The Integrity of Pluralism

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
May 20, 2016 / 12 Iyyar, 5776

The Integrity of Pluralism and the Necessity for a Single Voice: A Defense of the Conservative Movement

One of the complaints occasionally levied at the Conservative movement is that it doesn’t stand for anything. It is an argument sometimes made of the center in general. Part of that confusion is that the center is always a place of great pluralism. Rather than seeing that as a place of strength, nuance or tremendous creative energy, people sometimes imagine that the center is a place where those without conviction reside. Thus, when the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards released two different legal opinions, one permitting gay unions and another maintaining the traditional understanding of passages in Vayikra, the media had a field day.

This was not an example of a movement without conviction, but the very opposite. Friends, colleagues and scholars of our tradition read the Bible and the codes and came to vastly different conclusions. They were, for the most part, civil. Each side maintained their commitments while maintaining the conversation.

It is a rare ability to hold vastly different opinions and still remain in friendly relationship with others. I believe being able to do so is a sign of maturity, emotional generosity and intellectual humility.

Our Ritual Committee is currently studying a similar issue, concerning the permissibility of non-Jews opening the ark. From a legal perspective, this is a fascinating topic, because historically, petichat ha-aron, ark opening, is barely mentioned in our legal tradition. There is no clear series of precedents to teach us about the meaning of opening the ark. While law may sometimes be written in a dry manner, it is speaking about our values, what they mean to us and how we will protect them.

A couple of years back, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved two dissenting opinions, one permitting a non-Jew to open the ark, the other arguing from a religious-aesthetic sensibility that it seems highly inappropriate to allow this.

Both were approved. What that means, in effect, is that each congregation, as led by their posek, their legal decisor, must determine its own set of commitments. Each must discover its own sense of integrity by weighing competing values and by accepting the important limitations that law creates in our lives. At the local level, in other words, our actions and our policies sometimes need to speak with a single voice.

For CNS, we will need to think about how we highly value inclusion, and simultaneously recognize that in a world where anyone who wishes can choose to become Jewish, certain sacred privileges must be earned. We’ll have to ponder what the significance of the bima and the ark are to us and what they symbolically communicate. We may need to ask ourselves if there is a difference between a guest and a regular attendee.

Into that already complex mix, we also ought to make a judgement about the quality of legal reasoning marshaled for each opinion separate and apart from what our personal values dictate. If we accept bad law just because we like a certain decision, we can rest assured that other bad decisions with which we disagree will be waiting in the wings. Bad law weakens the system as a whole. It cheapens it. It makes us partisans of causes rather than champions of justice.

This dedication to pluralism, and to trusting individuals and congregations to come to well-informed decisions, is one of the deeply held values of Conservative Judaism. It is what we all have in common in our big tent movement. This is a type of trust that values local and democratic processes.

There is, nonetheless, another area of endeavor where pluralism must give way to finding a singular voice. This is in the realm of the prophetic or political where we attempt to apply Jewish values in a non-legal setting, or transfer them into a secular setting. I am thinking at this moment of the  RA’s (Rabbinical Assembly’s) slate of resolutions.

On Sunday I fly to New York for the RA’s convention. These conventions are important opportunities for professional development, maintaining or developing relationships with colleagues around the country and addressing the business of our national rabbinic organization. Part of that business is adopting a series of Resolutions that rabbis have the opportunity to vote on.

This year’s slate included resolutions on: the Burmese Genocidal Treatment of the Rohingya Minority, support for Syrian Refugees, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), on American Gun Violence, Affirming the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People, a Resolution Against Anti-Muslim Bigotry and for Jewish-Muslim Dialogue and several other topics besides.

Given the importance of taking stands on the moral dilemmas of the day, and the difficulty of establishing language that everyone can agree with, these resolutions are subject to members’ votes. I will look forward to hearing the results and hope to share some reflections with you on my return.

Until then, let me wish you a Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D


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