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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

The Limits of Pluralism

November 4, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Our educational staff has been brainstorming to try to develop some models of seminar or retreat programs that we can offer to organized Israeli groups of adults and the general public. The most natural structure is Friday-Saturday, as many people don't work on Fridays. And since the general public and most institutions and workplaces contain a mixture of orthodox and non-observant people, we decided to plan on the assumption that the participants in our program would also be mixed. Indeed, since one of our overall goals is to foster intra-Jewish dialogue, diversity among participants seemed it should be an essential aspect of the program.

And then our brainstorm was quickly becalmed. If the program takes place over shabbat, then we cannot engage in activities that would involve violating shabbat prohibitions for the observant participants. No art projects, no excursions, a program that must be fairly static and based on study and discussion, with the possibility of enrichment by means of simulations, drama, and music (singing acapella). And time must be built into the schedule for the various tefillot - which cannot take place in parallel with any other activity, for it wouldn't be fair to make participants miss programming because of their obligation to pray.

But then what do we do with the confirmed secularist who wants neither two hours of free time on Saturday morning, nor to participate in a worship service, be it orthodox or any other flavor? Be the topic of the weekend what it may - from ecology to mysticism - the secular participants will feel they are not getting their money's worth if they feel that the program is being limited or diluted or distorted to accommodate the needs of the religiously observant.

In short, if we design a program that will be attractive to the secular public, most Israelis who define themselves as religious will look over the schedule and decline to attend; and if we design a program that takes into account the needs of the orthodox, then the vast majority of those who see themselves as secular will see the activity as an attempt to pull them toward observance, as missionizing.

Generally the approach that guides such situations is the image of the two wagons: if two wagons meet on a narrow bridge, one of them heavily laden and one empty, then the empty one backs down to make way for the full one. Thus, secular Jews (empty wagons) should make way for observant ones (who are fully laden) and accommodate to their needs regarding shabbat, kashrut, etc. Moreover, orthodox Jews do what they do out of commandedness; they cannot freely choose to abrogate the laws of shabbat. But a secular Jew feels no such commandment to abrogate shabbat, and can as freely choose to keep some observances for the sake of pluralism, for one weekend, as s/he can choose not to.

This approach, taken for granted in many settings in Israeli life, is not symmetrical, and is often a source of resentment and alienation for those who define themselves as secular Jews. It only works in cases where the particular secular participants are attracted to or looking for a traditional shabbat experience, either out of nostalgia or openness. But such cases are relatively rare.

So what is the answer? Maybe there isn't one. Maybe pluralism is OK for discussions, and for ideas, and for large scale structures like a state - but small communities and microcommunities (like a weekend retreat) cannot order their lives according to a pluralism of behavior without treading on the commitments of some and the autonomy of others.

Where does that leave our project? Stuck for the moment, inclined toward either developing weekends tailored to homogeneous groups, or planning two-day seminars for mixed groups, to be held on weekdays. In other words, the only solution we have come up with is to avoid the problem. But we haven't given up yet; we'll hope for some creative insight, and see what further deliberation will bring...


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