By Rabbi Josh Weinberg March 5, 2021 – כ”א אדר תשפ”א
Parashat Ki Tissa – פרשת כי תישא
Shabbat Parah – שבת פרה
As the landmark Supreme Court verdict arrived this past Monday officially recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions in the State of Israel, our movement celebrated and saw this as a huge step in creating a more equitable and pluralistic society.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. The Haredi parties accused us of dividing the people and causing irreparable damage to the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
We might ask ourselves: What are the limits of pluralism today? Does pluralism mean that anything goes? Does pluralism mean that we must be accepting of everyone and everything that they do?
Herein lies the philosophical question of pluralism. We celebrate the Supreme Court victory as one small but significant step towards greater pluralism in Israel and, towards a society that views all as equal. But how can it be truly pluralistic when some claim that one group’s existence is an offense and a challenge to another group?
One of the challenges in the State of Israel is that everyone is competing for control in the public space and one person or group’s behavior can become a threat to another’s way of life or existence. For instance, if a woman walks down the street in Manhattan wearing a kippah – some may do a double-take, but for many others, she is just another “passerby” on the street. However, if she were to do the same thing in Jerusalem (even worse, in Bnei Brak) it would be considered a serious provocation, and it is easy to confuse public indifference for one’s behavior as somehow acceptance for it, as long as it is not threatening anyone else.
In his discourse on pluralism in “Hilchot Pluralism,” Professor Ben Dreyfus explains the limits of pluralism:
“For example, during a past controversy over the Jerusalem gay pride parade, supporters of the parade were accused of hypocrisy. The argument went something like this:
‘You liberals claim to be about pluralism and tolerance, but by having this parade, you’re being intolerant of people who believe that homosexuality is wrong.’
The fallacy in this argument is that the anti-parade position was anti-pluralistic and therefore did not warrant pluralistic protections. If the parade organizers had forced Haredim to engage in gay sex, this would indeed have been intolerant and non-pluralistic. However, the Haredi objections were directed at the very existence of the parade. No one can be expected to go out of existence in the name of pluralism. If the opponents of the parade want to maintain this anti-pluralistic position, they forfeit the right to use pluralism in support of their position.”
True, pluralism is about seeing the same facts, data, and experience from different perspectives, coming to different conclusions and permitting all to exist simultaneously without interference. Perhaps an example from this week’s Torah portion is instructive.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֵ֥ין קוֹל֙ עֲנ֣וֹת גְּבוּרָ֔ה וְאֵ֥ין ק֖וֹל עֲנ֣וֹת חֲלוּשָׁ֑ה ק֣וֹל עַנּ֔וֹת אָנֹכִ֖י שֹׁמֵֽעַ׃
“But he answered, “It is not the sound of the tune of triumph, or the sound of the tune of defeat; It is the sound of song that I hear!” (Exodus 32:18)
Moses’ response to Joshua is one of the more poetic and beautiful lines in the entire Torah. To listen to a possible war cry and the cacophony of unruly Israelites left alone and leaderless at the foot of the mountain and hear it as the sound of song is remarkable. How many of us have listened to the roar of a protest, the rumble of a riot, or the din of a demonstration, and sighed with an acute awareness that this is music to our ears.
Then things take a turn for the worse. Moses approaches the people of Israel, sees the molten monstrosity they created, and reacts violently and with sheer intolerance:
“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.” (Exodus 32:19-20)
Moses’ reaction to this disgraceful sight of an interim physical deity (not a foreign God incidentally – for more on that see Israel Knohl’s The Divine Symphony p. 80-81) displayed his outrage at an act that crossed every red line of ancient Israelite religion and civilization. Not a tolerant response nor a pluralistic one.
What if that happened today?
If Moses showed up to a group of Jews praying with a Golden Calf, it could go something like this:
Moses: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???”
Ploni: “Who us? Oh, it’s a creative service…”
Moses: “A What?”
Ploni: “Yeah, we were all asked to think about our image of what God was like, and one thing led to another, and a few of us wanted to channel our creative juices, and this is what we ended up making.”
Moses: “This is an abomination! What have you done? You have brought such great sin upon us!”
Almoni: “Hey, hey, I’m sensing a little hostility. Who are you to tell us how we can and cannot pray?”
Ploni: “Yeah, this really makes us feel good, and this is how we connect. We know it’s not the traditional way of praying, but we kind of think that the old way is, well, a bit outdated, so we wanted to try something new, and this is basically how most people do it now.”
Almoni: “Well, we were taught to be pluralistic and inclusive and to not be so judgmental of other people’s practice and ways of connecting, and we think that you’re really judging us, and not in a positive or supportive way.”
Of course, this example is imaginary and hyperbole, but you get the idea. Our challenging question is this: What are the limits of pluralism? Where is the boundary between tolerance and license?
Johann Herder and Giambattista Vico, (two thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment,) describe pluralism this way: “… the conception that there are many different ends that [people]may seek and still be fully rational.”
True pluralism is when different people or groups, using the same process of rationality, arrive at different conclusions about moral and political values simply because of the complexity of human experience. Here’s the kicker: both of those conclusions are intelligible and rational even if one’s conclusion is abhorrent to the other.
Pluralism does not mean that anything goes.’ We need red lines. Professor Gil Troy once quipped that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is “so busy drawing red lines they can’t see blue and white anymore.” That said, the Chief Rabbinate having many red lines doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any of our own. A community needs boundaries. When it is limitless or amorphous, a community ceases to have definition. We do need to take a firm stand and draw lines in the sand and not be afraid to say that some things are beyond the pale. I’ll let you decide what those are.