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yesh omrim

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Pluralism and hypocrisy

28 June 2006

When Kibbutz Degania, the first socialist kibbutz in Israel, announced that it was going to build a synagogue on site, Rabbi Dr. Dalia Sara Marx, a teacher at Hebrew Union College, responded with bewildered disappointment, if not outrage. How, she asked, could a community that carried the flame of progressive Judaism invite—shudder—Orthodox rabbis to oversee their spiritual life1?

Rabbi Yaakov Menken cited this essay and remarked: “Simply amazing. She’s all for pluralism and tolerance, as long as people don’t choose Orthodoxy.” In a follow-up posting, he expanded on his point: there are many instances in which the Reform movement refers to “pluralism” including both Reform and Orthodox Judaism as a good. But Rabbi Marx, in her op-ed, was not in such an inclusive mood.

I think we can save Rabbi Marx from the charge of hypocrisy if we distinguish value pluralism, the belief that there are multiple (but not infinite) legitimate human values worth pursuing, from political pluralism. If you skim the results of Rabbi Menken’s Google search for “reform pluralistic judaism”, most of them refer to pluralism within the Israeli political system—that is, the Reform movement wants to grant them the same legal powers as the Orthodox rabbinate there currently enjoys. Reform rabbis can want this status without admitting any glimmer of suspicion that the Orthodox way of doing things is right. (If they did, then one could use Pascal’s wager to convince them to become Orthodox.)

“But,” you may object, “Rabbi Marx is still being hypocritical, because while she wants to include Reform in a pluralistic Judaism on the national level, she wants to exclude Orthodoxy on the kibbutz level.” In order to answer this objection, we must address the question: why is political pluralism a good thing? Why2 shouldn’t a Reform Jew aspire to replace the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish state religion with a Reform monopoly?

The answer, I think, has to do with our dual nature as social and rational beings. On the one hand, we need to belong to groups in order to accomplish most of the things we want to do in society. On the other hand, once we do belong to a group, the goal of perpetuating and protecting the group, or submitting to high-status members of the group, can easily take priority over whatever goals the group was originally established to advance. (The various Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandals are cases in point.)

One excellent way to prevent this from happening is to set up a society where multiple groups pursue overlapping goals and keep one another in check. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the US government have the overlapping goal of protecting the Constitution. Verizon and Cingular have the overlapping goal of providing cellular phone service. Daily Kos and TAPPED have the overlapping goal of getting Republicans out of power. Etc., etc., etc.

Thus, one could argue that the State of Israel would be better off if it had multiple Jewish state-religious hierarchies3, with the overlapping goal of managing the religious lives of Israeli Jews. At the same time, one could argue, without hypocrisy, that each Jewish community within Israel would be better off inviting the single variant of Judaism that best fit its values. (It’s not like Rabbi Marx was lobbying for a Reform synagogue to be built in Mea Shearim.)

P.S.: While the word “pluralism” frequently carries connotations of warm and fuzzy liberalism, my arguments above for political pluralism, based on a recognition of human frailty, are firmly within the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke.

P.P.S.: There is no single rabbinic or lay organization that speaks for “Orthodox Judaism” as a whole (in the way that, for example, the Central Conference of American Rabbis represents the Reform movement). If you want to know whether a certain borderline practice (e.g., giving aliyot to women or believing that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah) is “really Orthodox” or not, there are a number of well-respected rabbis, some with formal positions of leadership, that will give their opinions, but there is no one institution that is entitled to have the last word. Thus, in the political sense, the Orthodox movement is more pluralist than the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements—perhaps even more pluralist than all of them put together. Neener, neener, neener.

1 One could just as easily ask: why, despite the general Israeli public’s low opinion of the rabbinic establishment, has the Reform movement had so little traction among native-born Israelis?

2 Aside from political expediency, which of course is never a factor in Israeli politics. (No, never! What, never? Well…hardly ever.)

3 Alternatively, Yeshiahu Leibowitz argued that the State of Israel would be better off without any state religion at all, and the Orthodox rabbinate would be better off without depending on government subsidy. I am more inclined to this point of view.