Pluralistic Judaism

by Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Richard's Bar Mitzvah

The number of Jews worldwide is declining, synagogue membership is at a new low and denominational differences that often result in synagogue snobbery have driven many Jews away from traditional observance and belief.

Pluralistic Judaism is based on the Jewish concept of Tarbut HaMachloket, which, in Hebrew means “freedom of thinking and speech,” and includes behaviors which help Jews of all backgrounds live successfully alongside those Jews with whom one might not agree.

The Seven Fundamentals of Pluralistic Judaism 1
Pluralistic Judaism offers a practical application of Tarbut HaMalchloket in the following ways:

1. Pluralistic Judaism is open and welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds. This means that all Jews who attend a pluralistic synagogue can expect the full participation of women and the hand of Jewish welcome extended to interfaith families, gay and lesbian partners and their children. A pluralistic synagogue respects traditionally observant Jews who are made to feel at home alongside modern Jews as well as those who are new to or returning to synagogue observance. The pluralistic synagogue welcomes B’nei Anusim, Jews from lost or hidden communities, marranos and conversos, who are beginning to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.

2. Pluralistic Judaism is non-denominational. This means that the Pluralistic synagogue does not subscribe to any particular stream of Judaism, but is open to the thoughts and ideas of each denomination. Pluralistic Judaism respects each person’s background and ascribes to the philosophy that “labels are for the jelly-jars, not the Jews.”

3. Pluralistic Judaism does not distinguish between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jews-by-Choice. Those who are born Jewish and those who have chosen Judaism are equal and are treated as such by the pluralistic rabbi and congregation.

4. Pluralistic Judaism is organizationally independent and is not affiliated with any Jewish organization or umbrella establishment. There is no bureaucracy or hierarchy. This means that each individual pluralistic synagogue organizes services, festivals and life cycle events to meet the needs of the group.

5. Pluralistic Judaism asks that each synagogue be self-supporting. There are no set dues or fees that are owed to a parent organization, nor does any outside group dictate policies or activities.

6. Pluralistic Judaism respects the Jewish traditions surrounding the Hebrew language. This means that services will include the common local language of the congregants as well as some Hebrew but no one need be a Hebrew speaker or Hebrew language expert in order to participate. Hebrew transliteration is accepted as a legitimate first step on the road to Hebrew understanding.

7. Pluralistic Judaism respects Halakah (Jewish law). In the pluralistic synagogue Jewish law is explained and each person makes her/his own choice as to level of observance. Pluralistic Judaism acknowledges that the word “halakah” is based in the Hebrew root, “holech,” which means “to walk.” Thus halakah is a changing phenomenon, implying that Jewish law moves forward and embraces new knowledge.

Pluralistic Judaism represents an evolution in worldwide Judaism that intentionally blurs denominational lines while focusing on the individual spiritual needs of each community member. Rabbi Aiello is the founder of the International Society for Pluralistic Judaism (2014), a new organization supporting synagogues, rabbis, chavurot, and individual Jews of all backgrounds who are interested in promoting a friendly and open-minded welcome to Jewish life.