The Pluralism Equation

Continuing my “Greatest Hits” blogging (while moving away from the Purim Torah), I wanted to revisit my Pluralism Equation. During my second year of smikha, I participated in Clal’s Rabbinic Internship Program. One of the goals of this program was to promote pluralistic dialogue between the various denominations, and they accepted a diverse group of students. In addition to myself, my group consisted of one student from Chovevei Torah, one student from Drisha (though not techinically a “rabbinical” student), one student from AJR, one from RRC, two from JTS, and two from HUC (one of whom graduated Cardozo Law School which makes him a YU graduate).

Dealing with controversial issues usually leads to heated conversations which are usually not productive. Instread, we spent the first half of the year gradually getting to know each other before we got to the serious and sensitive subjects. Furthermore, even before we began to discuss the issues, we were asked to create ground rules for our pluralistic dialogue to avoid inadvertanly offending each other. I don’t remember if anything specific was said which prompted me to write the following, but I felt the need to express my throught on pluralism in general. The following is a slightly modified version of what I submitted as a premise to my “Rules of Engagement.”

The Pluralism Equation
Before we can discuss the rules for “pluralism” discussions, we must first understand that essentially, all such definitions of “tolerance” or “acceptance” as it relates to pluralism are fundamentally the same. Every Jewish movement has its positions and every individual has his/her own interpretation of those positions. I will argue that for any given movement, or any given interpretation, there must exist some position(s) which will be considered “beyond the pale” of what is acceptable. If a movement defines itself as “Jewish” then it places certain restrictions or limitations on itself to justify that definition.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Let y[] be the set of all possible ideas. The set of ideas which cannot be tolerated or accepted, for lack of a better term I will call such ideas “bad,”1 will be represented as x[]. The contents of x[] will vary from denomination to denomination, and person to person.
P[luralism] is then the acceptance of the set of all ideas minus the set of bad ideas. Our formula may then be written as

y[] = 1
x[] = [bad0..badn] // Any set of someone’s “bad” things.
P = y[] – x[]

All movements and all denominations must follow this formula. In order for this formula to be significantly different, the set x[] must be empty in which case a movement or individual is accepting/tolerant of all possible ideas. Since this is extremely unlikely if not impossible,2 x[] will have a size of at least 1 and the equation remains meaningful. As long as there is something bad in x[], there is something which we do not accept/tolerate, we are placing our own defined restrictions on others. Although the size and contents of x[] may vary, the result is the same: people will accept/tolerate everything up to an arbitrary point.

This holds true for the different denominations of Judaism. The crux of this pluralism debate is twofold: The contents of x[] as it relates to Judaism as a religion and the contents of x[] as it relates to what is unacceptable opinions for discourse. Regarding x[] as it relates to Judaism, there must be some ideas which cannot be compatible with Judaism. Or for example, the idea of human sacrifices would not be acceptable/tolerated according to any of the Jewish movements. The same equation can be applied to the dialogue itself: a group will have discussions with another, provided certain conditions are met. Complete “pluralism” in this sense cannot exist. The point of this is to realize that everyone has their own standards and their own breaking points or “red lines” and therefore will have their own ultimatums for acceptance/tolerance. Therefore “pluralism” requires 1) acknowledging that we all have our own boundaries and 2) recognizing each individual’s boundaries. I have included a sheet to keep track of each individual’s boundaries.3 Questions and comments should be customized to the individual.

1. In that it is bad for an individual’s or a limited collective’s definition of Judaism, not in any objective global sense. For example, eating pork isn’t objectively bad, but it is unacceptable for some Jews.
2. Any system which is accepting/tolerant of all possible ideas would be nihilistic and anarchistic.
3. Note that this does not imply agreement, acceptance/tolerance, or legitimization for specific opinions.

Redux – not in the original submission
I don’t think I said anything new in this piece and I would be surprised if I found out I was the first person who said this (maybe not in this exact style, but I guess I was still feeling the effects of Discrete Structures). At any rate, I do get annoyed when I am told I “ought” to be more pluralistic since in essence I am being denied the very right to formulate my own opinions in deference to others. For example, one of the Clal memebers didn’t understand why Reform conversions were not accepted in Israel since after all, “we’re all Jews.” Not getting into the religious/political dynamic of Israel, if someone wants the right to define who is a Jew in his/her own way then that is their free will to do so. However, if one person or group wants the ability to define who is a Jew on the grounds of Pluralism, then they cannot deny the rights of others to do the same even if their definitions are mutually exclusive.

I remember R. Lamm writing someplace that if tolerance isn’t when you can see two legitimate opinions – that would be not making up your mind. Tolerance is when you firmly belive in something and can deal with others who disagree. You can therefore be an Orthodox pluralist and not be apologetic. You can give people the right to different opinions, and retain your right to your own. The nature and tone of the dialogue is not unique to religion, but basic civility of discourse.

Update: R. Lamm discussed pluralism at one of YU’s Dorm Talks not too long ago. Thanks Avraham!

  1. .inf