The Conspiracy

Can We Achieve Pluralism at Hillel?

As the Religious Chair of a small-ish sized Hillel at Miami University of Ohio, I hear the word “pluralism” frequently.  And I too am guilty of branding our Hillel as pluralistic.  “We have a pluralistic minyan,” I tell prospective students.  But despite my dependency on the term, I question whether a pluralistic minyan is possible, or merely an unattainable ideal.

Is Pluralistic Judaism possible with so many diverse beliefs existing?

Is Pluralistic Judaism possible with so many diverse beliefs existing?

Fortunately, I am not forced to deal with this question head-on very often, since Miami is home to a grand total of zero Orthodox Jews (although a few have graduated in recent years).  It is much easier to bridge the gap in Shabbat services between Jews with Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative backgrounds.  But even this is not easy–some Jews went to camp and sang Debbie Friedman melodies in their youth, some are familiar with traditional davening, while some are only comfortable with English, and still others kvetch over not hearing this or that tune for Lecha Dodi or Adon Olam.  Nonetheless, a minyan consisting of egalitarian Jews is not overly difficult to organize on a college campus. But is this minyan pluralistic?

What happens if you consider the non-egalitarian, typical Orthodox Jew?  Can Miami’s Hillel service still be considered pluralistic if they cannot pray with us?  Unfortunately, I don’t believe so.  If someone is excluded, then pluralism has failed.  An egalitarian minyan, therefore, cannot be pluralistic while non-egalitarian Jews exist.  Orthodox services are similarly restricted to certain participants, and even though all forms of Jews are permitted to attend their service, many do not feel spiritually able to be an active participant in an Orthodox minyan.  So pluralism is a useless term, in my mind.  The pluralistic ideal that many communities strive for is an unattainable goal.  But I would also say that ideals in Hillels across America are relative.  Each college campus and each Hillel has their own ideal service structure and community based on the student body makeup and resources available to them.

At Miami, I don’t believe we have yet reached that ideal, but we are headed in the right direction.  From struggling to make a Friday night minyan three years ago, we now regularly have over 50 people at Shabbat.  This has been a result of what you could consider a “progressive-traditional” style of prayer.  We include many traditional elements, but utilize various non-traditional songs, English readings, and different prayer leaders in order to add a variety of elements to our service for the different backgrounds of Jewish students at Miami.  We are not by any means an ideal Hillel, nor are we a pluralistic Hillel in the true sense of the word, but we are certainly striving to be the ideal Miami Hillel!

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7 Older Responses to “Can We Achieve Pluralism at Hillel?”

  1. Benjamin Resnick
    February 14, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Well said. I often feel that as liberal-minded Jews our tendency to hold out “pluralism” as a positive religious value is a mistake. Pluralism is, I would argue, best understood as a state of political affairs in which different interests coexist peacefully within the same polity (which is certainly a laudable goal), but not as a religious value around which we should model our communities. For those of us deeply committed to egalitarian Jewish life, the systematic oppression of women in the context of religious life is something we must not tolerate.

  2. Harpo Jaeger
    February 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Benjamin, I respectfully disagree. Obviously a woman was raised Orthodox but later on wishes to join an egalitarian community should not be denied that right by anyone, Orthodox or not. But we also don’t get to deny her the right to pray in a non-egalitarian service if she wishes. In other words, not all Orthodox women are oppressed.
    Furthermore, I think there’s substantial benefits to a pluralistic community. People are exposed to different traditions and approaches to the faith, which informs their opinions. Furthermore, it teaches us to live alongside and respect people who are different from us, which is valuable in many parts of life.

  3. Alex Howie
    February 14, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Benjamin, I agree with you in the sense that pluralism is something that should remain in the realm of politics, even incorporating inter-faith discussions, but not into the realm of religious communities themselves.
    However, I would never label Orthodox Jews as “systematically oppressing women.” Orthodox Judaism is based on cultural and society norms and values that differ from Western societal standards, but it should not be treated as less valid and should not be something we don’t tolerate, just as we should continue to tolerate Asian and Muslim sub-cultures in America. All those peoples have the right to leave their respective societies (although I realize they are often pressured not to and disadvantaged if they do), and we should respect their decision to stay if they so choose.

  4. Paul Saiger
    February 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Alex, I would respectfully suggest that your article reflects a misunderstanding of what pluralism means. No religious service can or should be pluralistic. Each service is a reflection of a series of choices that have been made: more or less Hebrew; traditional or innovative liturgy; one set of melodies versus another set of melodies; mixed or separate seating; women being called for aliyot or not – the list goes on and on. However, whichever choices are made the service then has a distinct and singular personality that reflects a particular set of choices based on beliefs and priorities. So, what then is pluralism? Pluralism is the stance of the institution, in this case Hillel, that encourages, promotes and values a variety of different options and possibilities. Hillel is an institution that refuses to favor one stance over another. Rather, it seeks: 1) to encourage students and others to create and support an approach to Judaism that meets their needs; and 2) insists as an institution that the widest variety of such approaches be affirmed, promoted and respected. Hillel does not seek to find a common (pluralistic) denominator that meets the needs of the greatest number of people. Rather it seeks to help students find their own approach. In a place like Athens Ohio there may not be a critical mass of Jewish students that will allow for two or three or four simultaneous services and it may be important to find a compromise solution for how to have services that accomodate the needs of most students. However, this should not be confused with pluralism.

  5. David Zarmi
    February 17, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Great article. Thought provoking. I had this experience in Milwaukee – I am Orthodox and thought, well, why not try to get involved with Jews on the UWM campus? So I went to a couple of Hillel events. One was Froday night thing, but I couldn’t make kidush before I got there. No wine or grape juice. But she (the head of the Hillel there) did manage to find an open box of stale matsa for me. A canoe trip went better. But I think Paul has something there – we need to be realistic – if I’m the only orthodox guy at UWM (I know of only a handful of others in the past 10 years), I can’t expect them to have kosher food or even events that speak to me. What Hillel stands for, in pluralism, is kind of like a good college campus. If you have an idea or a group, they will support you. So if I wanted to organize a kosher Friday night dinner, and especially if I had a couple of others who kept kosher, they would have tried to accomodate me and let me use their space. And that’s a kind of pluralism. Hillel in Los Angeles has Orthodox, egalitarian Conservative and egalitarian Reform minyanim. Everything’s kosher because while Orthodox can’t eat non-kosher the other folks are not religiously opposed to kosher. But everyone mingles in the cafe and student lounges. So that’s pluralism as well. It doesn’t mean we all have to pray together, but we do all have to engage each other and live together to some extent or another (withdrawing to our dorm rooms and apartments when we need to).

  6. Deepak
    December 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    Amy: One could also argue that, over the past two centuries, a dsicinttive “American people” and “American culture” has in fact grown and taken root, and that the opportunity for this pluralistic ideal has passed Hmm I’m not so sure, Rob. Ever been to the Mid-West and hung out in Amish/Mennonite country? Been to the Hassidic area of New York City? Chinatown in any large city? We are living the pluralism and that drives other cultures a bit bonkers. Al-Quida usually relies on local operatives to carry out their mission. 9/11 required the importation of operatives. Other than a few literal nut cases, most Islamic immigrants have few complaints about their new home. (And in part it is because we are far more religious than our European counterparts.)And do you remember immediately after 9/11? Ultra Texan George Bush came out with speech specific urging Americans to look at Muslims as fellow Americans. I don’t recall us torching Islamic places of worship, which given the circumstances, was probably a reaction that the planners of 9/11 were hoping for. (I’m sure there were a few nutballs cases here and there my focus is on the mass reaction.) By the way, did you know that the headquarters of a large American Islamic association is in rural Indiana?? So gunslinger George W Bush has figured out pluralism. So has rural Indiana.And for all Europe’s enlightenment I don’t think they’ve figured out how to handle multi-culturism. Immigrants from muslim countries are usually afforded 2nd class status in most European countries. I’m convinced the reason that Sweden and Germany are clamping down on homeschooling is that they are plain old scared of the immigrants coming through their doors. They literally are trying to stamp out parallel societies , which are of course Muslim. Thus, every child has to go to school to make them German/Swedish, etc. On the whole, it is not surprising that Americans have come the furthest in embracing ideas like homeschooling. Most of us are so used to looking at the patch work that makes up our society (even in here in lily white VT) that we forget that many cultures in one place is a somewhat foreign notion to much of the planet. (Canada, Mexico, and much of South America can relate to our experience.) That we have common language and simple common culture (Americans always seem to get seen as the idiots) is just a requirement to make pluralism work. It’s like Jazz music is improvised over a common bass line and time signature. Without those common ties, it all descends into chaos, rather than music.Anyway, I guess I’d rather see the sun as rising, rather than setting on us as a country. I see us as living pluralism in the now (and doing it arguably better than Europe) than a time that has past us by.

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