“…studying Talmud…connects the (presumably) pluralistic ideas of the learner with the very activity in which they are engaged”

Even as the Shoah and the State of Israel were essential drivers of Greenberg and Hartman’s commitments to pluralism, neither thinker entirely derived their ideas from these historic events. In fact, both tried to locate pluralism as a critical feature of the classical rabbinic tradition. In articulating Jewish pluralism, they were bringing to the surface a feature of the rabbinic tradition that they saw as essential to its very identity and that was newly relevant for the modern age. This entailed elevating a particular canon of rabbinic texts – those that emphasized the essential quality of debate “for the sake of heaven” in the rabbinic academies, that envisioned heavenly voices declaring that two competing views could both be “words of the living God,” and which valorized democratic norms as the means of establishing both truth and peace. This selective use of Jewish texts to emphasize a particular set of ideas represented a form of ideological advocacy using the tradition as well as on behalf of the tradition. Emphasizing these voices in the rabbinic canon also generated a widespread belief that rabbinic ideas of pluralism were emblematic of that canon.

We can draw a straight line from this hermeneutical strategy to the widespread use of the Talmud in non-orthodox, non-normative Jewish educational settings: the emphasis on its ideological heterogeneity, the culture of debate, and the idea of the legitimacy of multiple viewpoints are all Talmudic ideas, but they are extrapolated to make a larger cultural argument about the Talmud. In turn, studying Talmud – and these selections of Talmud in particular – connects the (presumably) pluralistic ideas of the learner with the very activity in which they are engaged.

It is no coincidence that a similar conversation about rabbinic pluralism was at the same time just getting underway in academic scholarship. The late 1970s and 1980s saw massive growth in rabbinics scholarship in American Jewish studies, especially at the Mishnaic stratum, driven in no small part by the prolific output of Jacob Neusner and his training and placement of his students in university positions. (A Google ngram search shows a massive spike in the use of the word “Mishnah” between 1980-1990.) In “The Significance of Yavneh: Pharisees, Rabbis, and the End of Jewish Sectarianism,” an influential article about Yavneh and the formation of the rabbinic project, Shaye Cohen (then at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and now at Harvard) wrote that “the major contribution of Yavneh to Jewish history” was “the creation of a society which tolerates disputes without producing sects.” For the first time, Jews “agreed to disagree.” Other scholars contested Cohen’s chronology, but one thing is clear: this characteristic of rabbinic culture was being interrogated in the academy at the same time that an industry was growing around it in the Jewish community.

Neither Greenberg nor Hartman advanced Jewish pluralism in some sort of ideological vacuum. I listed above Berlin, Mill, and James as influences on Greenberg and Hartman. But pluralism as an idea – as a characteristic of post-war American democracy, as an instrument for the advancement of civil rights, as an essential vehicle for rethinking interfaith acrimony – was rising in the public conversation as well. Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition (1958) had stipulated “plurality” as a driver and a constraint of human action; Michael Walzer (a frequent interlocutor of Hartman) made the case for liberal pluralism in his 1983 book Spheres of Justice; Diana Eck founded the Pluralism Project at Harvard in 1991. In fact, much of the previous story about Hartman and Greenberg’s commitments to pluralism could be written without reference at all to the particulars of the Jewish condition: pluralism, if not always under that moniker, described a way of thinking about what worked in America in the second half of the twentieth century – a regulative constraint on democracy, an instrument for productive heterogeneity, a hearkening back to Horace Kallen and Louis Brandeis as a vision for how particular communities could both embrace the American project and be embraced by it. The horrors of the Second World War had stimulated a great deal of interfaith curiosity – both Greenberg and Hartman were active in these circles – and “religious pluralism” entered into this discursive space as well. We might well see Hartman and Greenberg’s “Jewish pluralism” as a particularization into Jewish theology of a dominant postwar idea and its application both as a tool to excavate the rabbinic tradition, and as a means of reshaping Jewish communal priorities.

Yehuda Kurtzer, “What Happened to Jewish Pluralism?”, Sources Journal (Spring 2021) [https://www.sourcesjournal.org/articles/what-happened-tojewish-pluralism].