Threefold Pluralism: Response by Simon Klarfeld
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise, one who learns from everyone, as it is said “From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99). Pirkei Avot 4:1
Pluralism is not just a modus operandi—a system to incorporate or include heterogeneous voices, or expressions and beliefs under a single umbrella. Neither is it simply a way to allow disparate groupings of individuals to come together, or a pragmatic methodology to allow a community to function. Rather, pluralism is a lofty goal in and of itself. It means seeking love or at least respect among people with significant differences, not stopping at merely tolerating each other.
Therefore, if we fundamentally believe in the Torah having many faces, the multiple ways in which Judaism is interpreted and embodied are all valid. Are we therefore willing to oppose “orthodoxy”—the notion that there is a singular right or correct path that is known? And furthermore, must we then embrace the idea that true knowledge is evasive and that truth is unknown in all certainty to human beings? What does that mean for our institutions, philosophy and pedagogy?
Pluralism requires a commitment to providing authentic role models for our students. For an educator to speak with knowledge, compassion and empathy “on behalf of” someone else’s Jewish experience and outlook is at best shallow and insufficient and at worst patronizing and insulting. Therefore, the question we must ask is, Can we train educators in pluralistic settings to teach and facilitate all faces of Torah so that all our students and their families feel represented in what and how our institutions are expressing?
In order to begin to answer the call to a truly pluralistic community school, we must ask ourselves a series of questions: Who owns the community? Who is in and who is out? Who sets the parameters of community? How often do those values and parameters need to be re-examined?
Given the growing diversity of Jewish expressions and identifications among today’s families, we must also ask ourselves, how broad a pluralistic community do we want to create—for the atheists, non- or anti-Zionists, for those committed to practicing elements of both Judaism and Islam or Christianity? What are the boundaries of the community or limits to the pluralism of our institutions?
The primary challenge facing the pluralistic school, therefore, is to answer the question: Can we create a clear, pluralistic set of Jewish values and teachings that can form the basis of the day school curriculum (and all of our communal institutions)? If not, whose values will dominate and whose will be undermined? If these articulated shared values are so vague in order to create “buy in” from as broad a constituency as possible, what in essence are we stating we believe or stand for? Without definition—without clarity—these values become merely bumper-stickers and not an ethos by which to live and build community. ♦
Simon Klarfeld is Executive Director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.