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The limits of religious pluralism

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Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Subscribing to a highest-common factor approach in spiritual practice could help avoid complications arising from personal standards, though it may lack individual sensitivity.


Rabbi Avi Finegold

Founder, The Jewish Learning Lab, Montreal

Rabbi Philip Scheim

Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, Toronto


Rabbi Finegold: A recent article regarding the issue of Orthodoxy and female spiritual leadership has been making the rounds. The article, produced by a haredi organization, has led me to re-examine the role of intra-religious pluralism. What rubbed me the wrong way about the article was that it was a haredi individual dictating policy to a denomination he does not want to be a part of.

And yet, at the same time, this very issue becomes delicate, for example, when we think about Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Does Orthodoxy have the right to request, even with the best of intentions and in a deeply respectful manner, to refrain from performing gets with a beit din comprised of men and women, in order to prevent a potential case of halachic illegitimacy in the future? Is it just to reconvert someone on principle, simply because their parent converted with a Conservative rabbi?
These and other cases seem to point to the limits of religious pluralism even among those with the best of intentions. And yet, I truly believe that there must be some way to work through the issues.

Rabbi Scheim: I definitely believe there are limits to pluralism.
There are practices and approaches in other Jewish religious streams, and sometimes even in my own movement, with which I disagree and which I would not accept. Similarly, I expect rabbis of other streams to question some of my practices. The Jewish world cries out for more disagreement without denigration.

Some of the pronouncements rendered in recent weeks by prominent rabbinic authorities in Israel regarding non-Orthodox Judaism have, in my view, harmed Orthodoxy more than Reform or Conservative rabbis, because of the harshness and cruelty they reflected (which misrepresents Orthodoxy). When I, on occasion, have had to reject a conversion, because I felt it did not meet basic halachic standards, I did so tearfully and with no explicit or articulated condemnation of the original conversion.
Standards do matter. But even more, how we treat each other and how we speak of each other makes a critical difference.

Rabbi Finegold: So how should we proceed regarding the promotion of various standards in the community? It is easy to imagine a kashrut organization run by a Conservative rabbi (and there should be more liberal halachic kashrut organizations, if you ask me). If I were asked about it, I would say that I trust the organization 100 per cent to be reliable but that I do not accept some of its halachic decisions.
I am stymied by the question of gets, though. While I would applaud the decision to have women on a beit din to issue a get in the name of egalitarianism in the Conservative movement, this could create potential issues that would affect the Orthodox world in very serious ways. I could treat the parties involved in such a divorce with the utmost respect and sensitivity, but that would not help with the problem of standards in this case.

Rabbi Scheim: In matters of personal status – conversion and divorce, in particular – I believe that the needs of the individuals involved are paramount. Specifically, when approached by a potential candidate for conversion who would meet Orthodox standards (not a regular occurrence because of the extremely stringent standards involved), I will recommend that he or she pursue an Orthodox conversion. In all likelihood, that convert will end up in an Orthodox community, where acceptance of Conservative conversions is limited. Thus, I willingly suppress my institutional and movement loyalties in a case where the individuals approaching me may do better elsewhere.

That said, I share your lament that my movement chose not to enter the kashrut enterprise, not specifically for the potential of more moderate alternatives in kashrut – because a kosher facility should meet the needs of all who observe kashrut, and not be limited to those of more liberal or more extreme tendencies. Rather, I lament our non-involvement in institutional kashrut because of the resultant implication that kashrut is not as important to us as it is to the Orthodox. In all matters of Jewish religious policy that affects people’s lives, those individuals and their needs must be our primary focus above all else.


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