Pluralism In Practice


On With The Show: The author with her theater class before their final performance. Joy Feinberg is in the middle row, second person from the left.

“Judaism just doesn’t make sense. How can you be so intelligent and still believe in all that?”

Maybe you’re used to lines like that. But I wasn’t and I’m still not. Nor was I prepared for their source. Last summer I participated in BIMA, an innovative Jewish arts programs noted for its belief in pluralism. BIMA — Brandeis Institute for Music and Art — is a summer arts program for high school students hosted by Brandeis University.

I was —  as I’m sure most of you are — no stranger to pluralism. I participated in other Jewish events, such as NCSY Shabbatons and youth conventions, where pluralism was featured. But there’s a difference between spending a weekend in such a community and living in one for a month — a difference that would drastically change how I viewed pluralism.

Pluralism is the belief that all Jews, regardless of their level of observance, can live and work together in tolerance and peace. The belief is an appealing one and it was one I strongly believed in for many years. But at BIMA this arts program I had an experience that rocked me to my core and challenged this very ideal.

I was one of the more religious kids at BIMA. I was one of the few Orthodox ones and the only one shomeret negiah (abstaining from physical contact until marriage). I was used to being one of the more religious kids, so it never occurred to me that this could ever be a problem. I live a rather sheltered life; I attend a day school and live in Flatbush, a very Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Nearly everyone I’ve met up to now has been Jewish, understanding of or curious about Jewish beliefs.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m no stranger to diversity. My closest friends include atheists, non-Jews, and Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews. But until last summer, everyone I met was either curious to know more about Orthodoxy or simply didn’t care about it either way. So I was grossly unprepared for what was about to happen.

It was Shabbat afternoon. It was blisteringly hot outside and my “bayit,” a group of 30 kids, had been shoved inside a spartan room to discuss Jewish topics. I must have zoned out or maybe even turned around to talk to a friend because when I refocused I had no idea what to think. The discussion turned to brit milah, one of our sacred practices, and none of the words were positive.

A boy in my theater class spearheaded the conversation. I wasn’t best friends with him but I considered him a good guy, a nice guy, a friend. He sat there passionately degrading something I held sacred. “Brit milah is just a glorified form of child abuse,” he said. I felt my heart stop. How does one even respond to that?

The conversation continued, covering topics such as sexism and homophobia (I’m opposed to both), and the attacks aimed at the Orthodox. People I considered my friends loudly bashed my people, my culture, my beliefs. Statements like, “The Orthodox are so closed minded and oppressive” and “Orthodoxy gives no positive roles to women,” were tossed out indiscriminately, and each one of them was a dagger to my heart.

I said nothing. This may be, no it was, a fault on my part. But quite honestly, I was scared. Never in my life had I faced Jews so hateful toward my beliefs. All I could do was make eye contact with the only other Orthodox kid in the room and sit in silence.

What I discovered that month was that in a pluralistic community it’s OK to be Orthodox as long as you don’t rub it in other people’s faces — a view I’d support if it went both ways. I found that it was OK, it was wonderful, for kids to get up and proclaim that they don’t believe in God, that the Torah is simply someone’s fantasy, and we are supposed to laud them. We are supposed to applaud them and congratulate them on finding their own identity, on finding their own place. But if I dreamed of getting up and saying that I don’t believe in sex before marriage — well, that would be going too far.

Pluralism centers on compromise but that compromise falls mainly on the shoulders of the Orthodox. I have to support a woman wearing pants and enjoying a physical relationship even though I feel uncomfortable with both of those things. I can’t ask a Reform kid to support me in my belief in the oral Torah.

We, the Orthodox, come with the most baggage and because of that we’re asked to compromise the most. But there are some things I can’t compromise, and that is where pluralism fails.

I’ve come to think of pluralism as a lot like Communism — hear me out. In theory, both are beautiful ideas. Both work wonderfully in small settings or over short periods of time. But it’s too much to ask people to fly in the face of human nature — to expect there to be no greed, no hate, no stubbornness.

It’s nothing to expect kids to be friends with each other on a superficial you-like Harry-Potter-and-I-like-Harry-Potter kind of way, but we ask too much if we expect them to respect each other’s core religious beliefs. We come with our own beliefs, our own prejudices and our own hatreds. And it’ll take a lot more than a weekend seminar to fix all that.

So do I believe that pluralism is possible? If you’d asked me a few months ago the answer would have been a resounding yes, but now it’s much more complicated.

The topic of gay marriage came up in one of our last group discussions; all of the comments were supportive. A friend of mine, a girl who identified her observance as spiritual, got up and said, “If we expect those who don’t believe in gay marriage to tolerate it, then we have to tolerate their right to not believe in it.”

I hugged her. Because that is what pluralism is: it’s not a group of people combining beliefs. It’s a community agreeing to tolerate each other in pursuit of something better.

When I come into a pluralistic community, I shouldn’t be asked to compromise more than someone who is an atheist. We don’t have to hold the same beliefs. But we have to believe, in our heart of hearts, that what you believe is OK because it’s yours. And then pluralism can work.