One who attends or reads about an interdenominational rally to prevent genocide in Darfur, or in support of Israel, or a fund-raising event at the Jewish Federation would not assume that all participants recognize one another as theologically correct.

On the other hand, Orthodoxy would not participate in a religious event such as multi-denominational worship in which Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services are offered in a spirit of ecumenical validation and people choose where and what type of service to attend or even to attend all of them.


This smorgasbord approach to prayer cannot help but convey to its participants that – just as all the food choices are proper and what one consumes is a matter of personal choice – all the prayer options are valid.

Orthodoxy cannot with integrity allow itself to come across, either to the non-Orthodox community or to its own community, as a choice among equals.

The same is true for an educational institution that teaches its students Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform perspectives of Torah and halacha with no notion of what is correct and what is not. It is the ultimate perversion of Orthodoxy to require that it validate perspectives that violate its fundamental tenets.

(This stands in sharp contrast with the diversity that one sees within Orthodoxy and its institutions. The Orthodox community recognizes pluralism within the confines of halacha and one certainly encounters, for example, Orthodox synagogues with Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and chassidic minyanim all in one place. So too, one finds Orthodox educational institutions of many different flavors sharing teachers, rebbeim and staff.)

Let me add one substantive caveat to these two guidelines, which reflects the modern reality of some of American and Jewish life.

Sometimes adults live in Jewish or secular communities that have only “practical pluralism,” with no ideological foundation, where we all agree to do our jobs (or be good neighbors) by not discussing certain matters.

Thus, I am a professor at Emory University, which is a nominally Methodist institution, but which is, in fact, practically pluralistic. Each person who works at Emory maintains his or her own value structures in life and on the job, but works comfortably in an institutional environment that is officially pluralist, or even valueless – where we perform our requisite tasks, declining to share our personal and perhaps contentious beliefs with others who have different devotional commitments and are uninterested in sharing theirs or listening to mine.

Accordingly, I teach a Jewish law course to students with no requirement that they observe Jewish law, only that they learn the material. Institutionally, Emory would not object if during a break in the work day, ten individuals came into my office for mincha services, and I fully understand that if the person in the office next to mine were to take communion on Good Friday in his office, it would reflect no ideological agreement that communion is proper on my part.

Particularly in a university setting, practical pluralism becomes a way for people to function, teach, and learn. Practical pluralism can be wonderful, but institutions that claim a serious Jewish identity rarely seek that mantle and even less frequently don it comfortably, precisely because a person who is serious about his Jewish identity must draw lines grounded in religious values.

Thus, for example, at Emory, where practical pluralism is the highest value, I have almost no business asking my students why they wish to learn Jewish law.

This stands in contrast to Jewish institutions nationwide which (I suspect) would exclude a member of Jews for Jesus (even if born a Jew) from almost any program under their auspices. Jewish institutions, quite rightly, seek to share values and examine motives.


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Michael J. Broyde was twice ordained by Rabbi Lamm. He is a law professor at Emory University. He has held a variety of rabbinic roles over the years, from director of the Beth Din of America to rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta to Rosh Kollel of Atlanta Torah Mitzion.