Paideia Conference Considers Jews in a Multicultural World

Recently, I attended a three-day conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. The brainchild of Barbara Spectre, an American-Israeli-Swedish philosopher who has led the program since its inception, Paideia brings together young Jews for a year of intensive study. Imagine in an American context a Wexner Jewish Heritage Program leadership retreat that is sustained for 10 intensive months. By now, Paideia has several hundred alumni working, living and creating throughout Europe. They were returning to learn, celebrate and renew.

Paideia’s origins are an act of penance by the Swedish government, which chose to apologize for the ignominy of its wartime predecessor’s involvement in Nazi gold by contributing to the Jewish future.

A word of history: Postwar Sweden’s national myth held that Sweden was neutral during the war, not taking sides. Actually, its neutrality, like that of

Spain and Switzerland, was determined by the Germans to serve their own needs. Germany had had the power to conquer each country but chose not to. Switzerland provided Germany with vital access to foreign currency; Spain was essential for information and Sweden for trade. Throughout the war, Sweden profited handsomely from its relationship to Nazi Germany; late in the war, it understood that it had to position itself for the postwar world and an all-but-certain German defeat, hence the mission of Raoul Wallenberg, who, operating under cover as a Swedish diplomat, worked for the American War Refugee Board to rescue Hungarian Jews.

In the late 1990s, Sweden was implicated in the trail of Nazi gold, and, recognizing the shame of its record, it chose a creative response: In a very public act, it gave a $10 million grant to advance Jewish studies in Sweden. Spectre, a charismatic and brilliant American-trained philosopher who had lived her adult life in Israel and came to Sweden only when her husband, Philip, was chosen in 1999 as Chief Rabbi of Sweden, was asked to direct the program. She established a training center for young adults, primarily from the lands of the former communist countries — some reclaiming their Jewish roots; some newly discovering their Jewish origins, however distant and faint, and exploring their options in depth; while others are non-Jews interested in Jewish culture and Jewish life.

Students spend a year in Stockholm, where they are taught the classical texts of Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish culture, living in intense dialogue with one another and with their very distinguished faculty from Israel and Europe. It is a rigorous academic program but not purely academic in its intent. It aims to enrich the mind and transform the soul. Learning is for learning’s sake, but also in service of a newly acquired or newly deepened Jewish identity. In recent years, with the participation of international organizations such as Lynn Schusterman’s ROI Community, Pears Foundation JHub of London, and Shawn Landres and Joshua Avedon and their Los Angeles-based think tank Jumpstart, the Paideia project incubator trains its own graduates and other emerging European innovators to la to launch and grow new projects in their home countries that can be instrumental in reinvigorating Jewish lives.

The effect of this program is to magnify the impact of Paideia’s impressive students. Unfailingly intelligent, they are also courteous and curious, willing to engage text and ideas, confident in their skills and their rootedness in their countries of origin, but willing to move creatively and imaginatively from those roots in many other directions.

American Jews who encounter this program and its students must rethink our all too conventional opinions about European Jewry. Time and again, we hear that Jews in Europe had such a glorious past and such a tragic end but are doomed to be without a future. Anti-Semitism, now at best only slightly masked as anti-Zionism, makes their situation ever more precarious.

Yet Paideia’s students are neither on a suicide mission, nor are they without the option of assimilation and successful participation in European life and culture. They have chosen to embrace their Jewish identity, not to enhance it and flee to a haven elsewhere in Israel or the United States, but to remain in diverse parts of Europe, where they will make much of it.

It is too early to determine the magnitude of the process that is taking place, but not too early to name it: Dis-assimilation — the deliberate decision to turn one’s back on the process of assimilation and to reclaim oneself, reimagine oneself as a Jew.

They are not primarily exploring religious options — few are attracted to Chabad, which offers them a prescriptive Jewish religious life that negates their own cultural identity and a Chabad rabbi who is where he is because he has assured the powers at 770 headquarters that he will remain unchanged by the world he encounters. Rather, their direction of return is cultural, historical and intellectual. They will find new ways of engaging the religious traditions of the Jewish people, and it will not be imposed from without, but created from within, indigenously and imaginatively, as serious Jews exploring all dimensions of Jewish life.

Each morning, the conference began with a beit midrash in which Paideia students and alumni examined classical texts, much as students might do in any traditional setting, yet the conversation was anything but Orthodox, and Jewish ideas had to compete in the marketplace of world literature and philosophy as well as in the experience of this 20-something generation. The day was marked with lectures and workshops by some leading European, Israeli and American intellectuals — Jews and non-Jews — and by probing responses by Paideia’s alumni and students.

The keynote address that launched the conference was presented by Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University professor and chair of Paideia’s Academic Council — of which I, too, am a member — and whose spirit, together with Spectre’s, shapes the entire program. His topic was the theme of the conference: Jews in a Multicultural Europe.

The question he raised is perhaps the most urgent of our generation: How do we live with the other? This is a question quite critical to Europe but also central to Jewish life in Israel and the United States. He offered four options, each rooted in Western tradition, contrasting a tolerant society, an open society, a pluralistic society and a multicultural society.

John Locke offered us a vision of a tolerant society; confident of the truth he held, Locke insisted that others have the right to be mistaken. Locke offered a pragmatic argument against religious coercion. If the church’s – synagogue or mosque – aim is to save the other, to convince the other of the veracity of one’s own faith position, dialogue is essential to bring the other to one’s own point of view: conversion by persuasion.

Contrast that with John Stuart Mill, who wrote not of a tolerant society, but of an open society, where multiple points of view are acceptable because none of us has a monopoly on truth. In the clash, in the dialogue, in the engagement between multiple points of view, society advances closer to the truth.

Isaiah Berlin, the great British Jewish philosopher, spoke not of a tolerant society or an open society but of a pluralistic society, in which we encounter different forms of life, different forms of society, different standards and different norms. Because human life is by its nature finite, no single life can encompass all good. Berlin rejected the very notion of a unified scale of truth.

Still, pluralism is distinct from relativism; relativism holds no values, while pluralism embraces a multiplicity of values, each with a validity of its own.  How does one live with the other? Pluralists must be willing to tolerate those cultures that are willing to give the same space to others that they expect others to give to them.

In contrast to all of these, multicultural societies experience different cultures standing side by side. Affirming the value of the other, they support them and allow them to flourish.

The existence of the other impacts my own form of life. Halbertal said:  “I have to explain myself and understand myself in the light of the other.” The presence of the other enriches our own lives just by being the other.

Jewish philosopher that he is, Halbertal was most powerful and most original when he spoke of the theological dimension of multiculturalism.

Conventionally understood, monotheism insists on the oneness of God — one truth, one understanding: “You shall have no other gods beside Me.” This is, Halbertal argued, “a firm, jealous, ungenerous form of monotheism” if it is not balanced by another of the Ten Commandments.

“You shall not make a graven image …” God is not only unique. God is also transcendent. No body can fully capture the transcendent God in a single system. God cannot be concretized, and thus all believers must also have a sense of their own theological humility. We know only so much; much more remains unknown and unknowable.

The deepest function of worshiping one God, of worshipping the same God, Halbertal argued, “is to relativize the absolute claims. The opposite is the case with the religions of our time, which absolutize relative claims.” In the Middle East — and elsewhere — the very notion of the sacred transforms a political conflict into a religious one, and, when it does, claims become absolutized, and compromise impossible.

In a true multicultural society, there are different cultures standing side by side, affirming the value of the other. Unlike the tolerant society, because they affirm the value of the other, they are not just going to tolerate it as a practical, tactical step, but they will celebrate the other, for the other reinforces the sense of self and expands the possibility of what the self can become.

Clearly, Halbertal was offering young Jews an honored place in the newly emergent Europe, just as he was offering Jews in his own country another way of understanding how a Jewish state can aspire to embrace and to celebrate the diversity of its own citizens. He also offered us, American Jews who have moved beyond the melting pot, another way of understanding our culture in a globalized world.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.