Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sh’ma Discussion on Pluralism

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last week I attended an event at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum celebrating the move of “Sh’ma, A Journal of Jewish Responsibility” to California. The event was billed as “A conversation on the boundaries of pluralistic dialogue and engagement.”

The evening started a little late with a somewhat lengthy introduction, so the actual conversation didn’t start until about a half an hour after the advertised start time, but at least that gave the numerous latecomers a chance to settle in before the juicy bits of the evening occurred.

The format consisted of Susan Berrin, the editor of Sh’ma, reading a list of questions to the panelists, then asking them to begin a conversation about one or more of those questions. The conversation was followed by an audience question and answer session, then a reception.

The panelists were Rabbi Levey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Karen Kushner of the Jewish Welcome Network, Peter Stein of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Carole Zawatsky of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The conversation covered a fascinating range of topics, including who is or isn’t Jewish (for instance, are “Jews for Jesus” really Jews?), excommunication, the definition of pluralism, and the right (and even the responsibility) of individual organizations to set their own boundaries regarding permissible behavior and who is or isn’t allowed in.

The discussion touched on the tension created when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival showed a controversial film with a controversial speaker, and the San Francisco Jewish Federation recently adopted guidelines to withhold funding from organizations which host events or speakers which advocate for the destruction of Israel or divestment from, or boycotts of it.

A poignant moment occurred when one woman in the audience who is a member of an organization which clearly would be excluded from funding under the restrictions of the Federation’s new guidelines said that by denying her a seat at the table, the Federation is saying she is not a Jew. Rabbi Derby answered her by asserting there is a distinction between the rejection of a person’s political view and the rejection of a person as a whole. He said he doesn’t think anyone that evening had said she isn’t a Jew; just that some organizations, in setting their own boundaries, have chosen not to support her organization’s views.

Another audience member pointed out that the panelists seemed to agree with each other on most points, and suggested the conversation might have benefitted from the inclusion of at least one panelist who would have argued against the desire for pluralism.

Overall, I was pleased with the tenor of the discussion, and I was glad the audience members were willing to ask pointed questions without being rude and the panelists were willing to address those questions. In the end, I found myself wishing the conversation had gone on longer, and I hope Sh’ma and/or the museum will host more, similar conversations in the near future.

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