Pluralism in Jewish History

Point of View

by Rabbi Daniel Schur

If the readers of this article are disturbed in any way, like me, about the rampant spreading assimilation despite the Hebrew language we teach and despite the uplifting patriotic songs, and beside the deep committment to the state of Israel, then we have a great deal in common.

I know that the liberal Jew's definition of the word "Jew" is different from mine, which understands it in the light of tradition. I know, too, that you respect the view which sees a definite relationship between the Jewish people and the Torah, an outlook which believes that the Jew cannot survive without the framework and the Halachic way of living as a Jew. However, you as a liberal Jew are proud of your open minded pluralism in understanding the concept of "Jew" to "Judaism". It is an approach which thinks it is possible to live and feel like a Jew without observing any of the Six Hundred Thirteen (613) commandments, without studying the Torah, without it being true to my concept of Judaism's basic, distinctive principles. I do not want to argue with the pluralistic Jew or to persuade him with the validity of my point of view.

However, we must ask ourselves -- what happened? Where did we go wrong, if the following is true?

  1. American Jewish leaders refer to the "Spiritual Holocaust" of assimilation.

  2. The splintering of our people - millions of our Jewish youth in strange cults, and are intermarrying, lost to us forever. Neither logic nor any group or personal explanation that I know of - can solve this distrubing problem - only the facts of history.
Permit me to apply the test of history, not philosophy, to this generation's more popular conviction, namely, "pluralism in Judaism". It claims, with apparent logic, that every Jew has the right to define Judaism for himself - as he, personally sees it.

Let us remember our generation isn't the first that claimed this right for itself. If we look back thousands of years, we can see the first attempts at this; it is not the product of today's modernity.

Jeroboam, son of Nevat, was the founder for reform among the Jewish people. He was the first to adjust the worship of G-d to the taste of his generation, the parting from the tradiiton of his fathers. He separated himself from the kingdom of Judah, which set up a spiritual center in the kingdom of Israel, which challenged the temple in Jerusalem. He demanded that the people not go to Jerusalem any more. As he decreed!! "Enough going to Jerusalem - Your G-d, oh Israel, is here." (King's 1-1228) The political reasons for this are not important. Today we would blame it on the Orthodox establishment. The fact is that it challenged the accepted definition and concept of what it is to be a member of the Jewish people, differed from what is taught in the Torah and what was accepted by the people until that day. What were the results? The fall of the kingdom of Israel and the disappearance of the ten (10) tribes from the map of the Jewish people. True, it didn't happen at once! It took hundreds of years, but this was the end result. The nation paid a frightful price for severing its roots from the Tree of Life, the Torah, which defines "Jew".

True, the kingdom of Judah also fell, however the Jewish nation and its progeny, the prides of Judah and Benjamin remained alive and continued to weave the pattern of its life in the lands of the Diaspora, in contrast to the ten (10) tribes, which disappeared. The Saducees (Tzadukim) and the Boethusians severed their relationships to tradition and their reform movement sought to create a new way, which differed from the traditional. What happened in the end counts.

In the course of many years, their movement grew and took over the priesthood and fashioned its own pattern of political and religious life in the state of Judea. This, at a time when the Pharisees (the Jews who followed Judaism of the Rabbis) developed Judaism on the basis of oral law, later becoming the Mishnah and the Talmud. Today we would call them Orthodox. The latter were on the defensive, powerless - who, despite inner strife demanded from the tradition, were sometimes a tolerated minority and sometimes driven and oppressed.

These are historic facts. The question is where are the Saducees and the Boethusians today? Why didn't these movements - profoundly influenced by Hellenism - the modern culture of its time - prevail among the Jewish people? Why didn't the religious pluralism of that time take hold? Why, in the end, did the heart of the Jew return to the Pharsaic view of what is a Jew?

In the days of the second Temple, another group sought to challenge the Pharisees with its view of Judaism. The Essenes - Where are their offspring?

What were the historic forces which caused them to disappear? There arose from time to time, reform movements, which insisted upon their rights under the free expression of pluralism. They departed from tradition and insisted upon their right to be called Jews. Until this day, Christian disciples from the man of Nazareth, call themselves the true Israel. I would like to assume that the devotees of pluralism are not prepared to consider Christianity as a legitimate movement within our Jewish people. Actually, why not? Again, I ask why didn't they prevail? Why did they lose their Jewish identity? Why, indeed, did the weakest group among the people, the Pharisees, the Rabbinical group, seemingly the lowliest but one which zealously kept to the traditional interpretation of the Torah? Why is it that they still exist? And just consider this amazing phenomenon! All the modern movements amongst our people today, who claim their rights, under the umbrella of pluralism grew out of traditional Judaism. They did not derive from the ancient pluralistic movements which died.

How can you really explain it? How is it that the idea of pluralism which Reform and Conservative have accepted, never survived the test of all these generations? The exact same historic forces, which played a role in the people's distant past, is operative today. Those today demanding pluralism, in defining "Judaism" and a "Jew" as their legitimate right along with other "different Judaisms" are in the most frightful danger of losing their Jewish identity. Because their attitude is the underlying reason into the arms of assimilation and intermarriage.

Clearly, I could not argue with facts. If the creative continuity of the Jewish people is important to us - if we don't want our grandchildren to achieve their goals not as Jews - you have to give thought to this distressing question.

Why are the people disintegrating? Why is it losing its identity, after generations of movements, which demanded the right to define Judaism as it wishes, different from the tradition? What is lacking in these new interpretations which cannot survive the changing times? Perhaps the pluralistic Jew will better understand a Jew, faithful to the Torah, and what he is fighting for.