The Power of Pluralism

One of our school’s several Torah scroll’s needs to be repaired. This Torah is most often used by the school’s traditional egalitarian minyan (one of several different minyanim including Reform, alternative and mechitza). Consistent with the egalitarian minyan’s principles, the members of the minyan want to invite a female soferet (scribe) to fix the Torah. But not all members of the community will necessarily accept that Torah as kosher to be read from in a prayer service. Should the school heed the strictest common denominator of halachic observance and rule out a female soferet, or should it honor the egalitarian principles of many members of the community?

Our school’s first ever robotics team has qualified for the World Championships, an incredible accomplishment for the team and the school (especially when Jewish Day Schools have reputations of being weaker in math, science and technology!). However, the final day of the world championship competition is on Shabbat. The team members, guided by their coach, wrestled with their competing values around Shabbat commitments, inclusivity of all team members, and fully actualizing their robotics ambitions. They aspire to create a robot that will run on its own so team members do not need to drive or fix the robot on Shabbat. But, if their plan goes awry at the last minute, since none of the members of the team are strictly observant of the traditional Shabbat laws, they have asked the school to permit them to drive and fix the robot on Shabbat. If the school were to permit this, what would it say about our commitment to Shabbat as a core Jewish value and our inclusivity of traditionally observant students and families? On the other hand, if we do not permit this, what message are we sending to less observant families about pluralism and their place in our community?

These are just two of the dilemmas that my community, Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, has wrestled with in the past year. In a denominationallyaffiliated or more “religiously normative” school, a particular vision of what it means to live a Jewish life might dictate clear policies or answers to dilemmas like these. However, in a pluralistic school, there are no easy answers. Process is more important than outcome, and how we guide students (and parents) through an exploration of the issues at hand is as important as the conclusions we reach. These kinds of dilemmas are welcome as starting points for wrestling with and clarifying our values, and for learning about ourselves and each other..

What is pluralism?

Pluralism is hard. It is a hard concept to understand and to communicate, and, even for those of us who think we understand it, it is hard to live out. As with many “isms,” pluralism means different things to different people. Unlike other “isms,” however, pluralism celebrates that discord.

Pluralism is an approach to diversity – different people, different experiences of the world, different ideas, beliefs, practices – that sees the existence of and the encounter between people with these differences (within boundaries defined by a particular community or society) as positive and necessary, both for the intellectual and spiritual advancement of the individuals involved and for the unfolding creation and repair of a community, society and the world. Pluralism is a philosophy that embraces complexity and shuns easy answers, that pushes people to live or at least spend time in the gray rather than the black or white, and that demands a sophisticated approach to people, texts, ideas and the world.

This is a tall order for any person, let alone a community. It’s particularly challenging for a community of high school students who are at an age when young people seek clear answers to confusing questions. And it’s a challenging philosophy to embrace within an explicitly religious context given our society’s belief that religion’s function is to answer our deepest questions.

Jewish theology, however, prefers to ask questions rather than to answer them. The reason lies deep in Jewish epistemology. In Jewish thought, the very nature of our humanity limits our capacity to fully apprehend God or Truth. Even Moses, Judaism’s prophet of all prophets, who longed desperately for the ultimate, intimate experience of the divine, received the only possible response to this longing that a human being can receive when God told him in Exodus 31:20, “You cannot see my face, for man cannot see Me and live.” As human beings, we can only come so close to knowing God. From a philosophical perspective, this is the nature of Truth. We spend our lives seeking and pursuing knowledge and understanding with the very awareness that, as Socrates taught us, “The only thing I really know is that I know nothing.”

The realization and acknowledgment of our intellectual or philosophical limitations generates an ethical mandate for how we relate to the other. Precisely because of my limited capacity for understanding Truth or for knowing what God wants of me, I must seek other people, other voices, other perspectives, other experiences in order to challenge me to refine my ideas and my understanding. This requires a community of discourse. It requires humility. It also requires teachers and leaders who can create and hold intellectual/spiritual/ emotional spaces where competing ideas coexist, challenge, and refine each other without tearing apart the community.

Jewish pluralilsm in an educational context must offer students such a community of discourse. That requires first, that every member of the educational community be treated as a valued member of the community. Second, that discourse, or the asking of questions, is at least as important as the seeking of answers, and finally, that this process is understood to be lifelong, with students continually shown models of adults who still are on the search for God, truth and meaningful Jewish living.

School as a Pluralistic Community

Just as philosophical pluralism demands humility and openness to the other, so too does a mystical or spiritual educational philosophy create an ethical mandate that is at the heart of pluralism’s approach to diversity. From a spiritual perspective, every child, every student, every human being is created B’Tzelem Elohim (in the Image of God), and therefore has divine potential and unique creative capacity within them. We must approach every child with reverence for his potential and respect for his full humanity, for her unique experience of the world and the divine presence within her.

In a pluralistic school, for example, a commitment to excellence in the arts, athletics and extracurricular life is not merely expressed for recruitment purposes or in order to rival top notch private schools. It represents a school’s commitment to recognizing, tapping into, and releasing the creative potential of every one of our students. Some students will be fully activated in the classroom. Some will not. There is nothing more powerful than being there when the student who struggles most in your class scores the winning goal or sings a solo in the school play. This too is a form of pluralism.

The recognition of individual difference arises directly from pluralism’s philosophical emphasis on epistemological humility. In this way, a pedagogy of pluralism bears much in common with a constructivist pedagogy, which emphasizes process over product and higher order thinking, communicating, and analysis skills over quantity of material covered. Teachers across all disciplines reinforce the message that the path to knowledge and understanding involves the capacity to hold multiple possible interpretations at once; that there might really be more than one right opinion or way of doing something.

We ask students to open their minds and hearts, to be self aware of their own biases, to listen deeply, respect and value other ideas and opinions; at the same time we challenge to articulate and defend their ideas, beliefs and commitments. This constructivist pedagogy unites our approach to academics, character and identity development: teachers act more as facilitators of critical thinking, exploration, and meaning making than as transmitters of knowledge and information. Students journey through texts and ideas, acting more as discoverers and creators than as passive receptors.

It is important to note that an emphasis on questioning and deconstruction can be challenging for people with strong pre-existing beliefs and commitments, especially when those people are more traditional in their beliefs or more concrete in their thinking. It is important for educators to approach each learner or participant in the pluralistic process with sensitivity to where he or she is developmentally (both cognitively and emotionally). As with any class, educators need to differentiate for each person in order to make the exercise of pluralism accessible and constructive for all. Ninth graders, for example, are often not ready to defend their religious practices against powerful and knowledgeable criticisms. Rather than test students in that kind of debate, ninth grader teachers focus student on understanding why they believe what they do and practice the way they do. Then, students are led to realize that there are others in their community who do things differently, which is a starting point for engagement and exploration. Later, when they understand themselves and each other in more sophisticated ways and have developed more self-confidence, they are ready to engage in more rigorous debate.

Finally, in an environment that empowers and expects students to shape and develop their own identities, they need to be surrounded and supported by teachers, role models and friends who are on their own journeys as well. It is critical that teachers live out and model particular expressions of Jewish living, values, and beliefs while themselves continuing to question, learn, and develop. For high school students in particular, seeing a teacher’s authentic struggles with big questions or with his or her own Jewish identity creates an instant connection.

The willingness of teachers to “be real” with students while not overexposing their personal lives contributes invaluably to students’ processes of making sense and meaning of their world. At Gann, classroom debates or responses to controversial speakers often pour out into the hallways or are continued during lunch, where students and teachers wrestle with ideas and explore their reactions together. It is often through these informal learning opportunities that students’ commitments and identities are challenged and formed. For this reason, actualizing a school’s mission of pluralistic education begins with the recruitment and retention of a diverse student body, and with the hiring and retention of an outstanding and diverse faculty.

Similarly, pluralism requires what Ron Heifetz calls “leadership without easy answers” and cultivates what Peter Senge and others call a “learning organization.” A pedagogy of pluralism extends even beyond students to teachers, staff, parents, board members, and others as well. Imagine conceiving of the board room or a meeting of the school’s administrative support staff as a room full of unique, divine potentials waiting or already in the process of being activated!

A head of school is responsible for ensuring that the leaders surrounding her actualize their potential and tap into their creativity and that their voices are heard. It is also the head’s job to make sure that leadership – empowerment with accountability, actualizing people’s individual potentials, cultivating open and honest communication and meaningful collaboration – trickles down to directors and department chairs, faculty and staff, and to other constituencies as well. A successful school leader will build a pluralistic, conversational community that begins with a board of passionate and committed lay leaders who are willing to make and support difficult decisions, who listen deeply and openly, and who want diverse and challenging voices at the table. This kind of leadership is able to adapt to new challenges and situations by staying with the complexity of many voices long enough and sensitively enough to hear, amidst the loudness of makhloket (debate), the soft voice of what is best for the institution break through.

21st Century Jewish Identities

Pluralism requires commitment at every level of an educational institution. But what does pluralism offer and what questions does it raise for the field of Jewish education? What are we suggesting to our Jewish students when we tell them that there is no clear singular path to God or truth? Will students actually emerge from this immersion in diversity with a strengthened Jewish identity?

The graduates of a pluralistic Jewish high school are Jews-in-process. We enter the educational process believing that there is no one picture of success when it comes to what we want the Jewish identities of our students to look like. Likewise, we recognize the fact that in the twenty-first century students have the freedom to make important choices – as Jews, Americans and human beings – about who they want to be and the lives they want to live.

Yet, we also know that students do not construct their identities in a vacuum, as individuals unbound to history or community. Student identities are shaped, and students seek to be shaped, by family, friends, school. A pluralistic Jewish high school should be infused with and inspires in its students a love of and commitment to Klal Yisrael, to the unity of the Jewish people, to our history, traditions, foundational texts and stories, and our core values. At the same time, we honor the complexity of our history and traditions, as well as the nuanced ways that our competing values play out in the real world. As educators, we understand that the skills and knowledge our students gain in school become tools for each student’s construction of and commitment to a personal Jewish identity as they find their place in this real world.

Graduates of a Jewish high school should feel bound to, and capable of making choices and decisions in serious dialogue with, the Jewish tradition (texts, ideas, laws, traditions), Jewish history, the Jewish People, their family, their particular Jewish community, and their authentic selves. The nature of this dialogue will change depending on many factors, including the age and maturity of the student, as well as the Jewish commitments of the student’s family and community. For some students, the voices of Jewish law and tradition often challenge the voices of self and sometimes family as well. For others, the voice of self often challenges the voices of tradition and community. Because of this, rather than give students answers, we help them to discover the questions, and then give them the knowledge and the skills (both intellectual and emotional) to navigate a world without easy answers. We expose students to diverse models of passionate, committed Jewish life. Rather than push our students to conform to one model of Jewish identity, we encourage them to explore where they come from and the choices that their family makes – to learn about and to challenge not only each other but also themselves. And, along the way, students are supported by teachers who model their own journeys, their efforts to balance personal authenticity with expanding and deepening Jewish commitments. It is this stance of exploration, this pedagogy of journey, that uniquely prepares our students for a complex and rapidly changing 21st century world. 

Earlier this year, for example, I sat with several students in the aftermath of our school-wide debate about the “soferet dilemma.” One young woman, a 12th grader, shared the following with me: “At first I didn’t understand why people felt so strongly about bringing a soferet – I am Orthodox and this is just not my issue. But after listening to my classmates, I now realize how deeply people are committed to the issue of egalitarianism and I get that this is a core part of their religious identities. At the same time, I am also clearer about my own beliefs and commitments. As an Orthodox woman, I still believe that the Torah should be fixed under Orthodox auspices. Understanding the other point of view hasn’t changed mine, but it has helped me to understand myself better.”

Another student who comes is one of our graduates, who had attended a Reform Jewish Day School from Kindergarted through 8th grade before coming to Gann. This student did not leave Gann looking significantly different than when he entered from the perspective of “religious observance.” However, after attending Gann’s Junior Year Trimester in Israel and becoming increasingly involved in AIPAC during high school, he became a passionate lover of and advocate for Israel. He continues to express this passion as a leading supporter of Israel on his college campus and, regardless of his ritual commitment level, Israel is clearly a defining feature of his Jewish identity.

These are just two examples who learned, changed and grew in very different ways as a result of pluralistic Jewish high school education.

Pluralistic Jewish education involves the dual commitments of identity deconstruction and identity construction. While we push students to challenge themselves and be reflective and open to learning about and even experiencing a range of Jewish beliefs and practices, we also need to guide, support, and encourage students to make choices and commitments. Making thoughtful and responsible choices is how students construct a Jewish identity for themselves. When our students graduate with confidence and conviction as well as openness, humility and menschlichkeit, they are prepared for Jewish living and for life in general in college and beyond.

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