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The Lessons of Jewish Pluralism

The assertiveness of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious authorities over the country’s social life — and particularly over the role of women in the public square — has generated headlines and condemnation on the part of friends of Israel and, gleefully, from the country’s antagonists and enemies. These developments, and the potentially disastrous ever increasing growth in the number, political power and boldness of the Orthodox, should disturb, and perhaps alarm, anyone who cares about the democratic and civil libertarian character of Israel itself. Yet it is also important to correct the false impression, which the news coverage has created, that Israel and, by extension, Jews and Judaism in general are inherently intolerant.

I’ve been spending more time of late at the independent, unaffiliated synagogue Temple Beth Zion, in Brookline, Mass. It is admirably pluralistic. Mainstream Conservative in the services’ length, content and Hebraic quotient, TBZ could be called traditional in its mode of liturgical observance — the jokes of Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor” fame notwithstanding. There is certainly a thoroughly Jewish spirit in the rabbis’ tones, the congregants’ knowledgeable participation, the social justice program and the educational component for the children. TBZ also doesn’t fudge the issue of God. The rabbis are clear: No one need use the word “God.” Especially because the head rabbi does not. While the congregants are encouraged to bring their own notion of the divine, or the even more ineffable, the presence, to worship, communal life and life itself, Buddhist-inflected Judaism encourages diversity of religious conceptions, observance and practice.

The impact of modernity and the enlightenment produced a plurality of Jewish identities embodied in organized cultural subgroups. Alongside hitherto dominant though diminishing Orthodox Jewry arose Reform, Conservative and various secular cultural movements, including Yiddishism and many shades of Zionism. For all their differences, rivalries and even hostilities, they affirmed that their bonding sense of kinship within the larger community of Jews and Judaism itself seemed to expand to accommodate these different forms of identity. Thus, Jews have long been pluralistic, even if they don’t usually use this word.

I venture, though, that few non-Jews are aware of this quality of Jewish life. Yet, as important as this is, it is the other face of Jewish pluralism, how Jews regard and deal with those outside Jewish communities, that is even more significant and offers important lessons about democratic life.

Crucially distinguishing Jews and Judaism from Christians and Christianity, and from Muslims and Islam, is the fact that Jews are not proselytizing. Jews are not on a mission of seeking converts or of converting the world and saving souls according to their understanding of some divine plan. Many Jews believe that their path to God — or their communion with the presence — is the right way, even the best or true path. But they are content to let all others, namely people of other faiths and cultures, find their chosen paths. Indeed, it is not easy for non-Jews to convert to Judaism, because the requirements for doing so, in time and learning, are substantial. Christianity and Islam are decidedly different. As proselytizing religions, each one foresees a world in which every person accepts its respective way. In maintaining that all people should join their one true faith, each one is nonpluralistic toward people of other religions — though there are many important exceptions to this within both liberal Christianity and Islam — sometimes consigning others to hell, either in the afterlife or in this one.

Contemporary Jews and Judaism in this view become a quintessentially democratic people and religion. Even in Israel, with all the serious and growing problems regarding pluralism internal and external to the Jewish community, they remain so. The context of acute conflict that has characterized the entire existence of Israel is usually one that produces intolerance for minority groups and calls for purging society of alien or divergent social and cultural groups and dispensations. It is a tribute to the democratic character of Israel, which, powerful pragmatic considerations aside, is in no small measure grounded in this pluralistic aspect of Jewish self-understanding. There has been no call for the end to Islam or Christianity within Israel, no persecution of people because of religious differences, no serious proposal that the Jewish state be exclusively populated by Jews. Israel’s Muslim and Christian citizens are free to be Muslims or Christians. The conflict over statehood with the Palestinians outside Israel is a national conflict and not about religion or pluralism.

So, as another facet of Israel’s complexity, let us applaud and support the forces within Israel and within Jewish communities the world over that celebrate pluralism and that combat the increasing intolerance within Jewish communities. And let us hold out the deep democratic impulses and complementary pluralism of Judaism regarding peoples external to the Jewish community as the model for others that it deserves to be.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is the author of “Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity” (PublicAffairs, 2009), which is the basis of a Public Broadcasting Service documentary of the same name. His work can be read at

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