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The Limitations of Liberal Pluralism

I had an opportunity last weekend to take a mental snapshot of the Jewish liberal species at Limmud New York, a learning conference held at the Friar Tuck Convention Center in Catskill, N.Y. Of some 900 people present for the beautifully organized smorgasbord of presentations on religious, political and other topics, I was probably one of about five Republicans. I was also among the 100 or so speakers.

The slogan of the multi-denominational event, a four-day party for Jewish intellectuals, was “Jewish Learning Without Limits.” The buzzword was “pluralism,” but what stood out was the limitations of liberal tolerance.

Don’t misunderstand. I was greatly impressed by the courtesy and graciousness of the Limmud staff. And of everyone else too — except when the subject turned to incendiary matters, like whether Judaism has a special claim on truth.

Many Jews find it intolerable to be told that their religion is true. In a speech I gave called “Tribe or Truth?”, I made the case that Judaism is better understood not as a mere ethnic affiliation, but as a plausible statement defining the deepest truths about God and the universe.

During the question-and-answer period, a woman objected by a curious logic that this made me seem “like a Catholic.” Another woman said, “You sound like a fundamentalist Christian.”

In another presentation, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Real Reasons,” many in the audience were troubled at my conclusion that the strongest Jewish objection to Jesus centers on Christianity’s voiding of the terms of God’s covenant with the Jews. About the eternality of that covenant, comprising the Torah’s 613 commandments, the Hebrew Bible is unambiguous.

I asked, then, what if Jesus reappeared tomorrow for our fresh consideration as a charismatic teacher? Would Jews reject him again?

A man in the front row loudly interrupted me, “You’re off-topic!” I pressed on politely, noting that the nature of our covenant with God is not widely grasped in the contemporary Jewish community. In Jewish news, after all, a top recent story is the Conservative rabbinic seal of approval on gay unions, in contravention of the Torah’s clear intent.

The grumpy man huffed again, “You’re off-topic!”, and stormed out of the room. If I had stuck to a liberal script, you can be sure he would have remained quietly seated.

In the question-and-answer that followed, a woman nearly burst into tears. She was offering her comment that, as an educator, she would never expose her students to my thoughts on Jesus. Why? Because, she explained, I seemed to imply a criticism of certain Jewish denominations.

What does it say about an ideological stance — such as pluralism — whose exponents not infrequently respond to critiques by getting upset and flying off the handle?

Of course, there are exceptions. Over bottles of Corona at Limmud, I had a great conversation with a thoughtful Reform rabbi who parried my challenges with good nature and ease. But on the whole, Jewish liberalism seems a most delicate and fragile belief system.

The “pluralistic” embrace seems to extend over a very narrow bandwidth of views, comfortably hearing only opinions that make no claim of capital-t Truth. Unfortunately there are sociological ramifications of denying, as a religion, that you have the truth. For example, it becomes devilishly hard to convince the young that they should commit themselves to marrying exclusively within that religion’s confines.

In fact, to wed a non-Jew is exactly what kids raised in the liberal Jewish denominations, Reform and Conservative, are being prepared for by their upbringings.

That’s what another Limmud heretic apparently wished to convey to fellow participants by leaving, on a table in the cavernous dining hall, a pile of handouts reproducing a research article presented last year by statisticians Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz at a Harvard symposium.

An accompanying chart showed that, given current intermarriage and reproduction rates, a cohort of 100 Reform Jews within four generations will be reduced to only 10 Jews. A group of 100 Conservative Jews will be reduced to 29. A group of 100 Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, will increase in four generations either to 434 or 3,401, depending on whether they are “Centrist Orthodox” or “Hasidic/Yeshiva Orthodox.”

In other words, while pluralism sounds noble, its practical effect is to act as a powerful acid on the existence of future generations.

By that measure, Limmud New York, while conceived as a celebration of Jewish life, might more appropriately have been expressed as an act of mourning for what liberalism will do to our future. Rather than a party, a funeral.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of the forthcoming “Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril” (Doubleday).

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