Rival Versions of Pluralistic Jewish Education

Jennifer Glaser

Pluralism differs from relativism precisely around this point concerning judgment. While pluralism embraces the idea that there is more than one form of Jewish life that is worthy—more than one way of living a Jewish life well—it also says “not everything goes.”

Because the subject of pluralism is broad and multi-dimensional, I want to begin by explaining my conception of the term. There is a difference between plurality and pluralism. Plurality points to sheer multiplicity—to there being at least two things, not merely one. These “things” might be truths, cultures, values, visions of the good, forms of Jewish life, ambitions or projects. Pluralism and relativism are two approaches to dealing with this diversity. The key difference between relativism and pluralism lies in the way these diverse elements are understood to be situated toward one another.

In a relativistic universe, each element stands alone, to be judged or justified solely by its own resources—that is, to be judged relative to its own form of life. Relativism rejects the notion of external standards, and with it, criteria that can be used to judge between systems. This rejection of standards has often been falsely identified with pluralism and led to a misdirected criticism of pluralistic Jewish education as promoting an attitude that “anything goes.” The critique rests on the false assumption that pluralism’s concern with inclusiveness means that it cannot exclude any practice a student or teacher says is “Jewish” as long as it makes sense and is meaningful for them. This is a critique of relativism, not pluralism.

Pluralism differs from relativism precisely around this point concerning judgment. While pluralism embraces the idea that there is more than one form of Jewish life that is worthy—more than one way of living a Jewish life well—it also says “not everything goes.” In a pluralist world it can be legitimate for me (who lives one way) to say to you (who lives another) “we don’t do that here.” In order to be able to invoke the plural “we” in this way, pluralism requires some degree of agreement across different Jewish lives, some notion of “things shared” among all who are considered to be “one of us.” That is to say, pluralism needs to be able to appeal to some shared standards or criteria that hold across the internal plurality of our community by virtue of which we can make judgments concerning the boundaries, or limit-positions to what we find acceptable as a whole school community (criteria that enable us to judge what is ruled “in” and what is ruled “out” for us as a whole).

In order to count as pluralism (rather than relativism) the boundaries of “one of us” apply to us as members of this group, and it is by virtue of my participation in this group that I am held accountable to the boundary conditions and standards the group imposes on itself (the norms of the community). We might say that whereas the relativist can justify their claim from the personal point of view, the pluralist needs to be able to justify their claim from the social point of view—from the perspective of the community as a whole. This is to think from the periphery, to contextualize one’s own thinking within the bounds of the community of which one is part.

This is precisely where different forms of pluralism become interesting—because different understandings of pluralism rest on different accounts of what it is we appeal to when we seek to establish the veracity of one another’s claims, set limits to what is acceptable within the community, and address emergent issues together.

Pluralistic schools need to be reflective and articulate about exactly what version of pluralism they endorse and to be consistent in communicating this within the school community. Without this articulation and modeling they neglect to educate members of their school community (staff, teachers, students and parents) toward negotiating the sheer plurality of contemporary Jewish life in an informed and principled way. That is, by not highlighting the meta-criteria, principles and standards that guide their own choices as pluralistic ones (articulating the criteria and commitments that lead them to be able to say “we do that here” or “we don’t do that here”), they run the risk of educating toward relativism rather than educating toward pluralism.

The rest of this article seeks to highlight a number of forms of pluralism that might underlie pluralistic Jewish schools, and show how each of these forms of pluralism suggests a different way in which schools determine the boundaries of Jewish diversity and justify curricular decisions. It is important to note that each of these probably manifests itself within any complex school environment—it is not a matter of choosing one in totality. But this makes it even more important to be able to identify and articulate which operating assumptions lie behind specific curriculum choices and norms laid down in the school.

Perspectival Pluralism

One common way to ground limit positions across diversity is by appeal to a set of criteria or standards or values that have global reach because they identity something in common among us as individuals. This appeal to commonality is important to many pluralists because it lets us say something—for instance, something about values—that is true for all individuals who are “one of us Jews” despite differences in our theological positions, cultures and histories. Jewish text study, Israel, mitzvot, tikkun olam, kedushah, engagement with the idea of G-d, tefillah, and Jewish values have all been seen by some as contenders for a core set of contents and concerns that Jews share across their differences. This enables a pluralistic school to set a core curriculum that all students participate in and gives saliency to such questions as “What should our ideal student know by the time they graduate?”

However, while these elements are mandatory, in a pluralistic environment there is a plurality of ways within the school community that these components might be viably expressed. This results in a kind of perspectival or cultural pluralism. We all share these elements, but the multiple ways we interpret them, how firmly we embrace them, how we express them in our lives, will differ within the plurality of who “we” are. For example, we may determine that all students attend tefillah, but provide for multiple minyanim and interpretations of tefillah within the school. We may all study Bible, but offer students some classes that teach from the perspective of literary criticism, while others focus on traditional commentaries. Within such an environment the focus remains on individual students; encountering other perspectives enriches the possibilities for their own meaning-making while allowing them to appreciate the rich diversity of the Jewish people as a whole. This is a popular approach in an American context that values individualism and sees education in terms of the flourishing of each child.

Procedural Pluralism

A second way to ground the boundaries of what is viable is by reference to who we are and what we stand for as a community. This is an anti-essentialist form of pluralism and sees community organizing as a way of arriving at agreements for a specific, historically situated, group of people. Ways of establishing limit positions might be arrived at via a deliberative process in which stakeholders in the school community seek to arrive at a negotiated set of beliefs, principles and values that express the shape of the bounded community. Procedural (negotiated) pluralistic Jewish education will always be, at least in part, a consciously political education—seeking to prepare its students to confidently take their place in the public sphere of Jewish life, developing competency in participating in the public process of interpretation and decision-making. For this kind of pluralist education to be robustly Jewish, the meta-level process of inquiry and boundary setting will need to be Jewishly informed and shaped because this is as much the “site” for education for the students as the classroom.

Approaching pluralistic Jewish education with procedural pluralism in mind will also shape what we understand the curriculum to be about. Rather than seeing text study primarily as the initiation of students into master stories, text study becomes a way of engaging students in the ongoing historically extended debates and commitments expressed within their tradition through their engagement with “the Jewish public sphere” present in our texts. Attention will be placed on how I come to articulate my own Jewish voice and negotiate its place among other voices within the tradition and classroom. Content knowledge is still important here, but it is how I put this knowledge to use that signifies growth.

Further core values are affirmed because they are seen as essential to this procedural process. Examples might include educating toward critical thinking, developing respect for diverse points of view and respect for persons, epistemological care (a care for truth) as well as moral care, a trust toward the other and a hermeneutics of trust, in which we approach the other as making sense and ask “What would it mean to really hold that point of view?”

Substantive Pluralism

Substantive pluralism extends to the meta-level of standards and forms of justification that determine our boundaries. Whereas in the other models the procedures for setting boundaries were shared across the community, in this case they may not be. The requirement that members of a pluralist community share either a core content or procedures of justification is not taken for granted. In this context, pluralistic education will focus on students and teachers living their convictions consciously among others who are living their (different) commitments and generating a deep dialogue between them that enables new responses and practices for the community to emerge. Recognition is given to the fact that a secular student and one embracing a theological framework have different ways of justifying their claims about Jewish life—ways that might not correspond in their core contents or forms of explanation. Substantive pluralism emphasizes people’s whole identities, not dividing them in such a way that makes “what is shared in common” part of the public realm while “privatizing” aspects of their Jewish life that diverge from the norm.

This form of pluralism is the most difficult to negotiate but the one that leaves students most fully feeling respected for, rather than in spite of, their differences. Thus, tefillah is not mandatory for all students (secular and religious alike), but students are educated to ask themselves “What does it mean to live my convictions on a daily basis?” and find forms of action that embody their answer. Substantive pluralism requires a negotiated curriculum that leaves space for students to pursue diverse Jewish interests. It does not mean “anything goes”—students still need to offer an account for why their choices enhance communal Jewish life rather than detract from or weaken it. The basic structure of decision-making within the school changes from either-or—your way or mine—to neither-nor—community practice is neither what you would do on your own, nor what I would do on mine, but a new set of possibilities that arise out of the dialogue between our differences.

Some thoughts about educational imperatives in pluralistic Jewish education

Certain educational imperatives are put forward in this article for the field of pluralistic education:

We need to be clear ourselves about the forms of pluralism we are employing, and to educate to them with theories in mind.

We need to attend to the relationship between the kind of pluralism we choose to employ and the conception of intellectual progress in our classes. What does it mean for our students’ knowledge, understanding and identity to grow through encountering the diversity in our classrooms (in approaches to subject matter, among students, of theories, interpretation, etc.)?

If we are to educate for pluralism we need to engage students and teachers in discussion about standards that are shared across the diversity within the community. What constitutes them? How do we justify them? How do we establish the veracity of one another’s claims and make judgments concerning the boundary conditions of the community?

Education for pluralistic community demands of us that we explicitly address the normative commitments, values, and beliefs that underlie the concepts we employ in making our evaluations. For instance, what values and beliefs underlie our own understanding of concepts such as responsibility, autonomy, tradition, Halakhah, and the place of reason in Jewish life? ♦

Dr. Jennifer Glaser is a member of the faculty at the Mandel Leadership Institute and Co-Founder and Director of the Israeli Centre for Philosophy in Education—“Philosophy for Life.” She can be reached at jen@mli.org.il.

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009