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Pluralism Is Not One-Dimensional


“Pluralism” has a reassuring tone. “Live and let live,” people tell each other, and many religious groups – including Orthodox Jews – have flourished in America as a result.

But pluralism has a cost. Even as I am entitled to my space for worship, so is the other fellow, no matter the inconvenience to me. I must listen patiently as bells peal the hour, and expect he will not object to my siren on erev Shabbos. As I said, live and let live.

In countries where pluralism never took hold, clashes sometimes occur within a denomination as well as between religions. We watch with horror as Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims kill each other, and the history of Europe is largely defined by wars over differing expressions of Christianity.

For the most part, the civilized world has sought to move beyond this internecine conflict. Different Christian sects in Jerusalem are careful not to encroach on each other’s property and privilege, no matter the vehemence of a historical claim or intense the remembrance of an injustice.

Similarly, the authority invested in the Waqf by the Israeli government represents an earnest desire to calm religious tensions there.

But even as efforts are made to avoid interfering with the rights of Muslims and Christians in Israel, there seems to be increasing disregard for the rights of Orthodox Jews. Nor are we talking about tenuous claims that trace back into the distant past.

Practices, rights, and a modus vivendi that were unquestioned – almost inalienable – just forty years ago have suddenly been abrogated.

Consider first the status quo in Israel. A little over sixty years ago the creation of an independent state was far from certain. Britain’s historic love affair with Arab oil, Europe’s recent emergence from World War II, and Arab nationalism created a fiercely hostile atmosphere worldwide. A wealthy, politically well-connected and vocal Reform Jewish community fought the establishment of a Jewish state, as did the small but highly motivated Neturei Karta and its allies.

As expected, unequivocal support for a state came from Zionist groups. But it was only after being assured the religious status quo would be an integral part of an independent State of Israel that the support of Orthodox Jews (with some notable exceptions) was forthcoming. It was this broadened base of support that encouraged David Ben-Gurion to declare a state and influenced President Truman to recognize it.

It comes then with poor grace, effrontery even, to disrupt this status quo. Genuine democracy respects the rights of the minority and is true to its antecedents. Creating the Karta parking lot in Jerusalem paved over rights enshrined in the very founding of the State of Israel. Force majeur (greater force) creates reality, but it does not create right; no one ever imagined that Israel would evolve to the point where “might makes right.”

The same is true of the controversy surrounding the Intel plant in Jerusalem. The status quo of Jerusalem is clear: a factory such as Intel should not be operating on Shabbos. No argument regarding unemployment, no show of force by local police, can create a new morality that transcends the sanctity of Shabbos. Nor can anyone abrogate the validity of the status quo agreement that was adopted as a covenant with the ground, even according to those who do not recognize the supremacy of Torah.

Finally, a conversation with the Women of the Wall must take place in which we explain why we believe they have no claim to the moral high ground. Calmly, we would remind them that the Western Wall is a holy site whose traditions and rituals had been enshrined through more than 2,000 years of practice.

Surely all would agree that freedom of religion calls for preserving such prior practice and rules of order that trace to antiquity.

And to those who cherish the principle of pluralism, we would point out that while pluralism speaks to the right to practice as they wish, it does not grant them the right to practice where they wish. Not in America and not in Israel.

About the Author: Dr. Bernard Fryshman is a professor of Physics at the New York Institute of Technology, and Executive Vice President, emeritus, of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, a US Department of Education recognized accrediting agency.


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“Pluralism” has a reassuring tone. “Live and let live,” people tell each other, and many religious groups – including Orthodox Jews – have flourished in America as a result.

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