Pluralistic to a Fault

As Jews of the modern world, we love to flaunt our pluralism. We love pluralistic yeshivot, pluralistic day schools, pluralistic Shabbat dinners and pluralistic summer camps. Reform Jews learn Torah next to Reconstructionist ones, and Modern Orthodox Jews break challah with challah with Humanistic ones. All is seemingly well among pluralistic members of the pluralistic Tribe, yes?

Having just come out of a very pluralistic setting (summer camp), I am conflicted as to the pros and cons of Jewish pluralism. We enshrine it to be the answer to all of our “tribal conflicts” and traditional guilt over our particular stream of Jewish exceptionalism, but I remain somewhat unconvinced. No doubt, I loved participating in activities with Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs. Our diversity contributed to the richness of discussion and made for some great learning experiences. There’s no disputing that.

That said, this very pluralism sometimes detracted from what were supposed to be learning experiences. Shabbat had very little that was “Shabbostik” about it when there was no traditional communal singing, people were allowed to (albeit discreetly) use their phones, and creative writing on secular topics was a public activity on Saturday afternoon. When trying to accommodate everyone’s level of religious observance, the authenticity and-- dare I say it?-- tradition of our shared religion was lost in the mix.

Granted, in private and with friends, individuals were (and should) be able to do whatever they want. After all, who am I to dictate what you do in your spare time in summer camp? Campers should have free will during Shabbat free time-- which, let’s face it, is most of Shabbat. But the pervading secular feel made it hard to believe that I was on a Jewish program. When Shabbat is made “optional,” so is Jewish culture and tradition.

In a group of 150+ people, I was stunned when only four (only two of which were men) came to optional Monday shacharit. Has Judaism just become a burden? Has it become terribly “optional,” even when surrounded by Jews?

You can’t force people to go to davening. But if that’s the case, you can’t force people to put their phones away during Shabbat lunch either. I know, I know-- mandatory davening is often a drag and can, unfortunately, really turn people off prayer. But, then, why not make prayer pluralistic, like the program is supposed to be? Why not have many pluralistic mandatory davening options? Why not make pluralism still feel Jewish?

Maybe I’m old fashioned. But I like to think of myself as Modern Orthodox, a contradiction in terms. The “modern” in “Modern Orthodox” is an acceptance of pluralism, while the “orthodox” is a push for observance, to whatever degree and in whatever way the individual sees fit.

Pluralism is, after all, a boon. In a group of people so talented and vibrant yet so fragmented, we need opportunities to interact with and learn from “the Other,” that “Other” here being our fellow co-religionists. But I bemoan Jewish pluralism’s lack of authenticity. As soon as we make our holidays and traditions into an “optional” burden, devoid of pluralistic joy and pluralistic cell phones, we take the genuine “Jewish” out of “Jewish pluralism.”