Pluralistic Judaism

By Rabbi Barbara Aiello

June 14, 2012


Reprinted with permission. Originally published on Rabbi Barbara’s Blog.

When our sages taught about the destruction of the First and Second Temples, they made it clear that these tragedies occurred for vastly different reasons (Talmud, Yoma 9B). Sexual immorality, wanton murder and idol worship brought about the demise of the First Temple.

Ner Tamid Del Sud
Congregation Ner Tamid Del Sud

The Second Temple, however, was destroyed for one reason alone. In Hebrew it is called “sinat chinam,” a phrase that means hatred without cause. No matter that the Jews of the day studied Torah, observed the mitzvot (commandments) and donated to charitable causes. None of those activities could ameliorate their despicable personal behavior one to another.

The more traditionally observant Jews would slander their fellow Jews for holding differing beliefs, and more “modern” Jews would point the finger at those whose halakhic observance (the way in which they observed Jewish law) was not the same as their own. Jews from other sects were gossiped about and their beliefs and customs ridiculed. Jews embarrassed one another in public. For this the Second Temple was destroyed. Yet, because we Jews seem to continue to engage in sinat chinam, baseless hatred of one another, the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt.

The number of Jews worldwide is declining, synagogue membership is at a new low and denominational differences that often result in synagogue snobbery has driven many Jews away from traditional observance an belief.

Yet, in the face of all of these difficulties, it would seem that a new openness might emerge. One might expect that Jews would set our specific denominational differences aside and widen our embrace of Jews of all stripes and colors. It would seem that the timing couldn’t be better for a pluralistic approach.

Pluralistic Judaism is based on the Jewish concept of “Tarbut HaMachloket,” which, in Hebrew, means “freedom of thinking and speech,” and includes behaviors which help Jews of all backgrounds live successfully alongside those Jews with whom one might not agree.

Tarbut HaMachloket has roots in ancient times, when conflicting views of Judaism were represented in the Talmud by polar opposites, the houses of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Hillel’s more liberal views often took precedence over Shammai’s more strict interpretations, however the sages emphasized that both views, although sometimes contrary, were valid.

The Seven Fundamentals of Pluralistic Judaism

Pluralistic Judaism offers a practical application of Tarbut HaMalchloket in the following ways:

Pluralistic Judaism is open and welcoming to Jews of all backgrounds. This means that all Jews who attend a pluralistic synagogue can expect the full participation of women and the hand of Jewish welcome extended to interfaith families, gay and lesbian partners, and their children. A pluralistic synagogue respects traditionally observant Jews who are made to feel at home alongside Jews who are new to or returning to synagogue observance. The pluralistic synagogue welcomes B’nei Anusim, Jews from lost or hidden communities such as marranos and conversos who are beginning to discover and embrace their Jewish roots.

Pluralistic Judaism is non-denominational. This means that the pluralistic synagogue does not subscribe to any particular stream of Judaism, but is open to the thoughts and ideas of each denomination. Pluralistic Judaism respects each person’s background and ascribes to the philosophy that “labels are for the jelly jars, not the Jews.”

Pluralistic Judaism does not distinguish between those who are born Jewish and those who are Jews-by-Choice. Those who are born Jewish and those who have chosen Judaism are equal and are treated as such by the pluralistic rabbi and congregation.

Pluralistic Judaism is organizationally independent and is not affiliated with any Jewish organization or umbrella establishment. There is no bureaucracy or hierarchy. This means that each individual pluralistic synagogue organizes services, festivals and life cycle events to meet the needs of the group.

Pluralistic Judaism asks that each synagogue be self-supporting. There are no set dues or fees. Instead, the pluralistic synagogue follows in the tradition of Moses when he asked for donations to support the building of the mishkan (a sanctuary built while the Jews were wandering 40 years in the desert); “give when your heart is moved” (Exodus 35:5, 35:21). The rabbi often holds employment outside the synagogue, and serves her/his pluralistic community on an ad hoc basis. The pluralistic synagogue often shares space with an existing community organization or meets in private homes, always paying its own way as it goes.

Pluralistic Judaism respects the Jewish traditions surrounding the Hebrew language. This means that services will include common local language of the congregants as well as some Hebrew, but no one need be a Hebrew speaker or Hebrew language expert in order to participate. Hebrew transliteration is accepted as a legitimate first step on the road to Hebrew understanding.

Pluralistic Judaism respects Halakhah (Jewish law). In the pluralistic synagogue, Jewish law is explained and each person makes her/his own choice as to level of observance. Pluralistic Judaism acknowledges that the word “halakhah” is based in the Hebrew root “holech,” which means “to walk.” Thus halakhah is a changing phenomenon, implying that Jewish law moves forward and embraces new knowledge.

Pluralistic Judaism — One Synagogue’s Mission

Pluralistic Judaism is dedicated to achieving a balance between Jewish tradition and new ideas so that Judaism becomes and remains relevant to modern life. We subscribe to the joyful aspects of Jewish observance and we dedicate ourselves to maintaining warm relationships with each other and with the larger community. We extend the hand of Jewish welcome to everyone. We support Tikkun Olam (making the world a better place) and we leave individual political beliefs, parties and persuasions at the door. We respect the land of Israel and honor those Jews who live there as well as those who choose to live in the Diaspora. Our pluralistic synagogue, Ner Tamid del Sud in the south of Italy, offers a home to every Jew.


About Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is Italy's first woman rabbi and non-orthodox rabbi who lives and works in Italy. She has officiated many destination interfaith weddings and has co-officiated with Catholic priests, Protestant ministers as well as Muslim and Hindu lay leaders. Rabbi Barbara views her interfaith weddings as an essential first step in a couple's continuing Jewish traditions in their homes and with their children. Contact Rabbi Barbara at