The Meaning of Pluralism

My post of Sunday evening on the limited tolerance expressed by a Reform Rabbi has drawn many comments. Surprisingly, the bulk of these have gone towards debating the meaning of the word “pluralism.”

I call it surprising because I used the term “pluralism” the same way it is consistently used when discussing Jewish religious denominations. Reform claims to be “pluralistic” — and claims that the Orthodox are not — because Reform accepts the validity of Orthodoxy as a form of Jewish religious expression, while Orthodoxy doesn’t accept Reform.

It was a great surprise to find two things: (a) that some people are unaware of how often the term “pluralism” is used to express why Reform has the moral high ground over the Orthodox, and (b) that people were more than willing to utilize some alternate definition of pluralism in order to render Rabbi Marx’s harsh attack on Torah Judaism consistent with a belief in something, anything that could be called “pluralism,” no matter how dubious its relevance to the discussion at hand.

Terms don’t exist in a vacuum. Many years ago, Rabbi Norman Lamm, then-President of Yeshiva University, prompted a firestorm of controversy when he said that “non-Orthodox rabbis are valid leaders of Jewish religious communities.” Responding to his Orthodox critics, he claimed that he didn’t intend to say that non-Orthodox Judaism was a positive force, but simply that they are powerful — because “valid” is derived from the Latin validus, to be strong. This retort inspired an even stronger round of jeers, because this is not what people think when “valid” is used in context. His alternate definition, said the critics, is hardly what would have brought Reform and Conservative leaders to salute Rabbi Lamm as a new breed of “moderate” Orthodox Rabbi. They were right; to this there could be no response.

Here is the American Heritage Dictionary definition of pluralism, from

pluralism, n.

  1. The condition of being multiple or plural.
    1. A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society.
    2. The belief that such a condition is desirable or socially beneficial.
  2. Ecclesiastical. The holding by one person of two or more positions or offices, especially two or more ecclesiastical benefices, at the same time.
  3. Philosophy.
    1. The doctrine that reality is composed of many ultimate substances.
    2. The belief that no single explanatory system or view of reality can account for all the phenomena of life.

The first point to be made is that a definition from the world of philosophy is irrelevant here. Definition (4)(b) is a modern philosophy (which runs counter to Judaism); it has nothing to do with Jewish religious pluralism.

There is only one relevant definition of “pluralism” as used here, and that is the second, two part definition, in which multiple groups “are present and tolerated.” The first sub-part is the reality of pluralism: in our context, there are multiple different Jewish “denominations” today, professing and demonstrating various degrees of adherence to Torah and Jewish law. To be a “pluralist” is to profess the belief of definition (2)(b), which, in context, is to call this the desirable state for the modern Jewish community.

What some tried to say is that Marx allows for a plurality of Jewish groups — but that Orthodoxy isn’t one of those she accepts — and that, therefore, she is still a “pluralist.” The problem with this approach is that the Reform claim not only that they are pluralists, but that the Orthodox are not; thus they define their own form as taking a “pluralistic” view of Judaism. If they reject Orthodoxy, then they are no more pluralistic than the Orthodox themselves, who accept Sephardic, Yemenite, Ashkenazic, Chassidic, and countless sub-variants of the above as legitimate forms.

The Reform constantly define themselves as pluralistic, as can be found in these examples, in contexts which expressly include the Orthodox as a valid [sic] form. You’ll also find a link to an interesting Jewish Action article by Mandell Ganchrow, then-President of the OU, defending the Orthodox position on Judaism in Israel, in that list of links — countering the term “pluralism” as used by Reform.

The statements of Dr. Marx run counter to the professed dedication to pluralism and tolerance of the Reform movement. As I and others said, this is nothing new, but it is worth remembering the next time the Reform claim to be pluralistic — while we, the arcane and unenlightened Orthodox, are not.

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19 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Here is a case of real pluralism- a sefer that quotes from R Kook ZTl, RYBS and the Satmar Rav, Zicronam Livracha. For those interested, try the already two published volumes of Imrei Brauch on Parshas HaShavua by R B Simon, one of the younger and brilliant RY of RIETS.

  2. Seth Gordon says:

    Your Google search shows there are lots of Web pages out there that contain the words “reform”, “pluralistic”, and “judaism”. It doesn’t show that “the Reform claim not only that they are pluralists, but that the Orthodox are not”.

    Judging from the excerpts on the Google pages and my skimming through some of the search results, most of these pages are using “pluralism” to mean either “cooperation between Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative institutions” or “getting the Israeli government to give Reform institutions the same official status as Orthodox ones”. When the word is used this way, nobody is denying that the Orthodox movement is pluralistic.

    The closest thing I found to an official statement of Reform “pluralism” is an essay by the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in which he refers to Reform as “a modern, moderate and pluralistic form of Judaism”. For all we know, if you asked him “is Orthodox Judaism pluralistic?” he would say “sure, but it’s not modern and it’s not moderate”.

  3. HILLEL says:

    Query for Dr. Marx:

    When does “Pluralism” become “Anarchy?”

  4. Yaakov Menken says:


    I should not have said that they say the Orthodox are not pluralists — forgive me that error. Everyone agrees that the Orthodox are not pluralists. We believe that Judaism was established by G-d, Who gave His Law to us. We don’t get to doctor with Divine Truth, and anything saying otherwise isn’t part of what we define as our religion. Our supreme value is not pluralism, but Torah.

    You are challenging a well-established reality. Read Dr. Ganchrow’s article — it is clear to all that the Reform claim to be pluralist, and the Orthodox do not. The Orthodox most certainly do not desire “to give Reform institutions the same official status as Orthodox ones.”

    As Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie writes, “As a Reform Jew, I believe in a diverse, pluralistic Judaism…” — that’s a Reform belief, other Jews do not share it. The other Jews you may not know, but are well known in communal circles to be the Orthodox.

    The links you skimmed over are all in a similar vein. Each and every one says that the Reform are pluralists who want to welcome everyone — within reason. That’s supposed to exclude Messianics, not the Orthodox.

    Please take this up with any Reform Rabbi of your acquaintance. It is not as if I am revealing a heretofore hidden secret on Cross-Currents!

  5. Seth Gordon says:

    Actually, I think that Orthodox Judaism is pluralistic; our seforim, from the Mishnah on down, record a wide variety of opinions, interpretations, and customs. It’s just that the boundaries of our pluralism are set by halakha, and the Reform movement’s boundaries are set by the principles adopted by their rabbis.

    As far as I can tell, the Reform “welcome” the Orthodox in the sense that (a) there are issues of mutual concern where they want to work alongside us; (b) they want to have the same status that we have in the Israeli state-religious system. That doesn’t mean they think our view of Torah is correct. And in this context, “pluralism” refers to some group including multiple Jewish movements, not diversity of opinion within a movement.

  6. HILLEL says:


    Historically, the first prominent Reform leader in America was Isaac Mayer Wise, who arrived here in the mod-1800’s from Germany, together with other opressed German Jews who were forced to flee that land.

    Stangely-enough, he actually expelled a congregant who was not Shomer Shabbos from his synagogue. Wise did not advertise himself as an extremist reformer. He tried to please everyone.

    Wise was a talented organizer, and he founded the Hebrew-Union College. He wanted to establish a pluralistic organization encompassing all the Rabbis in America, and he was nearly successful.

    However, his plans were foiled, because of an incident that revealed the true nature of Wise’s pluralistic Judaism.

    At the first graduation ceremony of the Hebrew-Union College, Wise invited all the prominent Orthodox Rabbis. How shocked they were when the waiters brought in plates of treife shrimp.

    This was a wake-up call for the Orthodox Rabbis. They finally realized that Wise’s “pluralism” was nothing more than a “trojan horse” that sought to infiltrate gentile practices into the Jewish community.

    This incident was forever known as the “treifa banquet,” and it led to a split within American Jewry that eventually led to the founding of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, predecessor of the OU-Orthodox Union.

    So, there’s nothing new under the sun. For Reform leaders, “pluralism” is simply a way station on the road to the total annihilation of Torah Judaism.

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    Seth, I agree with your first paragraph absolutely and wholeheartedly. The non-Orthodox community often has little appreciation of the variety of flavors of Orthodox life, and the variety of traditions with origins hundreds or thousands of years old. Within those parameters we could be deemed pluralistic — but in Jewish religious politics, that’s not the way the word is used.

    You are also right that “‘pluralism’ refers to some group including multiple Jewish movements” — the group being the Jewish community. The Reform claim to believe that this is the ideal, that they appreciate the vibrancy of Orthodoxy and how the Torah’s answers are “right for us.” Historically, of course, that was not true, but they have adopted this position of late. This is why they claim that they are pluralists while we are not.

    But Rabbi Marx’s essay went far beyond saying she didn’t think we are right. She said Orthodoxy is valueless, an “empty truck.” That’s not the language of a pluralist!

  8. HILLEL says:


    To me, pluralism within our authentic Jewish tradition is Hassidim, Litvaks, and Sefardis.

  9. Tzvi says:

    It’s funny, because I was just thinking how to explain that the charedi yeshiva I attended in Israel is diverse and pluralistic due to the fact that they accept: charedim from bnei brak, yerushalmees, kids who went to a HS that had a lemudei chol and even some (but not too many) franken.
    So yes, within that narrow, sheltered and limited mindset they are very tolerant and pluralistic. But in real life, please!

  10. Bob Miller says:

    “To me, pluralism within our authentic Jewish tradition is Hassidim, Litvaks, and Sefardis.”

    The approaches of the Chasam Sofer and R’ SR Hirsch and the communities that follow them do not fit into this definition. It is pluralistically challenged, which might be worse than plain inaccurate.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Hillel-I think that your history is slightly incorrect.First of all, the UOJCA was never separate from the OU.It merely preceded it name only. Moreover, your definition of pluralism obviously and hopefully not deliberately excludes MO, RZ and the OU.

  12. Micha says:

    I think that when people want to speak of toleration, they use the word toleration.

    Pluralism, on the other hand, seems to be used primarily as a cover-up for people not feeling confident in their own beliefs. Since this one only has a theory of which he’s not too sure, and that one has a theory, they call not to give preference to anyone’s position — even their own. It’s uncertainty parading as virtue.

    True pluralism draws from “these and those are words of the Living G-d”. Until the halachic process says “but the law is like …”, both are paths to Judaism’s goal. It’s not uncertainty as much as recognition that different methodologies will work for different people. Of course, the breadth of that spectrum will itself be the subject of multiple opinions.

    Which brings me to the basic paradox of pluralism. If A is right and B is right, each presenting valid human models of Hashem’s supernal truth (as the Maharal would put it), is A right even when he says B is wrong? That’s the same paradox as the original one about Reform pluralism, except brought within the spectrum in which Jewish pluralism is valid. We can guess all we want which side a particular Reform Jew will take, but the bottom line is that neither work.

    About the “Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America”, it’s STILL the official full name of the Orthodox Union. See the box at the bottom of the table of contents page in any Jewish Action. “Jewish action is published by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America”. I’m kind of surprised that R’ Brizel doesn’t know this, given his own role in the organization.

    And while both it and JTS (now JTSA), the Conservative Movement’s larger ordination academy, were both founded by Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, it has nothing to do with the treifa banquet. JTSA was Orthodox at the time, it only started drifting in 1902 (4 years later), and really didn’t become “Conservative” until Solomon Schechter. The treifa banquet was the split between Reform and Breslau Historical School, the conceptual predecessor of C, not JTS or the OU.

  13. Yaakov Menken says:


    My own research (for The Everything Torah Book) supports Hillel’s version. The creation of JTS by Rabbis Sabato Morais and Marcus Jastrow of Philadelphia, and Henry Pereira Mendes of New York, was a response to the excess of the Reformers in general, and the Treifah Banquet in particular. Isaac Mayer Wise wasn’t exactly pleased.

    JTS was itself part of the founding coalition behind the OU — it pulled out after traditionalists took control in 1902, but I don’t think that necessarily started a drift from its previous position.

  14. Seth Gordon says:

    Ah, dawn breaks over Marblehead.

    In the context of the Israeli political system, the Reform movement is arguing against its own exclusion on the grounds that “pluralism” is a good thing and the government should support it.

    But in the context of Kibbutz Degania building a synagogue, a rabbi from the Reform movement is arguing for the exclusion of Orthodoxy because, well, Orthodox Judaism is icky and illiberal.

    I think the two contexts are sufficiently different that there’s no real contradiction, but I can also see how Rabbi Menken would come to a different conclusion. At the very least, the contrast shows a lack of diplomacy on Rabbi Marx’s part.

  15. Baruch Horowitz says:

    As a Torah Jew, I can not subscribe to the doctrine of pluralism in its standard meaning, since that would entail granting recognition or legitimacy to heterodox philosophy. In “Confessions of a Jewish Fundamentalist”, Rabbi Avi Shafran writes that Orthodox Jews, as believers in absolute truth, could indeed be considered “fundamentalists” in one sense of the word.

    However, I can be tolerant in the sense that I can be understanding and empathetic of others’ positions. When attempting to show why the experience of Torah learning is qualitatively different than that of other religious experiences, someone accused me of “being too wrapped up in my own world”. This is not true, because I have no problem understanding the complexities of people of other religions that lead them to make their choices, despite that I still argue for the superiority of my own.

    In a different context, Rabbi Rosenblum has written that “One of the keys to successful shtadlanus is developing the ability to see an issue from the point of the view of the other side. Effective persuasion requires imaginatively inhabiting the mindset of the person one hopes to convince.” This is the key to any negotiation, and I strongly agree with it.

    In the Torah World, this applies as well. I have met people who can see things from others’ perspective. However, I also know some–even friends of mine–who sometimes can not say “I understand the way that you think or feel”. Dr. Yehuda Levi brought this issue up when he wrote in a recent Jewish Observer article of a conversation which he had with an editor of Hamodia, who bemoaned the fact that his own little nephew looks upon him as a less than valid Jew.

    On the positive side, I will say that I know, for example, of one summer camp which consists of bnei torah from many different segments–yeshivish, chassidish and American, and they all learn to live together. I hope that in the coming years, we will see improvement in such tolerance.

  16. Gregory says:

    To be a “pluralist” is to profess the belief of definition (2)(b), which, in context, is to call this the desirable state for the modern Jewish community.

    And why profess that belief? The only good reason to hold definition 2, (ie “to believe that a condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society is desirable or socially beneficial.”) is this: 4B is also true.

    No one system has all the answers, nor can one sytem explain everything. This is why a society is made stronger when representatives of different systems are present. We insist on pluralism, because we know our own approach is incomplete. And why is it incomplete? Not because of a shortcoming in Judaism, but because of a shortcoming in human understanding. We humans can’t know the truth absolutely -we’re subjective by nature, and our perception, by definition, is oblique. This is why it is useful and valuable for us to come into contact with people who come at the truth from another approach. Their understanding compliments our own.

    We don’t hold definition 2 because of warm gushy feelings of tolerance, but because we know that 4B is the true nature of the world, and we wish to round out our very limited understanding of the neture of things.

  17. Gregory says:

    To complete the thought:

    Jewish pluralism doesn’t say we must tolerate Habad and Satmar and YU because of tolerance. We don’t welcome them all into the tent because we are polite; rather we acknowledge that no one system can explain it all, and we wish to benefit and learn from the different systems.

    This is why you can’t say that philosphical definition is irrelevant, when it is the very basis for the pluralism in the firts place.

    The wider your pluralism that more systems you’re willing to acknowledge as legitimite, and the more systems you’re willing to welcome into the tent. Reform’s pluralism is wider than Orthodoxy’s, generally speaking.

  18. S. says:

    >My own research (for The Everything Torah Book) supports Hillel’s version.

    Judging by the book’s bibliography you did not read anything about the founding of the JTS which presented it in any detail. With loads of respect to R. Berel Wein et al., he is not a historian. Where is Jonathan Sarna’s ‘American Judaism’? Where is Arthur Kiron on Sabato Morais?

  19. Yaakov Menken says:

    S., thank you for pointing out a missing item from the Bibliography: Neil Gilman’s Conservative Judaism: The New Century. I’ve corrected that.

    Everything Torah is a very broad overview (written on an alarmingly short deadline), and thus does not have an exhaustive bibliography. However, Prof. Gilman does detail the founding of JTS in considerable detail — he has the menu of the Treife Banquet, for example.

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