Unity Garbed in Diversity

Unity Garbed in Diversity:
Halakhic Pluralism & Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Everyone receives reward from God for
what each is convinced is the right thing, if this conviction
has no other motive but the love of God.

                            —Rabbi Zedekiah ben Avraham of Rome

Judaism is the Life of the Jewish People

Conservative Judaism starts with the historical vitality of the Jewish people – as they are, and as they have been in the past. A living people cannot be reduced to a single idea, however coherent. Nor can it be distilled to a single way of life, however compelling. Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, started with diverse roots in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Torah relates that we left servitude accompanied by an Erev Rav, a mixed multitude, and we know that in our own land we were a confederation of tribes that convened and lived in loose association with each other. The diversity of our roots, the fullness of our peoplehood, the richness of our culture – all of these assets ground our insistence that Judaism is bigger than an idea, richer than a platform, deeper and more resilient than any slogan could ever be.

Judaism, we insist, is nothing less than the life of the Jewish people. As we have traversed through history and inhabited the globe, Jews have integrated the insights, customs, and styles of divergent ages and distinct communities into their Judaism. Each new era intertwines its practices and convictions into the Judaism it inherited, weaving the Masorah (tradition) greater and more variegated than had been previously. In addition to variations caused by different historical periods, there are also the regional variations of different locations, as Jews have coalesced locally and shaped their Judaism, both consciously and unconsciously in consonance with the broader culture in which they lived. As far back as late antiquity, this regional diversity was recognized as proper: “They do not disagree. One master rules in accordance with his locale, and the other master rules in accordance with his locale (Yoma 55a).” Hence, Sephardic Judaism shares an aesthetic with the Muslims among whom they dwelt, and Ashkenazic music, architecture and theology bear great similarities to surrounding European culture. In our own day, its not hard to notice the Americanization of Judaism (think, for example, of the music of Craig Taubman, Debbie Friedman, or Shirav, the writing of Harold Schulweis, Harold Kushner, Elliot Dorff, and the architectural styles of contemporary synagogues). Judaism in Canada and Latin America exhibits similar regional flavor. We savor a vibrant Israelification of Judaism in music, thought, practice, and architecture of religious institutions in the Land of Israel.

Pluralism – Abiding Feature of Judaism

This diversity of style and content is manifest throughout Jewish history and is itself a robust affirmation of brit, of God entering into covenant with a real flesh-and-blood people. God may be One – unchanging, absolute, beyond limitation – but once human beings enter the equation then the Torah that results from that relationship will be garbed in human diversity, dynamism, and development across time and place. In the words of the midrash Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, “God is like an icon which never changes, yet everyone who looks at it sees a different face (110a).” Percolated through peoplehood, Judaism is – as we have long affirmed – the fruitful interplay of tradition and change, of unity amid diversity. Pluralism – the affirmation of multiple forms of Judaism – is simply the name we give to this historical reality and theological boon. As the novelist Rebecca Goldstein notes, “The opposite of a plain truth … is a plain falsehood, but the opposite of a deep truth is another deep truth (Properties of Light, 126).” Different Jewish communities, different eras, and different sages revealed different truths out of the building blocks of the Masorah. Even when those deep truths opposed each other, they remained truths!

So Judaism has always been diverse. In the Biblical period, the Judaism of the North and the South, of priest, prophet, and monarchy reflected that diversity. In Second Temple times, the Jewish practice of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Ammei Ha-Aretz and hakhamim (Sages) demonstrate that same rich variety. The Medieval period manifested pluralism in the liturgical and religious diversity of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Rabbanites and Karaites, Jewish who were philosophical and Jews who were mystical, the kind of Talmudic learning and practice of Spain and the very different Talmudic scholarship of the Tosafot of Franco-Germany. The early modern period witnessed the new diversities of Hasidim and Mitnagdim, of the rise of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative modes of Judaism, of Zionism and anti-Zionism, and the emergence of Yiddishists, Bundists and others. Jewish diversity has always been the norm. Consciously embracing that diversity, celebrating its variety, and nurturing each other in our different Jewish expressions is what pluralism is all about.

Forces for Unity Amidst Diversity

But – amidst our variety - we also have to maintain points of commonality and borders beyond which our diversity stops else our pluralism will become so open that all content, identity, and coherence would spill out. Identity is about knowing who we are not, as much as it is about asserting who we are. A Judaism that stands only or primarily for choice and options (or a Judaism that stands only or primarily for obedience and rules) stands, in reality, for very little. Such simplified identity cannot hope to command abiding loyalty and is, in any case, a far cry from the historical reality of Judaism through the ages. There must be some shared commitment that keeps us together and affirms recognizable boundaries.

Conservative Judaism locates three primary contexts to hold our pluralism and to maintain our commonality: the history and destiny of the Jewish people, the oneness and greatness of God, and the living, growing discipline we know as halakhah (Jewish law). Conservative Judaism navigates the interplay of tradition and change, of unity and diversity, of God’s eternity and oneness with human dynamism and diversity through our commitment to halakhic pluralism – the affirmation that the interpretation and application of Torah sets limits, provides for appropriate diversity, and links us in our common commitment to serve God, glorify Torah, and repair the world.

Halakhah is, for us as for our ancestors, the process through which we align our deeds in accord with our understanding of God’s will. Rooted in both Written and Oral Torah, it is both the system of rule making, and the body of rules that links our practices with the generations past and those yet to come. And it is the derekh, the way we continually concretize the ethics and aggadah (narratives) of Torah in our daily practice, our relationships, and our priorities. Our responses to life are Jewish to the degree that we process them in conversation with Jewish sources. Our decisions are holy to the degree that they implement our understandings of what God demands of us.

Halakhic Pluralism

Because we are determined to make our lives substantively Jewish, because we are committed to implementing Jewish values and to linking ourselves to God, Torah, and Israel, Conservative Judaism makes our communal decisions halakhically. Because the sources for our halakhic decision-making reflect Jewish diversity across the ages, as well as the personalities and distinctiveness of individual poskim/poskot (legal decisors), we can find ourselves – as a Movement – in the curious position of asking the same question, using the same sources and process, serving the same God, yet deriving different (and incompatible) answers. How can that be?

The Talmud (Hagigah 3b) ponders the same dilemma.  Rabbinic sages sit and study, and then

Some pronounce unclean and some pronounce clean, some prohibit and others permit, some disqualify and others declare fit. Should one say, “How then can I learn Torah?” for this reason the Torah adds: All are given from one shepherd. One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Sovereign of all creation, for it is written, God spoke all these words. Therefore make your ear like the hopper and get a perceptive heart to understand the words of those who pronounce clean and the words of those who pronounce unclean, the words of those who prohibit and those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who declare fit.

The God who gives Torah is one, and the Torah is itself one. Our rabbinic sages (both those who serve on the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards and those Conservative rabbis who serve the Jewish people in myriad other ways) consult the same sources and revere the same authorities, but they also are required – by the tradition itself – to bring the full range of their insights, experiences, and personalities to the service of God and Torah. Naturally, they read the sources through their own understanding – “a judge has only what his own eyes see (Niddah 20b)”. They contemplate what God might mean, how the tradition applies to a particular question through their own thoughts. And, as a result, it is not only possible, but proper, that different rabbinic authorities will derive different conclusions. As the Zohar notes, “all this is said only from our point of view, and it is relative to our knowledge (2:176a).”

Because the Torah comes from a God who transcends definition or limit, because it is transmitted and harvested through people who are each unique and reflect their own time and place, because we each refract the sources through our own uniqueness, we embrace a halakhah that is growing, living, and multiform. We affirm conflicting halakhic positions because we affirm God’s incomparability and our human complexity.

Embracing the fullness of halakhic possibilities, we perch on traditional shoulders. Of the halakhic pluralism of the Talmudic period, we read, “the one who prohibited did well in prohibiting; and the one who permitted did well in permitting (Avodah Zarah 58a).” Of the Gaonic rabbinical schools, it was noted, “In Sura they taught according to the latter version; in Pumbedita, according to the former version (Behorot 36b).” The great medieval scholar, the Ritba, noted that the rabbis of France asked, “How can it be that both opinions are the word of the living God, since one says that a certain thing is prohibited and the other that it is permitted? They answered that when Moses went up to the heavens to receive the Torah, he was shown 49 ways of prohibiting and 49 ways of permitting each thing. When he asked God about this, he was told that this is to be entrusted to the sages of Israel in every generation and the decision will be in their hands (on Eruvin 13b).”

The Needs of the Hour

Halakhic pluralism has regularly been an asset of Judaism, in antiquity, the medieval period, and into modernity. As the historical-positive approach to Judaism, Conservative Judaism celebrates and perpetuates that traditional affirmation of halakhah and pluralism. Turning to address the great questions of our age, our rabbinic sages act as rabbis always have – they muster sources, sift evidence, consider expert testimony and issue rulings based on their personal percolation of Jewish tradition and how the question resonates for them. It is likely that on most major questions, Conservative rabbis will reach a range of conclusions – reflecting the Big Tent that is Conservative Judaism, the geographic and ideological spread of our adherents, the irreducible mystery of God, the multilayered complexity of Torah, and the historical reality of Jewish diversity.

Our personal challenge is to rise above the desire for certainty and correctness. It is human nature (and weakness) to feel threatened by differing opinions, to feel vulnerable in the face of those who make different choices than we do. All the more so when the issues are emotional, pressing, and immediate – we tend to want everyone to evaluate the matter the way we do, and we condemn those who differ from our opinion as ignorant, bigoted, warped, lacking values. As bearers of God’s brit, our challenge and our opportunity is to rise above this brittle reflex, to embrace a reality that is more variegated and complex than our personal viewpoint (or even than our own preferred read of the tradition). If we can only be a Movement with those who think, talk, and practice precisely as we do, then what hope is there for embracing the entire Jewish people, let alone all humanity?

For the sake of the human future, we must learn to embrace pluralism, to honor those whose take on the tradition differs from our own. We may not all reach the same conclusion, nor even consider each other to be correct. But we must begin the wrenching soul-work of honoring each other’s love of God, pursuit of Torah, and wrestling with halakhah, even when those common commitments result in a bottom line we cannot share.

We can disagree about conclusions without questioning motives. We can argue about how we frame an issue without denying each other’s decency, loyalty, goodness. The medieval sage, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama reminds us that even though Jews will understand and practice Judaism differently, “after they will discuss the matter and everyone will understand the reason of the other, each will understand that the other is striving for the very same thing (Akedat Yitzhak, Gate 12, p. 90).”

Let us be that denomination in which people do not have to think alike, in which our love for each other spans differences of practice, conviction, ethics that are substantive, deep, and profound. The world has enough groups that force their adherents to march lockstep on the big issues of the day. We are faithful to a God who is above human certainty, to a tradition rich in diversity, to a people who perceive argument as a sacred enterprise when we honor each other’s differences and think each other worthy of conversation.


It is no secret that the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has been deliberating on the issue of the status of homosexuality and the inclusion of gays and lesbians within the framework of halakhah and Torah. That issue stirs deep passions among Conservative Jews, as it does in the general community. Passionate advocates for the historic prioritizing of heterosexual norms and the centrality of the such families abound in our Movement, as do equally passionate advocates for full inclusion for gays, lesbians, and their families. In the months ahead, the RALC will continue to deliberate – studying learned papers, plumbing traditional sources, analyzing contemporary scientific findings, and ultimately voting on divergent halakhic approaches to the issue.

Affirming pluralism does not mean that anything goes. A halakhic position remains normative until it is modified, and there are times where a theoretical commitment to pluralism still yields a single conclusion that is universally accepted (such as the Conservative Movement’s affirmation of normative Shabbat and Kashrut observance). Our commitment to halakhic pluralism doesn’t necessarily mean that all ways of behaving, or all approaches to an issue are equally valid, although it sometimes can mean precisely that. But what we can – and must – affirm as a Movement is a willingness to consider each other’s viewpoints, to consider the arguments and conclusions that our fellow Conservative Jews hold in sincerity. It might even mean accepting the legitimacy of a position we personally reject – provided that it has been approved by the proper authorities (the Law Committee, and one’s Rabbi as Mara D’Atra).

This article is offered in that spirit, to strengthen our commitment to listen to each other, to consider each other’s convictions from a place of honor and love, and to hear each other’s advocacy as differing modes of loving Torah and loving our fellow human beings. In that spirit, the two articles that follow articulate very different ways of applying the tradition to the question of homosexuality. Both deserve careful reflection and discussion. They represent a Movement wide invitation to you to participate in this broader debate – not to win or lose an argument, but to grow in understanding each other’s concerns, commitments, ways of living Torah and serving God.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author, most recently, of Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: Spiritual Resources for Leadership & Mentoring.