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.)