The notion of creating a Jewish institution characterized by a commitment to ideological pluralism is not new. As long ago as 1934, Mordecai Kaplan envisioned a “community center” that would aim “to be affirmatively Jewish without committing itself to any specific type of Jewish religion.” He believed that an organization that would strive “to unite on an equal plane all types of Jews, Orthodox, Reformist, and Conservative, believers and non-believers, Zionists and non-Zionists, the recent immigrant as well as the Americanized Jew” would be able to offer “the best that can be obtained in education, music, art, and literature.”1 Kaplan expected that this trans-denominational approach to Jewish life and learning was to become the cornerstone of Jewish communal renewal in the years after the Great Depression.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Pluralism is central to the mission and self-understanding of many community day schools. The questions of what that term means, and how it is implemented in the policies and educational practices of the school, are difficult to answer and require reflection and discussion among all stakeholders. Explore larger perspectives on, and disagreements over, pluralism and ways to approach Jewish study with pluralistic methodology.
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Buzzwords make me nervous. They make me nervous, first of all, because often it’s not clear what people mean when they use them. A buzzword often stands in for a vague cluster of values to which we are all committed, 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.
Pluralism might be the word of the day—but what version of pluralism do we aspire to? And does it matter? Isn’t simply being “a good pluralist” enough? In this article I argue that it is important to be clear about what form of pluralism we endorse because different kinds of pluralism will lead us to justify our curricula choices and structure the educational experience of our students in different ways.
Much of the conversation on Jewish education in general, and pluralist Jewish education in particular, focuses on either the science or technology of the work. In my experience however, neither a scientific approach, by which I mean that which the educators must know, nor the technological approach, by which I mean that which they must do, are the most helpful ways in which to approach and achieve a genuinely pluralist Jewish education.
Pluralism is a term that we often hear used and defined according to our own predilections and experiences. Living together with diversity is an ideal that is fraught with tensions; finding common ground requires strength, vision and a good sense of humor. This is especially true when we confront diversity in our Jewish beliefs and observances.
The mission statement of RAVSAK, the network of Jewish community day schools throughout North America and abroad, speaks to the lofty goal of “fostering authentic Jewish pluralism.” But what exactly is pluralism? Diana Eck, writing an introduction for the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, posits four points that define the term. Pluralism, she writes, “is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity…. [P]luralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” She notes that pluralism “is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments,” which means “holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” The fourth critical component, in Eck’s view, is dialogue because “the language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the ‘table’ will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table—with one’s commitments.”
What does it mean to seriously address the challenge of being a community day school? At the turn of the twenty-first century, this question of vision engaged the leadership of many of the new schools being created as well as those already in existence. A vision began to emerge of schools whose parent body represented a range of belief and practice; an institution which would allow its students to grapple with texts, issues of Jewish life and meaning, and the value and formation of community, while at the same time respecting their diversity. As that vision took hold, and as funding sources supported the building of more community schools, the question arose as to where would the teachers for such a program come from. Already there was recognition that a special kind of teacher would be needed to bring the vision to fruition.
Interview with Rami Wernik, Dean, Fingerhut School of Education
Teaching Tanakh in a pluralistic setting has all the expected complexities of teaching sacred texts and some additional ones. The first challenge is probably to have a working definition of the term “pluralism.” For these purposes I am defining pluralism as a sociological reality and as an educational philosophy. More specifically this means that the students come from diverse religious backgrounds and that I choose to engage them with Tanakh through a variety of methods and modes in order to cultivate certain habits of mind and habits of heart. An instructive way to think about pluralism and the teaching of Tanakh is to consider how pluralism affects each component of the instructional triangle: students, content and teacher.
The Hebrew term for Jewish Law is Halakhah. The term translates, literally, as “the way,” implying that there is a single way of Jewish law. Based on the name alone, one might think that in the instruction of Halakhah, the educational goal would be to convey to students a body of traditional legal literature, and that the optimal methodology would prioritize teaching the rationale and content of significant Jewish legal topics. In order to teach “the way,” we might aim to expose the students primarily to large swaths of Jewish legal codes such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Joseph Karo’s Shulkhan Arukh—sources that articulate the “best practices” of Jewish religious life—for recitation, memorization and personal application. After all, if we’re teaching the way, then we should hand it down whole cloth.
Pluralism, relativism and postmodernism have created an atmosphere that make adherence to any particular mode difficult. This is all the more true when regarding cultural lifestyles that are dissonant vis-à-vis the prevalent mores. The following discourse will describe the Orthodox Jewish community’s reaction to this challenge and its pitfalls; and consequently suggest means to alleviate the distress to some extent. Although my discussion chiefly relates to this particular world, the fact remains that all religious and cultural traditions are in dire straits; and indeed, cultural continuity itself is challenged. Therefore, although the description will be specific, the suggested prescription can be applied universally.
At RAVSAK, we believe that being a pluralistic school is an unquestionable asset. As this issue of HaYidion confirms, the challenges that rise from the diversity we promote pale in comparison to the opportunities it bestows upon our students and their families. Reflective of the authentic variations within the communities we serve, RAVSAK schools are exciting laboratories for making a better Jewish life possible for our children.
For most of the past forty years, the three Jewish day schools in MetroWest, New Jersey, had little contact with one another. (“MetroWest” is the federation area covering Essex, Morris, Sussex and Northern Union counties.) Occasionally, there would be meetings among professionals, but for the most part, the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (Modern Orthodox), Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union (Conservative), and the Hebrew Academy of Morris County (Community/RAVSAK) operated in separate spheres. Though only a short car ride apart, these three day schools might as well have been located in different parts of the country.
When it comes to Judaic studies and Jewish life on campus, every school faces a challenging balancing act between honoring Jewish heritage and celebrating Jewish difference. Honoring heritage means teaching the enduring traditions and texts of Judaism as well as Jewish history. To celebrate difference means embracing the particular stream of Judaism to which our school is connected and giving students the opportunity to analyze the significant differences that exist among these streams. Given that we live in a pluralistic world, balancing these two educational aims is necessary if our students are going to have a sense of their own Jewish identity in relation to other Jews and people of other faiths. Balancing heritage and difference is challenging because of time restraints and the nature of faculty instruction, and because honoring heritage and celebrating difference isn’t only about curricular decisions but factors into the broader culture of the school.
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