Opinion: Pluralism means finding your place in the Jewish story

For the past six years The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which is named in honor of my father and that I now run with my son Adam, has held a conference called “Why Be Jewish?” It is an intimate gathering that seeks to explore an expansive question. This year, in conjunction with the Shalom Hartman Institute, we will focus on the idea of Jewish pluralism.

Jewish pluralism, to me, is about finding your place in the story of our people. All Jews share a narrative going back to the patriarchs and matriarchs who created us, and they are wonderful and complex stories to share, study and learn. Jewish texts root you in the world and allow you to understand yourself, your values and your culture, all the while speaking to our modern lives with ancient wisdom.

Every Jew, regardless of belief and practice, should be able to see themselves in the narrative, values and rituals—in all their permutations—that bind us together as the Jewish people. We have an obligation as Jews to educate ourselves about our shared texts, common history and the traditions we have inherited.

At the heart of my Jewish beliefs is the tradition of questioning. Questioning is how we begin to learn. We Jews constantly discuss complex issues about how to live a moral and meaningful life, and seek guidance from sources ranging from our sacred texts to our most assimilated activists. We debate openly and are not shy, nor should we be.

All Jews, regardless of how they choose to practice—or not practice—their Judaism should be encouraged to engage in this dialogue. Questions are where education begins, and with education comes a sense of pride and ownership. The challenge for those of us who care about seeing Judaism thrive now and in the future is not to tell people what they should think, but rather to encourage them to learn enough that they can arrive at their own conclusions.

Taking a curious rather than pedantic approach to the question of why we are Jewish has led me to studying Jewish texts, history and culture. That knowledge has become, as I enter my 83rd year, a wellspring of joy and inspiration. It is not because studying taught me how to be a Jew, but rather because it rewarded my curiosity and helped me become a better human being.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through studying Judaism is the necessity of mutual respect, and this idea lies at the heart of pluralism. To debate well we must be civil. To answer questions we must listen. I am a firm subscriber to the notion that there is no valid question that is rude, only questions rudely asked.

The “Why Be Jewish?” conference this year also marks the 25th year of a program I founded called the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. BYFI takes a small group of young, promising future Jewish leaders from across the spectrum of beliefs and traditions and immerses them in intensive study both here and in Israel. It is of great importance to me that the teenagers in the BYFI program represent people from across the spectrum of Jewish experience so that they learn not only by engaging in Jewish study, but also through dialogue with each other. My hope is that the future of pluralism can be seen through the transformative conversations that occur between participants.

This type of Jewish dialogue shouldn’t just be limited to teenagers in intensive study programs, but is something we can all share with each other through learning with our families, friends, communities and, even upon occasion, those we might see as our enemies. Jews are, after all, a family of sorts. Even when we disagree, we are mutually bound to care for each other.

That interconnectedness means respecting other streams of Judaism and discovering what we can learn from each other. Pluralism is an open Judaism where all denominations can be inspired and gain wisdom by listening to each other. Regardless of individual practice, we all share a rich heritage in which meaning can be found for every Jew, from the traditionally pious to the most skeptical of conventional religious practice.

Pluralism also means egalitarianism. Women’s contributions as Jewish leaders and rabbis have only enhanced our community as a whole, as has the open inclusion of homosexuals. Their active participation in Jewish life should be encouraged across the entire spectrum of Jewish practice and ideologies. The more widely we open out tent, as our forefather Abraham did, the more Judaism is enriched. All should be welcome and able to express themselves within our community.

Like Abraham, who was known to keep his tent open to accommodate all who wished to be included, pluralism means all that who wish to come into our Jewish community must be welcome. Judaism is strong and rich enough to take on a plurality of practice. There is room for all in our story. My hope for all Jewish people is that they write a new story for themselves that will be told for generations to come.

(Edgar M. Bronfman is the president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and is working on a book about Jewish peoplehood with journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd.)

Five steps to studying and learning from the Torah

Observing my kids playing, I notice how the same toy, no matter how many times they play with it, can reveal the most remarkable things. My daughter, with the vocabulary befitting a 1 1/2-year-old, will bring her ball over to me and point to a mark on it with a delighted grunt.

“How remarkable!” I will say with (feigned) enthusiasm. But to her it is remarkable; she had never noticed it before.

When I hear the phrase from Pirkei Avot (the Teachings of our Fathers), “Turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (5:21), the image of a toy jumps to my mind.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, however, were writing at the beginning of the Common Era in the Land of Israel and not in 21st century playrooms of North America, so I’m not sure they share the same association. Surely they were referring to the Torah and the revered text’s limitless insights and wisdom.

There is, however, something playful about the phrase. If we studied the Torah the way a child plays with a toy—repeatedly and open to the possibility of discovering something remarkable—then perhaps we would discover something remarkable.

Why should we make this ancient scroll our own? For starters, the Torah tells us we should.

In recounting the story when the Torah was revealed to Moses, the text begins by describing the journey of the Israelites to Mount Sinai.

“In the third month after the children of Israel went out of the land of Egypt, the same day [‘bayom hazeh’] they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” it says in Exodus 19:1. If the Torah were retelling something that already took place, it should say “on that day” not on “this day.” Rashi, the 12th century French commentator, says we should look to the Torah as if it is being given on this day. The Torah is being given, and revelation has the potential to happen anew each day.

Nice words, but how might we really experience this? While Shavuot offers us a moment to focus our attention on Torah study—all-night learning tikkun style awaits at many area synagogues and JCCs—the esoteric musings of a Talmud scholar at 3 a.m. may not be the kind of revelation we seek.

Try this activity (which I learned from dear friends Rabbi David Ingber and Ariel Rosen.) It’s called “Find your (Uni) Verse.” Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Open the Torah (the scroll, book or even an online version).

Step 2: Randomly point to a verse (this may be easier with a book version).

Step 3: Read the verse a couple of times. The first time is to understand the plain meaning. The second and third times are to play with different interpretations of what the verse might be saying. Consult commentary on the verse if you like.

Step 4: Consider the lesson that you might learn from this verse. What wisdom might it impart?

Step 5: Try to apply the lesson to your life in the coming weeks.

Some Torah verses may have immediate relevance to you than others. “Honor your father and mother” and “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” may be clear at face value and easy to apply. Other verses from Leviticus, like ones that speak about people stricken with tzara’at, may take a bit more parsing. (Luckily, commentators understood tzara’at as “motzi shem ra,” one who does not speak truthfully about another person, an aspect of gossip to which we may relate more readily.)

Even (or especially) if you don’t think the verse relates to you on face value, sit with it for a while. I promise, you will find some meaning.

My husband and I did this activity last year with our community. We just had a disagreement about some household matter and were a little tense going into the holiday. The verse he selected was “Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 12:7).

The lesson was clear: Don’t let the everyday stresses of your life cloud the experience of these precious holidays. Safeguard them, honor them. You can get back to your stress when the holiday is over, but for now, let it go and rejoice!

How a verse selected at random can be personally relevant speaks to the power of the Torah and the potential for its wisdom to be revealed to us.

“Your Testimonies are my delight/play thing, they are my counselors,” it says in Psalms 119:24. On Shavuot, turn your selected phrases of the Torah around and around in your mind. The words will become for you a beloved toy.

‘Jews for Jihad’ Just for Starters

“Go Ahead, Make My Shabbos!” No, it’s not Clint Eastwood turning religious, but a slogan on a T-shirt and coffee mug at Jewschool store, a Web site offering cheeky sloganned goods like T-shirts, underwear, caps, pins and bags.

The “Ghetto” tote, for example, which totes the Jewschool.com logo, sells for $12.99. There’s the famous line from The Big Lebowski, “I don’t roll on Shabbos” featured on T-shirts ($18), boxers ($16) and, of course, bowler’s shirts ($21) – but the movie’s other famous line, “I’m shomer *** Shabbos!” hasn’t made it onto any products just yet. Not that the site shies away from offending: check out “Ramah Girls Are Easy” tees ($20) and trucker caps ($14), which made the camp none too happy (but because the logo doesn’t say “Camp” they can’t sue), and the “really not tznius” bikini underwear ($9) referring to modesty or lack thereof. (The “Jesus Is My Homeboy” set off a copyright infringement threat last year from TeenageMillionaire.com that produced the “Jesus was a K***” T-shirts.)

Many of the slogans are political, such as “The People Are With Tel Aviv” and “The People Are With Palestine”(a parody of the Israeli “The People Are With The Golan”); “Gaza Strip Club” and “Jews For Jihad.” Some are just randomly benign, such as “I [heart] Goyim” and “Love Your Brother.” But all go toward supporting the Web site’s main endeavor, Jewschool.com, a blog that covers divergent opinions in the Jewish community that has been in operation since 2002.

“We try to be a venue for dissent and alternative viewpoint,” said Dan Sieradski, the founding publisher and editor in chief of Jewschool. He calls Jewschool an “open revolt” for disenfranchised Jews who are alienated and bored by the Jewish mainstream. The site, which has 35,000 visitors a month, lists alternative viewpoints, blogs, Web sites, events and projects for these type of Jews.

Sieradski, a 26-year-old freelance journalist and DJ from Teaneck, N.J., who is now in the process of making aliyah, works with many of the avant-garde, young “hip” Jews: Jewschool recently formed a content partnership with “Heeb” magazine, to trade stories; Sieradski is also a contributing editor. Danya Ruttenberg, a student at UJ and the author of “Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism,” is also a contributor, as is Aaron Bisman, director of JDub Records, and Jay Michaelson, editor of Zeek magazine — key names of this anti-disestablishment movement, if a loose gang of disenfranchised rebels could be termed as such.

The primary goal of the site, Sieradski said, is to advance the havurah movement, which means “fellowships” for prayer and study, a do-it-yourself kind of un-institutional community. They hope to have the Internet havurot up by the High Holidays.

Jewschool, he says, “dares to be what others can not: It pries Judaism from the lifeless fingers of the Jewish establishment and serves it up to the public with the insistence, ‘This belongs to you,'” he says. “Come ‘n’ get it.”