Thinking About Religious Pluralism

This past weekend turned out to be quite the pluralistic Jewish experience in Israel. I started out at the Kotel on Friday moring; found my way to some very liberal, somewhat liberal, and secular expressions of Judaism in Tel Aviv; and ended up Sunday night (okay, Sunday is not officially the weekend in Israel) in Meah Shearim (arguably the most religious Jewish neighborhood in the world)!

I didn’t plan it that way. I just had things I wanted to do and experience in Israel, and not a lot of time to do them. And maybe I’m weird: I collect Jewish experiences like other people collect souvenir spoons. I like them all. I like praying in the Orthodox men’s section of the Kotel; I liked going to Beit Tefila Yisraeli, the very liberal (almost secular) service held along the ocean in the classy Tel Aviv Port shopping area. I most liked going to a little Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue, Kehilat Sinai, near my hotel in Tel Aviv. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of secular Israeli culture. I appreciate how the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) live.

What I find challenging is that not everyone is like this. It seems like more people have their way of doing thing that they think is right, and are somewhere between hate and indifference on how they respond to other levels of religiosity; they don’t find it an interesting experience in quite the way I do.

The question, then, is, so what? There are really two ways to approach religion.

There is an inward facing approach. Some people want to do what they thing is the right thing to do and not pay much attention to what anyone else does. People want the prayers to be said in their synagogue, the food to be prepared in the right way at home; or, for that matter, they don’t pray or keep kosher and don’t really think much about that other people do.

The outward facing approach wants to change the world. Religion is a source of moral teaching and the whole point is the make the world a better place.

The outward facing approach definitely resonates with me, although as a pluralist I don’t care exactly how you practice religion or even if you practice anything that looks like a traditional religion, but I want it to be available as a technology for improving the world. I want to teach and see more people finding value (and values) from religious tradition, and I’m happy to participate and serve in any Jewish community except the one that thinks it has nothing to learn and no need to grow. This just seems to be some innate orientation of my personality. I want to see religious groups grow and change to get their sacred message out there more and more.

But I might be totally wrong. There is certainly a traditional way to look at Judaism where God asks me to do mitzvot. As long as I can find a minyan that does things my way I don’t need to care how many people are on the beach (or even at a different synagogue) instead of in synagogue on a Saturday morning. This isn’t my outlook, but it is an outlook I encounter often enough. In contrast to above, it’s that a religious group needs to keep what it considers sacred and preserve it from change and outside influence. I can’t say for sure, but I think this might be a more common view of religion.

I’m not sure if one of these approaches ought to be at a higher level than the other. I’m not sure if they can coexist or which approach better lets us coexist but as far as religion goes, this is not a new issue and so probably not one that we’ll tie up with a bow in a generation. I tend to root for my pluralist outward-facing outlook but I’m also pretty sure this is a place where I should be humble about being sure I’m right about anything. Fortunately this is my blog, i.e., it’s a space where I can write about stuff I’m experiencing that isn’t completely settled.

What do you think?

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