The tzorus of Evesham, NJ began about ten months ago, when they announced that the new school year would begin this coming Friday, the second day of Rosh HaShanah.
Jewish parents in the district, my sister and brother-in-law included, petitioned the School Board to adjust the calendar so families wouldn’t have to choose between the holiday and their child’s first day of school.
My sister dutifully kept me apprised of the drama. And so when it finally came before the Board meeting in May, I made a point of asking how it went.
Awful…it turns out.
Now…for context, keep in mind that there are not as many Jewish families in Evesham as there are in Scarsdale. So: I’m not sure that my sister and her friends were expecting a unanimous vote for their proposal. But they were hoping to respectfully speak and be heard.
Unfortunately, Board Member Rosemary Bernardi had a different expectation. Over the course of the Board meeting it became apparent that Bernardi wasn’t just opposed to changing the calendar. She was, apparently, opposed to Jews in general! At one point she encouraged non-Jewish adults to run for the Board to prevent Jews from being elected!
The good news is that Ms. Bernardi has been removed from her position.
The bad news is that we as a country are still struggling to be a place where people of different backgrounds can live together.
Rosh HaShanah is ha-yom harat ha-olam, the Birthday of Existence, that time in our year when we consider the planet at the moment of Creation…and the world as it might be in our future and that of our children.
Our tradition has a particular vision of that future, enriched by pluralism - a willful desire on our part to “be” in the world with those who are different from us.
Tonight, we will consider the Jewish perspective on pluralism, as it applies to our national politics, and to our interpersonal relationships. Tomorrow morning, our discussion will continue as we use the lens of pluralism to consider the State of Israel, and our relationship with her.
The dictionary defines PLURALISM as: “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”
At the heart of any pluralism is the notion that other ways of thinking, believing, and “being” in the world are legitimate, and deserve to be fostered.
Our tradition’s vision of pluralism is not a naïve one. Our sources are unanimous in their acknowledgement that being in relationship with those who are different is some of the hardest work that we will ever have to do.
Jewishly speaking, however, we do not have a choice. As our rabbis teaches us: “One who studies Torah from only one teacher will never achieve great success.” And they teach us as well that eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayyim – this position and the other one – both perspectives – are words of the Living God.
In other words: living in the world with only one outlook on life is not enough. Life is so complex that our conversations, our great debates, and our interpersonal relationships are seen as incomplete if we only surround ourselves with those who see it exactly like we do.
If this sounds like an unpopular message, then you are not alone. A recent report in June 2012 from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that we have our work cut out for us, particularly when it comes to the way we engage others on politics.
The report provides us with documentary evidence that we are living in what some have called a “hyper-partisan” age, where American voters have less and less interest in anything associated with the “other party.”
The implicit danger of hyper-partisanship is that, over time, we will become dis-empowered to think for ourselves. We will instead rely increasingly on the parties themselves to shape our worldview.
Solzhenitsyn used to bring this concern – the absence of free thinking – to life with the following Soviet story:
There was once a Communist Party conference in Moscow, which ended with a formal tribute and standing ovation to Stalin. At around the 3 or 4 minute mark, the ovation grew awkward…because no one in the crowd wanted to be the first to sit down. On and on they stood and clapped….for five…seven…nine minutes!
Finally, after 11 long minutes, a factory director sat. The rest of the room murmured…was it in shock? Relief? Regardless, it was no surprise to anyone that the factory worker who had the audacity to sit first was arrested that very night, and imprisoned for 10 horrific years.
Okay…so obviously that is not the world that we inhabit.
And yet: what does it say about American free-thinking when CNN heralds the return of its old show Crossfire? Just what the doctor ordered: yet another show that embodies the punditocracy we live in – where TV personalities use their parties’ talking points to further convince us that there’s only one right way to think. It calls to mind Jon Stewart’s 2004 analogy that cable TV news shows are debates in the same way that WWF wrestling is an authentic athletic competition.
What we need is a high-minded public affairs show in which there is room for representatives of the two parties to agree to disagree even as they acknowledge the validity of the other’s perspective.
Being a part of a pluralistic community is not about keeping score about which party is right and which party is wrong. Instead, it is about being able to engage and re-engage others in discussion, to share and exchange views, to dialogue with one another so that, through the art of listening, we might somehow be able to find common ground to bring us together.
Rabbi and theologian Elliot Dorrf has written on the Talmudic notion of Shivim Panim LaTorah – the idea that there are a plurality of legitimate interpretations of Torah. He observed that: "Seeing multiple meanings in the text […] may not always produce agreement, but it at least should make one aware that those who disagree with you may be just as smart and moral as you are […] That is, the seventy faces of the Torah should induce in us a certain sense of epistemological humility and, with that, an openness to learning from others and to living with pluralism."
How nice it might be if, in Washington, more of our elected representatives were able to embrace this radically modest way of thinking toward the members of the other party. Imagine how much more constructive our national debates would be, if our senators, while addressing each other on the Senate floor, actually meant it when they say “I now yield to my esteemed colleague, the gentlewoman from California.”
It is one thing to hope that our politicians in Washington will find it within themselves to take on the challenge of opening their minds and hearts to those who are different. But it is another to do that hard work ourselves, in the confines of our own personal lives.
What would it mean if we committed to living openly pluralistic lives?
It would mean that we would stop discriminating against and stereotyping others, simply because they’re different from us. Contrasts in race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic background, accent, place of residency, health, employment status, degrees earned from higher education, and the list goes on…living a pluralistic life means being open to those who are genuinely dissimilar from us…encountering them, getting to know them, and building relationships with them. Rather than avoiding those who are different, we are commanded to seek diversity out and embrace it.
Making peace with people and ideas that are different from our own is not easy. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that the Hebrew word for tolerance – sovlanut - is linguistically related to the Hebrew for “suffering”: because it is hard – excruciatingly hard – to create a sense of community with someone that you don’t think you have much in common with.
There’s another kind of suffering when we encounter difference in our homes…with the very people we generally feel most connected to…our spouses and significant others.
As the Talmud puts it: “When love was strong, we could lie on the edge of a sword; but now, when love is diminished, a bed sixty ells wide is not broad enough for us.”
The disconcerting alienation that the rabbis speak of reminds us of the anxiety that is induced when we come face to face with the realization that we will inevitably disagree from time to time even with the people we feel closest to. On this Rosh HaShanah, then, let us use pluralism as a tool to combat that anxiety. Doing so might enable us to better recognize the worth of every person who surrounds us, even the spouse or best friend that we occasionally disagree with.
Martin Buber, the noted modern Jewish philosopher, was a leading pluralist. He taught us to idealize I-Thou relationships….moments of meeting that are rooted in respect, and the ability to listen….as opposed to I-It relationships, which are rooted in utilitarianism.
We would do well to note the utilitarianism that Buber cautions us to avoid, for it creeps into every relationship in our lives, and ultimately prevents us from being fully present with the ones who matter most to us.
To illustrate this, consider Buber’s I-It relationship, which might be likened to the way we relate to the supermarket cashier, or..for me: the dry cleaner. Perhaps like you, I see the same people there every single week. And I try to be polite every time I stop in.
And if I was a truly righteous mensch of a person, I’d probably mean it when I ask how they are. And I would be able to genuinely listen to their response.
Unfortunately, I’m often in the dry cleaner with my 3 year old son, Avi. And Avi thinks it’s funny to play hide and seek in the little dressing room that’s there for alterations. And so I get easily distracted: by Avi, by the clock so that I can drop him off to school ontime, and by the two other errands that I’m hoping there will be time to do before I drop Avi off and start my own workday. And in the midst of all of that, my “how are you” to the dry cleaner becomes utilitarian: a means to an end: an attempt to be pleasant and “fake-polite” so that Avi and I can move on to our next stop.
Tolerance is another kind of utilitarianism that engenders I-It relationships.
At first glance, we might think that tolerance is a virtue. But I would respectfully suggest that when we merely tolerate those whom we disagree with, we are actually doing them a disservice. We are passive-aggressively using someone: putting up with their difference as a means to some larger end.
E.M. Forster put it better when he wrote: “Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. […] It is negative. It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things.”
If mere tolerance is a stumbling block in my relationship with my dry cleaner, then kal v’chomer – all the more so – is it a hazard when it comes to my relationship with family members. Simple tolerance objectifies someone and demands that we sacrifice something in order to make room in the relationship for them…a sense of sacrifice that runs the risk of turning into resentment.
As we consider the relationships that are most important to us, and the kind of world that we want to create as we stand on the cusp of this New Year, we should aim to dream bigger than tolerance. We should, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose work on pluralism will be the subject of year-long study here this year, seek to foster “the dignity of difference” – that there is a genuine benefit and virtue in our private lives, and in our larger national politics, when we can turn to those who see the world differently and embrace them because of it.
The rabbis of the Talmud were so sure about the value of pluralistic diversity that, when it came time for them to construct the laws of capital punishment – they specifically prohibited the death sentence if the jury unanimously voted to execute! It was their way of saying that disagreement is a necessary and vital thing. So long as the people around the table speak to one another with respect, and authentically try to hear the one who is speaking…that is where justice comes from.
Rav Hamenuma taught: When a person sees a vast crowd, one recites the blessing Baruch Chacham HaRazim – Blessed is the One who discerns secrets.
It’s the Talmud’s way of teaching that each of us is our own amazing, individual person…with our own private thoughts and ideas, which deserved to be honored.
Even though we live in a world dominated by Rosemary Bernardi’s, by partisan talking points, and by the passive tolerance that can cloud the way we behave in our most intimate relationships, on this Rosh HaShanah, we are reminded of the value of pluralism: of honoring each person and the secret of individuality that is inside us all. We are not mere caricatures of stereotypes. We are people. What a blessing it would be if we were able to find the strength to open our hearts and our minds, in the year ahead, to the uniqueness of all of the ones who surround us. In doing so, we might take the first tentative steps to building a world that truly is lifted up by the dignity of difference.
Keyn Yhi Ratzon - May this be God’s will
 See Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, P. 562
 B. Sanhedrin 7a