ci­ety. But, once out of the ghetto, Jews were pre­sented with two pos­si­ble, broad re­sponses to the mod­ern world. The first en­tailed metaphor­i­cally re­build­ing the ghetto walls, re­ject­ing moder­nity and main­tain­ing Ju­daism in its tra­di­tional form. The sec­ond pos­si­bil­ity was to em­brace moder­nity whole­heart­edly, re­duc­ing (or ig­nor­ing) the de­mands and obli­ga­tions of Ju­daism, and sur­ren­der­ing to the forces of wider sec­u­lar cul­ture. The first choice led to Jewish re­li­gious ex­trem­ism; the sec­ond re­sulted in as­sim­i­la­tion and ap­a­thy.

Peter Berger, in his clas­sic book, The Hereti­cal Im­per­a­tive, de­scribes th­ese two re­sponses as the “de­duc­tive” (pro­tect­ing Ju­daism by fenc­ing it off from moder­nity’s pres­sures) and the “re­duc­tive” (re­duc­ing Ju­daism’s de­mands in or­der to adapt to the wider cul­ture). To­day, cer­tain seg­ments of the Jewish com­mu­nity still live in a vir­tual ghetto, walled off from the rest of the world by a sense of cer­tainty about what God de­mands of them. They live pas­sion­ate Jewish lives, de­tached from sec­u­lar val­ues. At the op­po­site end of the spec­trum, as­sim­i­lated Jews are im­mersed in the sec­u­lar world, with the re­sult that their Jewish lives have, at best, shrunk into su­per­fi­cial ex­pres­sions of Jewish cul­ture. Nei­ther fun­da­men­tal­ist nor as­sim­i­lated Jews, how­ever, have truly en­gaged with the com­plex­i­ties of the mod­ern world. Th­ese in­clude glob­al­i­sa­tion, mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties, rad­i­cal choice, and per­me­able bound­aries be­tween com­mu­ni­ties and faiths. Both sets of re­spon­dents have made an ei­ther/or choice, rather than cre­ate a dia­lec­tic be­tween them. But is there not a way to re­main com­mit­ted to au­then­tic Jewish life without turn­ing our back on mod­ern com­plex­i­ties and op­por­tu­ni­ties?

Peter Berger of­fers a third op­tion, which he calls the “in­duc­tive” re­sponse to moder­nity. This re­quires find­ing a mid­dle ground be­tween fun­da­men­tal­ism and ap­a­thy, re­main­ing pas­sion­ate about Jewish tra­di­tion and be­ing open to the mod­ern world. A Ju­daism of this kind, both pas­sion­ate and open, would ideally be ex­pressed in mul­ti­ple ways, en­abling its ad­her­ents to be­long to mul­ti­ple com­mu­ni­ties which share ba­sic val­ues. Ad­vanc­ing mul­ti­ple re­sponses would fuel an open dis­cus­sion and de­bate that would in turn bring about a rich and vi­brant Jewish com­mu­nity. As the suc­cess of Lim­mud has shown, plu­ral­ism is not the same as parve. Plu­ral­ism can en­gen­der pas­sion and en­ergy. It recog­nises and cel­e­brates dif­fer­ence as a constructive chal­lenge, an op­por­tu­nity for growth. Pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism is the an­tithe­sis of both fun­da­men­tal­ism and ap­a­thy. Pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism de­mands en­gage­ment while not in­sist­ing on a sin­gu­lar truth. It is the “third” way, an in­duc­tive re­sponse paving the way for a Ju­daism that engages with moder­nity without be­ing swal­lowed by it.

Var­i­ous forms of “pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism” are al­ready be­ing prac­tised within sev­eral Jewish de­nom­i­na­tions and in a num­ber of “post-de­nom­i­na­tional,” “trans-de­nom­i­na­tional” or “multi-de­nom­i­na­tional” ini­tia­tives. The UK is home to one of the most creative and vi­brant ex­am­ples of pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism: Lim­mud. This has been such a roar­ing suc­cess that it is now be­ing repli­cated in nu­mer­ous coun­tries around the world. Other col­lab­o­ra­tive ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tives in­clude the Alma/JCC Man­hat­tan’s Tikkun Leyl Shavuot and cross-de­nom­i­na­tional co-op­er­a­tives like Chicago’s City North Ke­hillah. Even in­sti­tu­tions are get­ting into the game by pro­vid­ing plu­ral­is­tic learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Ma­chon Pardes and the Hartman In­sti­tute in Jerusalem are both at­tract­ing sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of stu­dents and rab­bis from all de­nom­i­na­tions, as is Yeshi­vat Hadar in New York. Bos­ton’s He­brew Col­lege even goes so far as to of­fer the op­tion of “rab­binic or­di­na­tion in a trans-de­nom­i­na­tional set­ting,” be­liev­ing that it is not only pos­si­ble but de­sir­able to train dif­fer­ent streams of rab­bis un­der one roof.

Each of th­ese ini­tia­tives or in­sti­tu­tions is, in its own way is at­tempt­ing to cul­ti­vate pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism. Whether or not this turns out to be a per­ma­nent force in Jewish life, it is clear is that th­ese ini­tia­tives are re­spond­ing to the ques­tion raised at my round-ta­ble dis­cus­sion: How can moderate faiths re­spond to the ap­peal of ex­trem­ism? The pas­sion of cer­tainty can be re­placed by the pas­sion of di­a­logue. Rather than a mono­lithic an­swer from a higher au­thor­ity, th­ese ini­tia­tives of­fer mul­ti­ple an­swers. The dia­lec­tic process of dif­fer­ing voices gen­er­ates the pas­sion, while the di­ver­sity of the com­mu­nity guards against that pas­sion turn­ing into fun­da­men­tal­ism or ex­trem­ism. Such ini­tia­tives are the man­i­fes­ta­tion of Peter Berger’s in­duc­tive op­tion to moder­nity.

So what can we learn from th­ese var­i­ous ini­tia­tives? What ba­sic prin­ci­ples do they ex­pect mem- bers of the com­mu­nity to em­brace? I see four key tenets which all of th­ese ini­tia­tives share:

1) Per­sonal choice. An in­di­vid­u­als has the au­ton­omy to nav­i­gate his or her own way through a mul­ti­plic­ity of choices. There is no one, au­then­tic path­way that every­one must fol­low. Each per­son must be true to him- or her­self while en­gag­ing with oth­ers to form a com­mu­nity of seek­ers.

2) Egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. While men and women are not nec­es­sar­ily seen as iden­ti­cal, they are treated equally in terms of ac­cess to lead­er­ship, learn­ing and en­gage­ment. Each per­son’s in­di­vid­u­al­ity is ac­knowl­edged (with their gen­der be­ing part of that in­di­vid­u­al­ity), and no one faces dis­crim­i­na­tion or lim­its based on gen­der.

3) In­clu­siv­ity. In­stead of rais­ing bar­ri­ers to par­tic­i­pa­tion, the in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture in­vites peo­ple in, help­ing them deepen their Jewish com­mit­ment and learn­ing, without ex­pend­ing en­ergy on defin­ing who be­longs and who does not.

4) En­gag­ing deeply with Jewish texts and tra­di­tion. While each of th­ese ini­tia­tives al­lows in­di­vid­u­als to find their own way, the au­then­tic Jewish voice is main­tained through an un­medi­ated en­gage­ment with Jewish texts and tra­di­tion. Par­tic­i­pants are ex­pected to study and grow by en­gag­ing with Jewish texts and each other. Dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions are wel­comed, and crit­i­cal think­ing en­cour­aged.

Th­ese four fac­tors emerge from my own re­flec­tions on the pas­sion­ately plu­ral­is­tic con­ver­sa­tions in which I have en­gaged through­out my ca­reer. Many flow from my years of work at the Wexner Foun­da­tion, where we cul­ti­vated this sort of di­a­logue. Our par­tic­i­pants came from all branches of Ju­daism: Ashke­nazi, Sephardi, Con­ser­va­tive, Cha­sidic, Re­form, Or­tho­dox, Re­con­struc­tion­ist, Re­newal, Cul­tural, Sec­u­lar and “Just Jews.” The com­mon fac­tor was a pas­sion for Jewish life and an open­ness to be­ing part of a plu­ral­is­tic learn­ing com­mu­nity.

My in­tro­duc­tion to the UK came through Lim­mud. Ac­cord­ingly, I came to be­lieve that the UK Jewish com­mu­nity con­tained spe­cial ex­per­tise in cre­at­ing pas­sion­ately plu­ral­is­tic com­mu­ni­ties. In fact, I was so in­spired by Lim­mud UK that I re­turned to the USA and im­me­di­ately be­gan work­ing with a group of peo­ple to cre­ate Lim­mud NY.

Who knew that my life jour­ney would later give me the op­por­tu­nity to live here and con­trib­ute some­thing from my own ex­pe­ri­ence of cre­at­ing pas­sion­ately plu­ral­is­tic com­mu­ni­ties in the USA to this won­der­ful UK com­mu­nity? My fer­vent hope is that I can trans­fer and adapt some of this ex­per­tise for the ben­e­fit of the UK Jewish com­mu­nity.

The Re­form Move­ment, my present place of work, is one of sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions open to pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism. Not only does it em­brace plu­ral­ism within its ranks by en­cour­ag­ing each in­di­vid­ual to pur­sue his or her own Jewish jour­ney, but it also pur­sues plu­ral­is­tic di­a­logue with other de­nom­i­na­tions who em­brace th­ese val­ues.

The round-ta­ble dis­cus­sion that I men­tioned at the beginning of this ar­ti­cle was con­vened to cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of the Re­form Move­ment’s new sid­dur. In­ter­est­ingly enough, that sid­dur, which was 10 years in the mak­ing, em­bod­ies the four fac­tors out­lined above — not that I can claim any of the credit for that. In­deed, many peo­ple de­voted count­less hours to the sid­dur’s prepa­ra­tion be­fore I was on the UK scene.

The sid­dur is rel­e­vant not only to Re­form Jews, but to any se­ri­ous Jew, and that is be­cause it em­braces my four prin­ci­ples of pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism. It re­quires the in­di­vid­ual to make choices about how he or she prays ( per­sonal choice); it in­cludes ma­te­rial from a vast range of sources, writ­ten by both men and women, al­ways in gen­der-neu­tral lan­guage ( egal­i­tar­i­an­ism); it in­vites peo­ple in by pro­vid­ing translit­er­a­tion of the He­brew, rather than rais­ing bar­ri­ers to peo­ple try­ing to par­tic­i­pate in prayer ( in­clu­siv­ity); and it re­turns to the tra­di­tional mat­beah (frame­work) of Jewish liturgy, with com­men­tary, so that peo­ple can deepen their un­der­stand­ing of Jewish prayer ( en­gag­ing deeply with Jewish texts and tra­di­tion).

Not for a sec­ond do I be­lieve that a prayer book can change the world. But I do be­lieve that a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who em­brace th­ese four val­ues can. I also want to cre­ate more ini­tia­tives in the UK Jewish com­mu­nity that pro­mote pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism. I want to nur­ture a “mid­dle way” — mul­ti­de­nom­i­na­tional and al­low­ing all pas­sion­ately plu­ral­is­tic de­nom­i­na­tions to col­lab­o­rate on is­sues of shared con­cern. That’s why Jeneration.org, a web­site spon­sored by the Re­form Move­ment, is proud to pro­mote any event for young adults that as­cribes to the four val­ues out­lined above. So long as the event holds to our shared val­ues, we want to sup­port it as a valid op­tion. The goal is not to com­pete with each other, but to cre­ate a vi­brant com­mu­nity where a plu­ral­is­tic dis­cus­sion is the source of our pas­sion.

My in­ter­faith friends sit­ting around the ta­ble ex­pressed con­cern about fun­da­men­tal­ism. Per­son­ally, I lose more sleep about its flip side, ap­a­thy. Let’s com­bat both by cre­at­ing more ini­tia­tives like Lim­mud, Jeneration.org, and Jewish Book Week. Let’s cre­ate plu­ral­is­tic schools like JCoSS and plu­ral­is­tic ethics so­ci­eties like Re­spon­s­Abil­ity, so that pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism be­comes the main­stream voice of Bri­tish Jewry. I am con­vinced that the ma­jor­ity of UK Jews are not only pas­sion­ate about Jewish peo­ple and ideas, but are also com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing open­ness to di­ver­sity and mul­ti­ple truths. If I am right and Lim­mud is not just an anom­aly but an ethos, then let us work to­gether to cre­ate the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween in­sti­tu­tions that would make pas­sion­ate plu­ral­ism a re­al­ity.

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