In Focus: The Dividends of Diversity

“Diversity” is a current buzzword in many segments of American society. Corporations, academic and arts institutions, as well as media outlets and other establishments are all discussing how to ensure diversity in their people and programs.

Within the Orthodox Jewish community, diversity—of thought, of perspective, and even of practice—should be valued as well. Why? Because diversity enriches our community and is a pathway to greater knowledge.

Diversity was, in fact, woven into the very fabric of Creation. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin, chap. 4) teaches that a sign of Hashem’s greatness is that humanity was created in the form of a single person—Adam—yet all of the individuals who followed Adam’s creation have a unique physical appearance. The notion of diversity is amplified in a midrash that comments on the practice of reciting a berachah upon seeing a large gathering of people. The midrash says that this is praiseworthy because “just as people’s physical appearances are unique so too are their thoughts unique from each other.”

What are the benefits of diversity such that Hashem embedded it in our world? There are three ideas worth considering, which can offer immeasurable gains if we are mindful of them.

1. A Path to Greater Knowledge
One of the most harmful dynamics in contemporary society is the “great sorting.”  This term refers to people who only connect with others who share the same social, political and other outlooks as themselves, and never bother to have their perspectives or assumptions challenged. This is exacerbated by the media that no longer can be said to “broadcast”; instead, the media “narrowcasts” to those individuals whose views they reinforce in a self-confirming loop that shares only information that hardens already-held opinions, irrespective of the truth.

But each of us knows that our individual knowledge is limited. That is why we consult with experts such as doctors or lawyers in dealing with consequential personal matters. Each of us knows that wisdom and sound judgment are based upon reliable evidence as opposed to rank opinion. And each of us knows that knowledge is refined and more reliable when tested and challenged and then proven correct.

Surely, this is why a centerpiece of Torah study is learning b’chavruta, with a study partner. Learning a given passage of Talmud or Tanach with a partner enables each chavruta to share his or her perspective and knowledge while challenging the other’s assumptions and understandings. Indeed, in the view of some commentators, the Talmudic statement “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chayim, These and these are the words of the Living God” expresses the idea that halachah has embedded within it multiple truths with some to be elicited and highlighted at certain times and others at other times. That also explains why we accept—even contemporaneously—differing practices between various halachic traditions or minhagim. Diversity of perspective leads to greater understanding and knowledge and, in the case of the pursuit of the Divine (within the parameters of the halachic tradition) greater closeness to Hashem.

2. Appreciation of the Other
In his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, contends that God created diversity in humanity as a fundamental lesson with regard to the “stranger”: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. That is the converse of [destructive] tribalism . . . It takes difference seriously.”

In the Orthodox Jewish community, those who daven Nusach Ashkenaz do not devalue the prayers or personhood of those who daven Nusach Ha’Ari. We shouldn’t trivialize this point; we should amplify it and extend it to a proper recognition and valuing of our fellow Orthodox Jews across the spectrum—and, if we take Rabbi Sacks’s teaching to heart—to other Jews and beyond to all humanity.

Extending such value to others is, at a minimum, in our self-interest, as we would wish others to extend the same to us. But Rabbi Sacks is challenging us to see this modus vivendi as a Divine command by the Creator of all humanity.

3. Compelling Successful Collaboration
Studies published in the Harvard Business Review and elsewhere have documented that diverse teams are more successful along many metrics. When compared to homogeneous teams, diverse teams were found to focus more on the facts rather than biases related to the challenge at hand, analyze that information more carefully and be more innovative in problem solving.

These findings should not be terribly surprising. We know from many areas of life that teams of people need complementary skill sets to make “a whole greater than the sum of its parts” and achieve success.

As small as the Orthodox Jewish community is, we further silo ourselves into subgroups—Chassidic, Litvish, Centrist, Modern, liberal and more. While for the most part, this occurs organically and not maliciously, it is counterproductive to achieving the most we can for our community. Each subset of our community could benefit from greater engagement with others across the default divides.

Each of us can take steps to do this ourselves from a posture of curiosity, meet and speak with others who have a different perspective and grow a groundswell of engagement that will expand understanding across the Jewish world and beyond.

Nathan Diament is executive director of the OU Advocacy Center.

This article was featured in the Winter 2021 issue of Jewish Action.