What is Pluralism, Anyway?

Mrs. Katz’s post about pluralism today reminded me of something from the Jewish Week’s description of highlights from the USCJ Convention. Here are the two relevant paragraphs:

An address by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Sharon, Mass., became an unlikely focal point of the conference when, after urging the movement to ordain gay clergy, he said that allowing non-egalitarian synagogues under the Conservative umbrella was immoral and tantamount to “institutional misogyny.” …

Some conference-goers grumbled that the non-egalitarian Conservative congregations should be forced to secede from the USCJ in light of Rabbi Creditor’s remarks. Those fears were allayed when Rabbi Epstein, in a plenary session, reaffirmed the movement’s commitment to pluralism.

I don’t want to focus upon what Rabbi Creditor said. It’s clear that he and the Torah have some differences concerning what is or is not moral, but that’s a topic for another day. Rather, what caught my attention was Rabbi Epstein’s statement that pluralism demanded acceptance of non-egalitarian congregations [for argument’s sake, we’ll define “egalitarian” as they do, namely having both men and women perform the additional obligations placed by the Rabbis upon men].

Pluralism, in other words, requires acceptance of views you otherwise might find distasteful.

Many of those carrying the banner of “pluralism” are, in reality, no more pluralistic than the Greeks of Hasmonean times. You can believe whatever you want (as long as its not another religion) and call it Judaism, as long as you don’t think that your answer is True. If you think your answer is G-d-Given Truth, they’re not interested in talking to you, hearing from you, or considering your viewpoint.

While it might seem that turnabout is fair play, that fails to take into consideration the internal logic of both sides. Absolutists don’t have to accept or grant credibility to those whose viewpoints contradict the absolutist’s impression of what is right and what is wrong. That’s internally consistent with being an absolutist.

Pluralism, as Rabbi Epstein pointed out, requires the acceptance of all views — even those which are themselves non-pluralistic. Otherwise, the result is not pluralism, but a credo as absolutist as any position taken by the “Absolute Truth” crowd — just the “pluralistic” Absolute Truth is that there is no Truth. And whatever you might call that (hypocrisy being one option), it’s surely not pluralism.

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6 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Pluralism does require that you accept views you find distasteful. However, it does not require that you accept them as true. It merely requires that you accept the right of people who hold them to be true to live by them. Or, in the case of something like the USCJ, you accept those who hold those distasteful positions as members of your community.

    The way I see it, there are four groups:

    1. True, moral people. Basically, people who share one’s own moral code. For Orthodox Jews, that might be anybody who follows Shulchan Aruch to the best of his or her ability.

    2. Mistaken, moral people. People who hold mistaken beliefs, but are acceptable in one’s society. For example, according to Toby Katz in http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2005/11/30/goodbye-to-heterodoxy, for an Orthodox synagogue those are Jews who are Heterodox but are not intermarried and haven’t converted to a different religion.

    3. OK, just not here. People whom one does not want in one’s community, but realizes they are OK in their own element. For an Orthodox synagogue, that’s probably non Jews. There is nothing wrong with them, they just don’t belong in the synagogue.

    4. Evil. People whom one would like to see behind bars / dead if they don’t mend their ways, even if one is not personally affected. Murders, rapists, child abusers, etc.

  2. DovBear says:

    “Pluralism, as Rabbi Epstein pointed out, requires the acceptance of all views—even those which are themselves non-pluralistic.”

    Well, no, not exactly. As Isaiah Berlin, the most famous pluralist of all time put it “I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated.”

    Properly understood, pluralism embraces not every idea under the sun as Rabbi Menken says, but the reality that there are in the world a plurality of legitimate values that men can and do seek. These values don’t all align, and sometimes they conflict, but what they have in common is that you can pursue them and still retain a semblance of what it means to be human. Nazism, for example, would be beyond the pale.

    Incidently, when Menken himself talks approvingly about Popes and Christians he, himself, is acting as a pluralist. Popes don’t subscribe to Menken’s absolute truth; according to the rules of absolutist thinking, they should be given no quarter. Yet they are warmly embraced by this site. Why, because, like most of us Menken, beneath the bluster, recognizes the pluralism describes the real and true state of the world, though we may quibble about the details.

  3. David says:

    For the most part, Pluralism within the context of non-Orthodox Judaism means that anything goes in the name of Judaims, except, Orthodoxy, non-egal minyanim, and Jews for J.
    There is a very common opinion among Reform rabbis that it is FORBIDEN to daven in a synagogue with a mechitza, or even in mixed seating, but non-egal scenarios.

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    What David wrote is, perhaps, the answer to DovBear. It is a pity that DB claimed that I said pluralism accepted anything, since those who read more thoroughly undoubtedly noticed that I wrote “You can believe whatever you want (as long as its not another religion)” (emphasis added) — because even according to the pluralistic view, what is called “Messianic” Judaism is excluded by all.

    More to the point, relativism is a philosophy of ethics. The philosophical doctrine called “pluralism” is irrelevant here. The relevant definition in our case is as follows:

    * A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society.
    * The belief that such a condition is desirable or socially beneficial.

    The Jewish “pluralists” claim to believe that the existence of “multiple streams of Judaism” is “desirable or socially beneficial.” To them, literally anything goes, including atheism (aka secular humanism), as long as one subscribes to the belief that there is no Absolute Truth — which DB and many others might call relativism, but they call pluralism. Given the looseness of their definition of “legitimate” values, it is indeed difficult to understand on what rational basis devotion to Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai might be excluded from that definition.

  5. DovBear says:

    “Anything goes” is relativism, not pluralism.

  6. Zeev3 says:

    As I point out whenever this topic comes up, we have to distinguish between pluralism and tolerance. Pluralism is, at least to some extent, the acceptance of the validity of a plurality of opinions: “He has his way. She has hers. I have mine. Each way is right for one of us.” Tolerance, on the other hand, simply requires one not to harass or harm those who have different views. You don’t have to think that anyone else is anything but a misguided fool, you just have to accept their right to be a misguided fool. A pluralist wouldn’t call someone else a misguided fool. It’s not so hard for orthodox folk to be tolerant–we simply don’t throw stones, literally or metaphorically. Pluralism, on the other hand, just won’t work.

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