The Paradox of Unity and Pluralism
K'lal Yisrael means the unity of the Jewish people. The Jewish people are extremely diverse, with a rainbow of cultures, ethnicities, traditions, and of course religious practices. How can we be both united and pluralistic?
I was privileged to participate in the bi-annual Synagogue Council of Massachusetts Unity Mission to New York on November 9th and 10th to explore these issues. We were a group of about 30 representing modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated congregations (I was the lone Reconstructionist), as well as three people from Haifa, and two young rabbis who joined us once we arrived in New York.
We visited five sites on the trip. Our first stop was at the Academy for Jewish Religion, which is a pluralistic seminary. We went to Yeshiva University to learn about Orthodox Judaism, and followed that up the next morning by visiting the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which is pushing the envelope of how Orthodox Judaism can expand and embrace the role of women. Hebrew Union College, the home of the Reform seminary, was next, and we concluded the mission at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is where Conservative rabbis are trained.
In addition to the site visits and discussions with our hosts, there were several opportunities for us to get to know each other better through sharing our stories - our Jewish journeys, working on exercises (e.g., reading a quote about Shabbat and trying to figure out which denomination expressed that point of view), and de-briefing after each site visit and at the conclusion of the Mission.
A Reform rabbi and a rabbinic student from Hebrew College say a quiet shehechinyanu with Shlomit, one of our visitors from Haifa, who is putting on tefillin for the first time in her life during early morning davening at an Orthodox shul.
The Synagogue Council asked each site to share a teaching with us using text, and the schedule was arranged so that we had a prayer service in each community. This structure addressed the paradox of unity and pluralism. Regardless of the extent of traditional ritual observance, each of the denominations approached Jewish text in a fundamentally similar way, even while tailoring the message in somewhat different ways (for example, the Reform speaker used text to convey a theme of environmentalism embedded in Torah). As for the prayer services (when praying three times a day, you can fit a lot of different experiences in!), there were of course substantial differences between the Orthodox and Reform approaches, but the underlying liturgy was the same. However our practices might vary, we are bound together by thousands of years of Jewish written sources and codified prayers.
On the long bus rides, we shared our Jewish journeys with each other. This Mission was the latest step in my Jewish journey. I have always believed strongly in the principle of K’lal Yisrael, as well as the principle of egalitarianism. The challenge for me has been the "red lines" - what happens when the values of pluralism and of egalitarianism clash? One red line is that I cannot accept a practice that does not treat women and gay people as fully equal, which makes Orthodox Judaism extremely difficult (impossible?) for me to observe.
During our visit to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which is also the home of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, we met the inspiring Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leader who is pushing the envelope of egalitarianism within Orthodox Judaism. This gave me great hope for finding common ground.
The most dazzling text study occurred at our visit with Rabbi David Hoffman at JTS. Our group actually took him off topic to discuss how to reach unaffiliated Jews, and he managed to connect this theme to the story in the text. Here was another source of common ground: regardless of our denomination, from chavurah to Chabad, we all have an interest in creating a language of meaning, spirituality, and connection that meets people where they are.
The Unity Mission was an amazing and intense experience, and I would highly recommend it to others. It is transformative to learn how we can be diverse and unified at the same time.
Craig Schneider, President
Hillel B’nai Torah, West Roxbury
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