To put an adjective in front of Judaism is to limit it and thus implicitly distort it. That’s why, for example, every denomination in Judaism, even if it claims to be all-embracing, represents at best only a part of the whole. To know this is to realize that there’s more to Judaism than “my” Judaism, however catholic and comprehensive it may seem. Other manifestations aren’t less authentic than the one I claim contains the whole truth.
There may be no Hebrew word for “pluralism,” but authentic Judaism is pluralistic.
Many of us, not being able to embrace all of Judaism, try to cut it to a size that fits us personally. In our insecurity and confusion, we may even insist that our version is the only one that matters. Here are three examples represented by three influential Jews of our time:
Felix Posen was born to an Orthodox family in Germany that came to the United States when he was a child to escape Hitler. He later immigrated to Britain. As a young man, he gave up religious life because of what he says he learned about the Holocaust.
Success in business gave him the wherewithal to promote what he calls “secular Jewish culture,” mainly in and around books and institutions of higher learning. He describes himself as non-observant yet intensely Jewish, and that’s the kind of Judaism he tries to promote: non-religious rather than anti-religious.
Michael Steinhardt is more explicitly hostile to religion. Commitment to the State of Israel has made this American Jewish billionaire devote much money to creating and maintaining Birthright Israel, the program that brings many young Jewish women and men to Israel every year in the hope of kindling in them a love for the country and what it stands for.
Steinhardt is also a supporter of other worthy causes on behalf of the Jewish state. In recognition of his contribution, he was invited this year as the first Diaspora Jew to light one of the symbolic torches at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations on Mount Herzl.
Citing a Times of Israel headline from last month, Steinhardt believes “American Jews need to stop focusing on religion.” But whereas Posen speaks of culture as an alternative, Steinhardt argues in favour of commitment to Israel as the authentic manifestation of Judaism.
Meanwhile, George Steiner, born in France to German Jewish parents, educated in the United States and for many years a resident of Great Britain, is a celebrated literary critic and thinker. Like Posen and Steinhardt, he isn’t religious. Like Posen, he values Jewish creativity but – unlike Steinhardt – doesn’t believe Israel is essential to Judaism and its future.
In a series of conversations on a variety of subjects – A Long Saturday, published earlier this year in English by the University of Chicago Press – Steiner said he sees the mission of the Jew to be “the guest of humanity.” Unlike Steinhardt and more in line with Posen, it’s not the Jewish state but the Jewish book that’s at the centre of Steiner’s Jewish consciousness. Statehood may stifle the true mission of Judaism, whereas the Diaspora promotes it.
I don’t find it difficult to agree with each of the three positive affirmations. Each represents an aspect of my Judaism, but none of them comes close to why and how I am a Jew. The adjective “Reform” describes my institutional affiliation more than the totality of my Judaism.
I’ve argued in a previous column that Judaism is more than religion. But it’s never less than religion, and thus more – much more – than secularism. Similarly, Israel is central to Judaism today. To repeat: without the existence of Israel, Judaism would cease to be relevant. Just as ardent Zionists no longer argue that the Diaspora is obsolete, many assimilated Jews surmise that Judaism derives much of its strength and inspiration from the Jewish state. Yes, Judaism is pluralistic.