17 May 2013
8 Sivan 5773
Pluralism of Substance
We are meant to emerge from the holiday of Shavuot with a renewed sense of covenantal responsibility and connectedness to our people – our shared history, shared Torah (the evolving tradition of Jewish learning and living), and our shared future.
In that spirit, I want to summarize and share the link to an article that my friend Rabbi Elie Kaunfer recently wrote about the relationship between Jewish peoplehood and pluralism. In the piece, he asks an essential question about which we, the Gann Academy community, certainly should care deeply:
“Does pluralism help or hurt the goal of fostering feelings of peoplehood?”
Rabbi Kaunfer’s answer: It depends on what we mean by “pluralism.” Citing research from scholars Susan Shevitz and Jack Wertheimer, Kaunfer addresses the potential benefits and costs of different forms of Jewish pluralism. For example, Wertheimer suggests that often pluralism becomes “a fine ideal that simply avoids confronting differences by celebrating them. American Jews who disagree can ignore one another when the issues are too uncomfortable, and agree to meet only when the issues are uncontroversial and therefore safe.” In Kaunfer’s eyes, this form of what I would call “live and let live” or “passive” pluralism threatens to weaken the Jewish people because the seeming unity that this kind of pluralism can produce is based on surface-level bonds that do not involve genuine understanding of ourselves or one another.
Kaunfer offers an alternative vision of what I have called “active” pluralism and what he calls “pluralism of substance,” a vision that has defined Gann Academy’s educational mission since its founding. Kaunfer writes, “Can I really feel connected to other Jews if I know, deep down, that we aren’t surfacing the core issues that divide us? Strong feelings often lead to strong bonds. If peoplehood is modeled on the image of a family, which family is ultimately stronger: the one that brings conflict out in the open, or the one that keeps interactions limited to the surface level? Granted the former is riskier, but, when managed well, engenders real relationships.”
In a ringing affirmation of the work we do each day at Gann, Kaunfer concludes that the key to creating the “pluralism of substance” is education: “Only through education will Jews develop a deeper attachment to their Judaism. Critically, education doesn’t lead to cookie-cutter people with identical Jewish values. It may in fact lead to deep differences among Jews. However, when those Jews encounter each other in pluralistic settings, they will be able to debate the core issues, as opposed to finding commonality in surface issues.”
Gann has always been a laboratory for building a new kind of community, one that would be a model for strengthening the Jewish People precisely by engendering real relationships among Jews who might otherwise never know, let alone really understand one another. I am proud that we have become a national and international model for the kind of pluralism that Kaunfer calls for; and, I am humbled by the opportunity we have at this stage in our school’s history to build on our strong foundation and to even more fully realize our pluralistic Jewish educational mission and vision.
One of the ways we can do this is by committing ourselves to the kind of substantive, challenging conversations that force us to listen and learn, to deepen our own knowledge and commitments, and to better understand each other’s.
Perhaps we can begin by talking with each other about a modified form of Kaunfer’s question:
Rabbi Marc Baker
Note: There is a shortened version of this email on my blog. If you are interested in contributing your voice to a conversation about this topic, you can click on the question above and comment on the spot.