world council of churches

A Jewish Experience of Religious Pluralism
Elliot N. Dorff

As a person

I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (U.S.A.), a city at that time of about a million inhabitants of whom only 20,000 were Jewish. There were no private Jewish schools in Milwaukee at the time, and, in any case, my parents would not have sent me to one because they were committed to the clear goal of second-generation American Jews, of integrating themselves and their children into the larger American society. As a result, I attended public schools, and from my earliest years I remember interacting with Christian children.

At the same time, my parents, like most of their peers, were interested in making sure that their children knew that they were Jewish and the meaning of that identity. Therefore, my public school studies during the day time were supplemented by religious school for six hours a week, Jewish summer camps, and during my teenage years, a Jewish youth group. The message that all this conveyed to me and my contemporaries was that we needed to be distinctly Jewish and yet clearly American - which, at that time, unambivalently meant melding into the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant melting pot. As a result, we Jews faced the issues of pluralism each and every day of our lives.

As a small minority within a large, Christian majority, though, this was easier said than done. Do you date a Christian? Do you eat non-kosher food when going out with your Jewish and non-Jewish friends to non-kosher restaurants (which they all were)? Do you go to the high school basketball game on Friday night in violation of the Jewish Sabbath? Do you seek to be a member of the team? Do you stay out of school on Jewish holy days? If these were ongoing problems, "the December Dilemma" made matters even worse. American Jews have emphasized a relatively minor Jewish festival, Hanukkah, simply because they need something to identify publicly as Jews during the Christmas season.

These issues still persist for American Jews. In those American cities like Los Angeles, where I live, new waves of immigrants from South Africa, Iran, Russia, and especially, Latin America and Asia have made the experience of pluralism all the richer for me and my children. At the same time, the acceptance of Jews into the American mainstream has produced intermarriage rates as high as 75% in some American cities, and that is a major problem for Jews. As Jews are only 2% of America's population and only 0.2% of the population of the world (in contrast to Christians, who constitute a full third of the world's population), high intermarriage rates threaten the very existence of the Jewish people in the future. This is especially worrisome in light of recent statistics that indicate that fully 90% of children of intermarried families are not being raised as Jews. Thus "continuity" is the number-one agenda item for the contemporary Jewish community - an ironic result of acceptance. As some have put it, we Jews have been able to survive persecution of the worst sort through the centuries, but we may not be able to survive acceptance and freedom.

As a Religious Person

Jewish sources long ago took the position that God's covenant with Israel, demanding obedience to 613 commandments, was limited to Jews. All non-Jews, though, do God's will if they simply abide by the seven commandments in the covenant given, according to rabbinic tradition, to all children of Noah; namely, the six negative commandments prohibiting murder, adultery/incest, idolatry, blasphemy, tearing a limb from a living animal, and theft, and the seventh, positive commandment requiring the establishment of a system of justice. Thus throughout the centuries Jews have not sought converts, for conversion to Judaism was not necessary for God's approval of "salvation". In fact, since Jews were subject to many additional demands and persecution besides, rabbis would discourage potential converts. Now, because of the demographic problems noted above, Conservative and Reform rabbis no longer discourage potential converts, and some have even argued that we should actively seek to convert at least those non-Jews who marry Jews.

Pluralism has also become a hotly-debated issue within the Jewish community. In North America, there are four Jewish movements. The Orthodox believe that Jewish law is binding and changing, and some reject any form of modernity. Conservative (Masorti) Jews believe that Jewish law is binding but that both Jewish beliefs and Jewish practices have evolved over time and should continue to do so in our day in ways that are approved by the rabbinate and laity acting as a coordinated Jewish community. This integration of Judaism with modernity is, according to Conservative Jews, the historically authentic way in which Judaism has operated in the past and should continue in our day so that the tradition will, on the one hand, continue to shape our lives and yet, on the other, respond to modern needs and sensitivities. Reconstructionist Jews believe that the entire tradition was created by human beings, that its ritual practices are thus "folkways" that are completely in the hands of contemporary Jews to modify, and that contemporary Jews should continue the process of adjusting Jewish beliefs and practices to contemporary needs and sensitivities. Reform Jews believe strongly in personal autonomy, as each and every Jew decides how to make Judaism relevant to his or her life.

About 43% of North American Jews, still the largest Jewish community in the world, are Reform, 38% are Conservative, 7% are Orthodox, 2% Reconstructionist, and the remainder "just Jewish". As a result, the Orthodox have not been able to control things, and they often refuse to cooperate in Jewish communal activities or boards like the Board of Rabbis. Considerable friction has resulted between the Orthodox and the more liberal movements on everything from funding to standards for marriage and conversion.

In Israel, the second largest Jewish community, matters are much worse. About 15% of the population are Orthodox and the remainder call themselves "secular", although about half of those practice some Jewish rituals. A series of coalition governments there, however, have given Orthodox control of government funds for synagogues and religious schools, and matters of personal status for Jews, including marriage, divorce, and conversion, are exclusively in the hands of the Orthodox. The Conservative/Masorti movement and the Reform movements have established some synagogues, camps, youth groups, and kibbutzim in Israel, and they made some inroads in Israeli law through decisions of the Supreme Court. Each step has been bitterly fought by the Orthodox establishment, however, and the prospect of peace with the Arabs has increasingly allowed Israel's "religious and culture wars" to come to the surface. The secular majority in Israel has allowed the Orthodox to rule religious matters because secular Jews there have no sense of plural approaches to Judaism; therefore, even if they themselves would never step foot into a synagogue, they want the synagogue to be Orthodox! They also do not know how to structure a state that they want to be both democratic and recognizably Jewish, and so they let the Orthodox define the latter element of the state. From my perspective (I am a Conservative rabbi), Israelis must come to understand Judaism more pluralistically if they are ever to have a state that is genuinely both democratic and Jewish.

As a Rabbi and Professor of Philosophy

Pluralism has long been a part of my work as a rabbi and a philosopher. I have been part of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue in Los Angeles since 1973, and I have been co-chair of it for the last ten years. That dialogue, sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Los Angeles Archdiocese, has produced a number of documents on matters of theology and practice that are used in churches and synagogues for adult education. In addition, as dean of the rabbinical school of the University of Judaism for 23 years, I insisted that my students participate in the annual Interseminarians Conference, created by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, so that they would get a clearer idea of what Christians believe and do and how that relates to their own Jewish commitments. I have also written several articles on the subject of pluralism among Jews and between Jews and non-Jews, including one for the World Council of Churches. I think that it is no exaggeration to say that interfaith work, with its inherent issues of pluralism, has been a dominant theme of my professional life.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Professor at the University of Judaism, Bel-Air, California

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