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Jewish Religious Pluralism Is A Destructive Idea
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

The slogan of “religious pluralism” has become a banner around which the American Jewish community has gathered and found common purpose. Pluralism — being accepting of and equating all ideologies and religious expressions — seems to be a wonderfully progressive idea in which all but the most “bigoted” or “narrow-minded” Jewish  religious fanatics (read hareidi, Orthodox) can find common cause.

After all, is not E Pluribus Unum (out of the many, one) the very core of the American notion of tolerance and social harmony? Indeed this American notion has been such an extraordinary blessing for the Jewish community in particular enabling the historic success of our community.

However, while religious pluralism may sound good in theory, as is the case with most such popular slogans it is shallow, poorly reasoned idea and most importantly, a destructive force in the Jewish community.

Let me explain by relating a story. Some years ago, a leading Jewish communal figure and a longstanding personal friend shared with me the news that a new Jewish community high school was being established in our city. When I asked do we really need another high school when the city already has almost half a dozen Jewish high schools, including a few Orthodox and a Conservative and Reform school in the development stage? The answer was that this was exactly the point. This new school was to going be built on the principal of pluralism: inclusive of all affiliations and ideologies. My response stunned my friend. “It’s a terrible idea,” I said and completely opposed to such a school.”   

I believe the purpose of Jewish education is not just to produce educated Jews but to produce passionate Jews committed to the values and history of our people and our religion. Anything less is of minimal value to the future of the Jewish community.

A “pluralistic” school cannot produce the kind of Jewish education described above for many reasons. For example, is kashrut an antiquated relic of pre-modern man that has no relevance to us today (the classic Reform ideology)? Is it an inspired religious practice, albeit one that needs to be modified and updated to fit our times (the Conservative ideology)? Or is it a Divine commandment that is immutable, including every detail of its Divinely inspired oral law (the Orthodox ideology)?

If the answer is “any of the above” then all of it is essentially meaningless. You can now repeat this same scenario for almost every important Jewish subject to be taught in a pluralistic Jewish school. Jewish education requires clarity of purpose, values and message. Anything less cannot produce the enduring results for the future that our people require.

Would the graduate of a pluralistic Jewish school, a few years down the line, abandon a potential spouse for a multiple-choice value system? The fact is that you simply cannot develop a foundation of commitment and passion for one’s Judaism based on a vague and confused set of educational values.

What we need is for each denomination to have its own schools. The Reform should teach that their view of Judaism is correct and teach why they think the Conservative and Orthodox philosophies are wrong. Let the Conservative and the Orthodox do the same thing: let them boldly state that “we are right and they are wrong” and here is why. That is the kind of education that can succeed in producing committed and passionate Jews.

I did not succeed in persuading anyone to abandon the idea of starting the local pluralistic Jewish day school. Ten years and $20 million in Jewish philanthropy later, the school has closed for lack of interest.

Teaching pluralism may be a way of showing respect for others but in the process it demonstrates a lack of commitment and confidence in what you believe in and is therefore destructive to successfully transmitting it to the next generation. 

Yes, all Jews do have much in common, a shared history and some core values, but that is not enough to foster the conviction and commitment that will overcome the sacrifice and struggle necessary for us to survive in our free and open society.

The remarkable success of the Orthodox community in America — despite all the predictions and odds — should prove conclusively the validity of holding fast to one’s values. It is time for the rest of the community to come to grips with this reality and abandon the easy foolhardy and naïve banner of pluralism that leads nowhere.

Notwithstanding the provocative opinion that I have shared here, nothing that I have stated above should take away from my healthy respect and love for all of my fellow Jews, however they identify themselves and as wrong (or right) as they may be. Such an attitude is indeed the imperative of our shared history and core values.     

Shmuel Kaplan is a rabbi in Maryland.

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First of all, you are an embarrassment to Judaism. How you ever became a Rabbi I don't know. You seem to be very confused between pluralism and reform Judaism. Personally I have seen the workings of pluralism within education, and the results are staggering. Pluralism offers children choice, choice to wear a kippah, choice to pray to God, a choice to learn about other religions. Pluralism gives children choice, as opposed to orthodox schools, which unfortunately I have been to, does not give you choice.

Choice is the cornerstone of a civilised society, and a religion that allows for choice,promotes equality amongst its followers. Your propaganda bullshit only fuels like minded "Jews" like your self to feel opposed to another sect of Judaism. In this world we have enough people who hate the Jews, we don't need our own to hate our own.

So your poorly written article, does not reflect pluralism, your article just simply shows the narrow-minded view in which you take on another form of Judaism. Shame on you, you really need to understand more about Judaism and pluralism before you start talking about things you have no idea about.

Thank you, Rabbi Kaplan, for a thoughtfully expressed article. And let me note that I enjoyed and benefitted from your weekly broadcasts when I used to live in Silver Spring, Md.
For me, to believe in "pluralism" is to believe in nothing in particular. The Torah and our sages offer substance for the mind and soul.

I believe many readers have missed Rabbi Kaplan's main point.
It is not relevant whether or not R' Kaplan understands the technical definition of pluralism. What is relevant is whether the phenomenon which he discusses truly exists. The vast sums of money and communal programs and endeavors initiated by our community is a strong testimony that passion for Judaism and the Jewish community is waning. Many articles have been written about this lak of passion in this publication. This is especially true in the non-orthodox community as they are the ones commissioning the vast majority of these studies and initiatives. R' Kaplan is merely suggesting a hypothesis, a semi-reasonable one at that. Logic would dictate if you do not teach children a set system of beliefs, be it reform, conservative or orthodox, you cannot expect them to be passionate about it, b/c what are they to be passionate about. And if your goal is not to help them towards passionate Jewish lives, why attendd your school, their are many fine public, or private secular schools!

Some people advocate leaving it to the children to figure out for themselves. If something is true and good, why re-invent the wheel? And if you'll say who says what is good for me is necessarily good for my children? This is true. But nobody says this across the board. I learned math as a child. I know it is important that my son learn math too. I will not say maybe math was good for me, but is not good for my son.
If I believe my religion to be correct, and passionately so, it would be no less important than math. So why not give over these beliefs to your chiildren? The reason is because maybe we aren't as passionate about it as we originally thought.
Every parent who feels something is really important and precious will feel it is his responsibility to give it over to his children. This could be true if you are reform, conservative or orthodox. But a pluralistic school which gives over no ideology, by definition cannot create passionate Jews, and has been seen already, they will seek other avenues to express their passions and beliefs.
I hope my words are deemed acceptable. Although we may be pluralistic, the harsh comments directed at R' Kaplan suggest to this simple reader that we may not be as pluralistic as we thought towards others who disagree with us.

The attacks on the rabbi's article without addressing his questions, prove his essential point of the shallowness (and hypocrisy) of pluralism as a core value (as your intolerance of his belief so strikingly demonstrates). Yes, friends, you confuse the need for the pluralistic value of tolerance of others, with the establishment of that value as a core of what we believe in - that's called relativism.

Here's an important article from Ravsak's "Hayedion". I'll highlight one paragraph and let you read the rest.
Even if we do have more clarity about what we mean when we use the word pluralism than I think that we do, though, I worry about pluralism taking its place as the defining commitment of communal or institutional life. “But we do stand for something,” I recently overheard a giant of one of Judaism’s liberal movements saying to a colleague—“Zionism and pluralism.” The implication is that the movement celebrates individual Jews’ choices in Jewish life but that, in fact, there are certain non-negotiables even in such a world, and that these do need to be communicated clearly within the movement’s educational settings. I will leave Zionism out of the equation for heuristic purposes and think for a moment about what it means to say, in effect: We believe that each individual chooses his or her own beliefs and commitments, but there is one belief and commitment that is constitutive of Jewish life as we understand it—and that is a belief in and commitment to pluralism. Now, this strikes me as a statement that is at once very attractive and utterly nonsensical. What such a statement might be intended to mean, of course, depends on one’s definition of pluralism, but—by any definition—there is something oddly through-the-looking-glass-like about this statement. What, at the end of the day, do we believe is at the core of Judaism and Jewish life if the one thing that we can definitively say about it is that it’s pluralistic?,HaYidion

Most troubling is the author's statement that each stream of Judaism should maintain separate schools where each can teach that it is right and the others wrong. Why does he think that religious triumphalism must be part of the curriculum? In fact, for any stream of Judaism to take that view is nothing more than arrogance and chutzpa. How about letting God be the judge? Of course, some are certain, beyond any doubt, that they always know what God thinks about everything.

The Rabbi's initial premise is a faulty one...either deliberately made so in order to bolster his point of view or carelessly arrived at and in need of another look. The fact is that pluralism is the acceptance of all religious beliefs as equally protected in the public space and the right to hold such beliefs. It does not mean that individuals need to accept and equate "all ideologies and religious expressions" in their personal religious life. Believe what you have that right and I will not throw stones,literal or figurative. That is the nature of pluralism. I no more accept the divinity of Jesus Christ in my life than I do the concept that Kashruth is an important aspect of my Jewishness. I will and do respect those who feel otherwise and choose to honor those feelings with actions. (In fairness, I do know a fair number of my "I keep kosher" brethren who will scarf down a generous portion of bacon or barbecued pork spareribs (whether Memphis, St. Louis, Carolina or Wo Hop style) as long as it is either out of the house (or if it is in the house, then on paper plates with disposable cutlery). I do not call these brethren on that decision's apparent inconsistency (some might say hypocrisy) because it is a decision rationalized within their own belief system and religious conscience. That too is pluralism. In fairness I did once question a friend who often made an issue of his superior Jewishness and commitment to "keeping kosher." The question came up as he was scarfing down a plate-load of bacon at another friend's post wedding brunch. His lawyerly response: "I said I keep a kosher home, I never said I was kosher." If that seems too cute by half, ask yourself how stringing an erev around a community works, if you truly believe you're not supposed to carry on the Sabbath. Did we get God on a legal technicality or is just not one of those hard-and-fast reform/conservative/orthodox delineations of faith the Rabbi assumes in his article. Sorry Rabbi, accepting pluralism --even among Jews-- is not an abrogation of faith, it is merely the acceptance that everyone is entitled to their own faith without being harassed. As Jews we know how far harassment can go, which is why recent Haredei actions have been seen as so repugnant to mainstream Jews, whether reformed, conservative or orthodox. They (and other sects like them) are the antithesis of religious pluralism. Rather they are the Taliban wing of the Jewish religion...and that kind of intolerance and bigotry I will fight against.

FYI, the pluralistic school in Baltimore is closing. 14, 2012 – New Independent Jewish Academy of Baltimore to Open July 2013 by By ... the heads of the Shoshana S. Cardin School and the Day School at Baltimore Hebrew announced they will be closing their doors at the end of the school year. ... enrollment, largely due to the economic times and waning affiliation.


When the 2013-14 school year begins, there will be a new school on the private school scene in Baltimore. The Independent Jewish Academy of Baltimore, a co-educational college preparatory school for grades K-12 is set to open on July 1, 2013, and at the same time, two other schools will cease operation.

Guided and informed by Torah, The Academy will transcend denominational affiliations and will be open to all of the diverse segments of the community, celebrating every form of Jewish self-identification. Concurrent with the opening of The Academy, The Day School at Baltimore Hebrew and Shoshana S. Cardin School will cease operations. In the meantime, both schools are working with The Academy for the seamless transfer of students; and applications are being accepted.

The first comment on this thread contains a quote from the leaders of the school that it is closing largely due to economic times and waning affiliation. The new school it would seem is a last ditch attempt to save something of the school by merging it into another institution. I have overheard that the new school intends to move away from accommodating orthodox students, as a measure to hopefully attract more conservative and reform students. What does that say about "Pluralism"? I think that may be exactly what the Rabbi is referring to in his article... It doesn't work.

You heard incorrectly. Quite the contrary, our numbers at the Cardin School aren't waning, they are growing. An exciting opportunity to expand the reach of our Pluralist curriculum presented itself and we decided to grab it. That is the impetus for the new K - 12 program. Cardin will become the high school of The Independent Jewish Academy of Baltimore, so in that sense, it is not closing.

The main thrust of Pluralism is to embrace all Jews regardless of denomination and to move away from the type of thinking that compartmentalizes and labels. Yes, we have our differences and our diversity, but we are one People. Am Yisrael Chai! Not to disparage Rabbi Kaplan, because I believe him to be well-intentioned, but his premise his faulty, and that is why he reaches the conclusion which is the title of this article. Pluralism does not instruct by teaching a little from column A and a little from column B with a smattering of column C, then directing students to choose which line of thinking with which to align. Rather, a Pluralist curriculum teaches basic Jewish thought, ethics, principles, practice, law and tradition, then encourages students to manifest belief and practice as they see fit. Pluralism doesn't preach or judge, it validates. Our program gives students the tools they will need to become informed and committed members of the larger Jewish community. And when one sees how our students are not merely tolerant of one another, but actually embrace one another as friends they will have for life, that is just one of many ways demonstrating the success of our program. I challenge anyone who would like to see Pluralist education in action to contact me and I will be happy to arrange a tour: 410-585-1400 x. 220.

For Ms. Kavadias to argue that "pluralism is inherent in the Talmud" is either disingenuous or stupidity. Of course there are multiple opinions expressed by the sages of the Talmud, but all within an accepted range of axiomatic truths; arguments or ideas outside the accepted belief were branded as heresy- "heresy" from the Greek meaning "able to choose" one's own belief.

Ms Kavadias' argument is an excellent example of what Rabbi Kaplan is alluding to: Jewish tradition gets tendentiously distorted so that it becomes meaningless.

What is destructive to Judaism is the intolerant bigotry and complete nonsense promulgated by the author of this article.

Rabbi Kaplan I respectfully submit that you are slightly confused. Ten years and (we wish it was) $20 million in Jewish philanthropy later, the pluralistic school is open and growing. You are confusing it with the Orthodox school, Rambam, that closed due to lack of interest.

While I respect Rabbi Kaplan's perspective that we should be committed to a viewpoint, I have to say that he is overall wrong (which does not make him right!) Pluralism is not about not believing in your own point of view, but about respecting other people's perspectives and views while holding your own. That is why ARZA is actively involved in promoting pluralism in Israel. We respect the right of Charedi, Orthodox, Conservative, and secular Jews to live according to their beliefs, but we also think that we have the right to live according to ours. Pluralism is not new, it is enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence as the guarantee of religious freedom. It is also inherent in the Talmud which documented and embraced multiple points of view. And just how many views do we have of creation in the Torah? Or interpretations in Midrash? What has strengthened Israel over time is not adhering to one view, one perspective but instead our ability to embrace multiple perspectives at one time, to see the truth that can be found in each, and finding the threads that bind us to G-d and to each other. Pluralism is not about being wishy washy or nothingness. Pluralism is about us all standing together at Sinai. Pluralism is what built the Mishkan in the desert where we each brought the gifts of our hands and our hearts. Pluralism is what will ultimately tie the land of Israel and its people to the diaspora so that we will be one people again.

Nicely said. This brings to mind the question of why the prayer in the Amidah says "G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac and G-d of Jacob" and not "G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". This is because each of our patriarchs had a different personal relationship with G-d, and therefore a worshiped G-d differently. Abraham's view of G-d was no more right or wrong than Isaac's or Jacob's. Truly, this is the essence of pluralism - allowing each person to have their own relationship with G-d.

Not only is this Rabbi in the outer stratosphere of Jewish thought, he is out of touch with the thinking of 99% of all Jewish people of all denominations. More importantly he's just plain wrong. The school is NOT closed and is doing quite well, thank you. Primarily because of great interest in Jewish pluralism. Rabbi, open your eyes and look around, open your ears and listen but most importantly and with all respect, close your mouth.

I fear he has lost his heart in the letter of the law. Open your heart,Sir. For whom does your rigidity of mind and harshness of words serve? I am glad to read the loving comments. שלום

I wonder if this writer is kidding. There will always be the fact that halacha will need to be considered when interpreting Jewish law for many Jews, but a blanket "we're right, they're wrong"? Sorry. Even if we disagree with someone's observance, we must respect them as Jews. There are enough disagreements without this writer's ideas to add to the controversy.

"Even if we disagree with someone's observance, we must respect them as Jews."
Sheldon, did you read the article? That's exactly what the author writes!

Whoever this writer is, he sure does not know the difference between education and indoctrination. It sounds to me like he supports the idea of indoctrination centers for each of the varieties of Judaism wherein student (victims) can be brainwashed and values can be transmitted and Judaism can survive. That's a shortsighted, often bigoted and bullying approach to perpetuating a culture. It leads to insularity at first and baseless hatred later on and eventually culminates in whatever is today's analogue of the "destruction of the Temple".

Ah=what a wonderful person you are. You will love me and respect me even though I am wrong. And I am wonderful too. I respect you even though you are wrong. Unfortunately I am stingy with my love, so I can't say I love you, I find that the word gets bandied about in the most trivial circumstances and on banal objects, so It's almost meaningless in today's society. But I think it's fine if you go your way and I'll go mine.

Why isn't Kaplan identified as the head of Chabad in Maryland?
After all, these are the same people who produced super-crook Rubashkin! And remember: Schneerson forbade the singing of Hatikvah, so any Chabad school will not be teaching favorably about Zionism or the State of Israel. And any love for "fellow Jews" Kaplan my claim does not extend to non-Orthodox rabbis, whom he regards as illegitimate, and as spiritual frauds.

Rabbi Kaplan reveals his personal belief in his closing paragraph, professing love for his fellow Jews "no matter how wrong (or right)" he perceives them to be. I'm perplexed that a person who must have learned Talmud takes such a view. We may learn that "the halakhah is not like" the opinion of a particular Sage, but I don't recall anyone being called "wrong," even when the interpretation is a "da'at yachid" -- a singular and unique opinion not shared by others. We really can't measure who's "right" be measured by having the halakhah go like him -- even Rabbi Akiva "loses." (Heck, the Talmud even concedes that Beit Hillel "loses" to Beit Shammai a few times.)

Sure, if you set up a definition of pluralism as please-all ideology as your straw man, it's as easy as Rabbi Kaplan makes it to knock it down. What I take away from this op-ed is not a reasoned critique of pluralism, but rather that Rabbi Kaplan doesn't understand what true pluralism is, or fears it so much that he must deliberately misrerpresent it in order to dismiss it.

Opinionated is fine. Bigotted is not. You deride Reform and Conservative as accommodations and not the 'true' religious. In so doing, you forget the most important truth of Yiddishkeit. G-d loves us, warts and all. He loved us through 40 years of wandering as a stiff-necked people. But G-d requires that we love one another, are benevolent to one another, and inspire the world to act justly and in peace. We can only do this by example. Hillel got it right!

In re the use of the high school situation to approach this question: If all movements are accorded the same degree of respect at the school -- e.g., if those whose kashrut standards are stricter than others are not derided -- I don't see a problem with promoting ahavas Yisroel by allowing the students to attend school together. Jews on the extremes -- radical reformers as well as radical traditionalists -- need to see one another as human beings instead of stereotypes. If children are being raised in strongly committed homes, there's no reason why encountering other children should be avoided. Questions may arise -- what if watching Hollywood blockbuster movies are okay with some families but not with others -- but these can be worked out. After all, by the time they're in high school, many students will be exploring anyway. It's part of life. Allowing them to do their exploring in a monitored environment could prevent the "forbidden fruit" syndrome, in which teens fantasize about what it's like on the other side of the fence.

In my experience, the opportunity to explore other points of view should be embraced rather than shunned. Most often, those who engage others come away strengthened in their beliefs and practice, not weakened.

I definitely understand some of the very valid points the author makes, but as an Orthodox teacher who has taught in every branch of Jewish day school - Reform, Consevative, Modern Orthodox, Yeshiva Orthodox and Chabad, I can say that one of my best teaching experiences was at a community school. Most of the students came from Reform and Conservative feeder schools, and if they did not attend the community school, they would never have had any interaction with Orthodox Jews (like me). The school supported who I am, and wanted me to share that with the students. I was able to expose my students to my passion for Torah and Halacha. Many students, including sons and daughters of prominent Reform and Conservative rabbis, were regulars at my Shabbos table. They came to me for Shavuot and experienced late night Torah learning, as well. Where I live, there are two very successful community high schools (honestly, there aren't many, if any, Orthodox kids who go to either). By not saying, "we're right, and your Judaism is wrong" it gives students an opportunity to explore a different path that rings more true to them, thus ensuring their committment to Judaism.

In my experience as a Torah-observant Jew, pluralistic programs do not work for the Orthodox, even if the food is glatt kosher and the participants are able to daven (pray) with a mechitza (separation between men and women). The programming, though well meaning, is too liberal and open-minded. At one summer program, my teenaged daughter got a tour of a communal mikvah that was used for "transformative experiences". It was used by people who changed their status from married to divorced, girls at bat mitzvah and people who changed their gender! Oy!

As Head of the School to which Rabbi Kaplan is referring, I will take issue with his attack on pluralism by writing separately, and hope you will publish my riposte. Rabbi Kaplan claims that $20m has been spent - he is wrong by about 200%, and in the 9 years of the school's existence this investment has provided a quality of Jewish education of the highest order; money well spent on a great school. He also claims the school has closed. It has not. It is in process of combining with a Reform K-8 school, to form a new, bigger, even better, and yes pluralist institution. It is always good to get one's facts correct, and even better not to use incorrect facts as the only argument you have when making a bad case; it simply makes your case even worse. Pluralism embraces chabad, as it does every form of Judaism; apparently chabad is not so tolerant, if Rabbi Kaplan's position is the norm. I suspect he is not representative of that norm.

Not sure what Rabbi Kaplan is talking about. The community high school that opened in Baltimore is still open, albeit small, and is not closing. It is merging with a K-8 school to become a full K-12 school. Also, we have a very large and successful community/modern Orthodox day school here in Baltimore that has close to 1000 students and has been in existence for over 70 years. My children attend that school and it produces committed, passionate Jews who are ALSO accepting toward Jews who don't practice/believe the way they do.

I believe the purpose of Jewish education is not just to produce educated Jews but to produce passionate "Jews committed to the values and history of our people and our religion. Anything less is of minimal value to the future of the Jewish community."

You mean to say committed to strict rabbinic orthodox halachic observance, right? History and values ?!?! You must be either blind or willingly lying. You are essentially saying that the orthodox have he right path and we cant bring any others into the tent. No womder you are against anything that would bring people together!

"the school has closed for lack of interest"

EXACTLY!! Imagine if you were to support it along with the other orthodox rabbis in your community!! How wonderful that may have been! But no. All those kids will be raised in a bubble. Shkoyach!

"should prove conclusively the validity of holding fast to one’s values"

Maybe it just proves that if you live in a bubble and indoctrinate your kids from a young age (not allowing or encouraging any diversity) and get them married before they turn 25 and develop any sort of their own birth control of course....that orthodoxy will flourish. Again, shkoyach!!

I think if you publish an article, you should have more than "Shmuel Kaplan is a Rabbi in Maryland" .. It's important for people to know whose article they are reading. This is aside from the fact that you did not have the correct rabbis name as the author originally. It was just fixed tonight, but will it be wrong in the print edition?

The name "Shmuel Kaplan" appears at the end, but "Shmuel Herzfeld" at the start. These are two different rabbis. Based on my personal knowledge of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, it seems less likely that this is his writing.

This is NOT Rabbi Shuley Herzfeld. I am in his shiur now and he is troubled about the misprint and definitely does not agree with this article.

And therefore...what exactly? Is this your way of sticking your tongue out and saying nah nah nah nah nah..I told you so. Really? “we are right and they are wrong”...and what about all the divisions within each movement? All those shades of grey. How about divisions between Ashkenazim and Sepharadim? Between, Chassidim and Mitnagdim? Between, human hair shetel wearers and teichel weaers (before you answer read the Chofetz Chaim's Sh'ut) Seriously, I spent enough time in Yeshiva listening to Rabbanim deride the "other guy". Lighten up!