What does pluralism actually mean?

Over the last generation, in non-Orthodox Judaism the word pluralism has become used very often, so much so that some communities raise it to the position of being an essential religious belief. But what does this word mean? It must first be acknowledged that it is literally impossible for people to discuss anything together if we first don’t agree on a definition of the word.

Example: Scientists can’t even discuss ideas like force or energy until they first clearly define these words. We must know how ideas are related (if at all) or how they are different.

Example: Car owners can’t discuss shocks and struts until they first define these words, and know how they are related, how they are different:

In philosophy, the word pluralism has many different meanings. It is not possible for anyone to discuss any of these different ideas unless we first clearly state which idea we’re using!

In Metaphysics, pluralism is the belief that reality itself consists of many different substances.

In Philosophy of Mind, pluralism is the belief that there is a plurality of basic substances making up the minds and bodies of humans.

In Epistemology, pluralism is the highly controversial claim that there are several conflicting but still true descriptions of the world; and that no single view of reality can account for what we call reality. Scientists have universally concluded that this way of thinking about our universe is likely incoherent.

In Ethics, pluralism is the supposition that there are many independent sources of value and that there is no single truth, even in moral matters.

This section has been adapted from philosophybasics.com

In politics, pluralism means…

“Pluralism is the political philosophy that holds people with different beliefs, lifestyles, and backgrounds can coexist in the same society and participate equally in the governing process. According to this philosophy, a number of competing groups with different interests can share power. Moreover, pluralists believe that diverse groups promote healthy discussion and debate, which strengthen democracy.”

Pluralism – pediaa.com

But what does pluralism mean within Judaism? And here is the issue – it turns out that no one agrees on what it means, and sometimes when a group of people use that word, each person has a different definition in their mind!

In It Can’t Be About Pluralism, Devora Steinmetz writes

Buzzwords make me nervous, first of all, because often it’s not clear what people mean when they use them. The word often stands in for a vague cluster of values that we all seem to be committed to, but its fuzziness can stand in the way of people being challenged to think carefully about what they mean when they use the word and about what it would look like to put that commitment into practice in a thoughtful way….

“Pluralistic” is one example of a buzzword that has increasingly been used to characterize Jewish institutions in general and Jewish educational institutions in particular. What does pluralism mean? …Perhaps there is a tacit understanding of the word that is shared, even if not usually so clearly spelled out. Or perhaps there is no shared understanding of the word, but that is exactly the point.

The pull to embrace something that seems open and inclusive and that celebrates multiple meanings rather than definitive commitments might be the very power of this buzzword… But different understandings of pluralism might, in fact, point to different practices or policies, and our institutions are impoverished if we rely on a shared embracing of a vague concept rather than taking the challenge of figuring out what we are really committed to and of envisioning how we will give life to that commitment in the day-to-day practices of our settings.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar confronts Jews and asks them to avoid vagueness; we instead must be very clear about the definitions of our words. Only then can we make decisions about where and how we can work together:

We can most honestly and authentically address the challenge we face in our contemporary moment by naming three distinct values that compete with one another, and by understanding how they interrelate. While the terms I will use here – Pluralism, Integrity and Community – are rich words with multiple meanings in different contexts, I will define them very specifically for the purposes of our discussion.

The first value is what I will call “pluralism”, defined as follows: Pluralism is the commitment to the simultaneous coexistence of conflicting forms of Jewish practice….

The second value is what I will call “integrity”, defined as follows: Integrity is the commitment to consistent, uncompromising practice of one’s own sense of what is right….

The third value is what I will call “community”, defined as follows: Community means being in a relationship with someone in a way that makes you vulnerable to them, dependent on their interpretations and decisions…

…When we truly understand these three values, something becomes immediately apparent: It is impossible to maximize all three of these values simultaneously. Any effort to create connections between Jews with conflicting practices and beliefs inevitably leads to difficult choices regarding which of these values to prioritize.

Pluralism, Integrity, and Community, Part 1

Pluralism, Integrity, and Community

Rabbi Steven Rohde Gotlib writes

I think that there are two pitfalls to “pluralism” that need to be very seriously grappled with by practitioners (and, imho, often are not.)

1) Often crafting a message that is able to meet as many diverse members of your target audience as possible ends up watering down the substantive content significantly or (as noted above) leads to big questions simply being pushed aside in favor of easier and more pareve talking points.

2) Does pluralism mean providing a space for each individual to become their best selves in a supportive environment, or does it mean having people step out of their expectations in favor of a more diverse perspective? Ideally, I think it should be a mix of the two, but very often one vision ends up being pushed at the expense of the other. See, for example, my reflection on some conversations on the subject – Did anyone read Yehuda Kurtzer’s “What Happened to Jewish Pluralism?”

Yehuda Kurtzer writes

Some years ago, I was invited to join a “pluralism advisory board” of a community Jewish day school. The school was deliberating whether and how to teach prayer: although students came from diverse religious backgrounds, the school rightly saw some value in each class being able to do some amount of praying together.

One of the school’s founding lay leaders said: “When we started this school, we wanted our children to graduate feeling equally comfortable in a Reform service or sitting behind a mehitza.”

Astonished, I said: “Are you trying to make your children anthropologists of their own religion?” After all, any child who would feel equally comfortable in such opposite environments could not possibly be passionate about either.

My wife and I are educating our own children to be able to sit politely and knowledgeably in prayer services that follow practices that are not our own. They should be able to attend friends’ and relatives’ bnei mitzvah celebrations, politely. But they should care about the principles that animate our choices, and they should be passionate about their own.

[Another example] I received a call from a rabbi who said that something a speaker had said at a Hartman Institute program had offended his sensibilities. Because the speaker identified with the same denomination as this rabbi, my caller was upset that his view on this issue was now rendered “questionable” by the speaker on the Hartman stage. He felt that this jeopardized the “safe space” he felt the Hartman Institute had always offered him.

Again, I was surprised. I gently replied that the safety guaranteed by our Beit Midrash was that intellectual rigorous views would be considered and respected, even when they were at odds with each other.

Over the years, Hartman had never been a “safe space” for him – he had simply always agreed with the speakers!

What Happened to Jewish Pluralism? By Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

Rabbi Norman Lamm, ztl, wrote

I once thought I knew what the word meant. I have a passing acquaintance with pluralism, in contrast to monism, as a metaphysical concept. I believe I understand what cultural and political pluralism are about. I have written in favor of pluralism within the halakhic context. But I confess to being confused by all the current talk of “religious pluralism” within the Jewish community. The term has been used in a variety of ways, both with regard to Israel and the diaspora, so that I am at a loss really to understand it.

Moreover, my perplexity is deepened by the elevation of “pluralism” to the rank of a sacred principle. It has become a symbol, and whenever an idea is transformed into a symbol, it becomes so enmeshed in emotions and so entangled in mass psychology that it is exceedingly difficult to treat it analytically and critically. Sacred cows, like golden calves, inevitably lead one astray.

The way “pluralism” has been used in recent months and years makes it sound suspiciously like relativism, reducing all differences in principle and value to questions of taste. Relativism is the proposition that because there are many kinds of “things” or points of view, and each has an equal right to be heard and advocated in a democratic society, they are therefore necessarily equally valid. If pluralism is just the newest name for that kind of discredited ethical or religious relativism, it is not deserving of our attention.

My conception of pluralism in the Jewish religious community can best be summed up by reference to a famous dictum in the Jewish tradition-that there are shivim panim laTorah. there are 70 faces or facets to Torah. No one is more valuable or significant or legitimate than the other 69. Judaism is not monolithic. However there are only 70 (the number. of course, is arbitrary) and not an infinite number of such faces or facets.

A pluralism that accepts everything as co-legitimate is not pluralism, but the kind of relativism that leads to spiritual nihilism. If everything is kosher, nothing is kosher. If “Torah” has an infinite number of faces, then it is faceless and without value or significance.

Norman Lamm, Seventy Faces, Moment Vol. II, No. 6, June 1986 – Sivan 5746


While you’re here, join our Facebook havurah, Coffeehouse Torah Talk or read our articles on Jewish ethics,  HalakhahholidaysKashrut (keeping kosher) , Lifecycle eventsMishnah and Talmud studybeliefs in JudaismTefila (prayer)Torah studyTanakh (bible)fighting antisemitism, and Zionism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s