Student Activism and Arguments For the Sake of Heaven

11 March 2016
1 Adar 2, 5776
Shalom Chaverim,

I had the pleasure of spending last Shabbat at Gann with three of my children for our 10th grade Shabbaton. One of the many fun and inspiring moments really stayed with me, probably because I travelled the next morning to Washington, DC.

At the beginning of the Shabbaton just before the candle lighting, all of the students and teachers sat in a circle and reflected on highlights and lowlights from our past week. One student shared a story that seemed to address both. She explained that she was in an online discussion group with thousands of Jewish high school students across the country, and during a debate about a contentious issue, the discussion began to deteriorate as students posted and piled on hurtful comments and personal attacks.

Our student shared that she was disappointed in where the conversation went, so she chose to post something that she had learned in her Gann Jewish Studies class on pluralism. “I wrote about the idea of makhloket l’shem shamayim (debate for the sake of heaven) and tried to re-elevate the discussions to the level of values and ideas, rather than personal attacks.” The student was referring to the teaching in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:17 that certain principled arguments will never be resolved because they are rooted in timeless value conflicts; other arguments (“not for the sake of heaven”), sometimes more technical in nature and often motivated by politics or ego, will not last. Our student was calling on her peers to check their intentions and to argue respectfully and with a higher purpose, rather than with the goals of insulting and cutting one another down.

This experience was, indeed, both a lowlight and a highlight. It reminds us that social media makes it so easy for people to say nasty and hurtful things to one another. I worry that for our children this has become the norm rather than the exception. It also reminds us how difficult it can be to hold both firm commitment to our principles and convictions and respect and empathy for those with whom we strongly disagree. It is just so easy to fall prey to the lesser angels of our nature, especially when passionately engaged.

And it was a highlight because our student was an upstander and a teacher of her peers. Grounded in the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, she challenged others to be their best selves and to hold themselves to the higher ethical standards that both Judaism and democracy demand of us.

This story was on my mind when I traveled on Sunday to Washington, DC, for a two-day leadership retreat with a group of Greater Boston’s young leaders on CJP’s Acharai program. We met with communal leaders and lobbyists, journalists and politicians and explored what it means to live out our passions and values through civic engagement and activism.

I want to share two observations of Washington that pleasantly surprised me in light of a presidential primary season that has challenged many people’s faith in our country and our democracy. First the people we met are working with authentic passion and earnestness to improve our country and our world. They care deeply about the vision and values of our democracy and tikkun olam and seem genuinely motivated by service and civic responsibility.

Second, many of them talked about being “post partisan,” which reflected their desire to transcend rigid ideological divides that can paralyze our political process and jeopardize the character of our country, our leaders, and our civic discourse. We saw that the closer you get to the real work of leadership (as opposed to, let’s say, campaigning for election or re-election), the more you understand the importance of pragmatism and compromise in the name of getting stuff done and the more you realize that the world is far more complicated than it may seem or than many of us want to believe. Real leadership and lasting change only happen when both leaders and citizens are willing to stay in and struggle through complexity rather than mislead ourselves or others into thinking that we can solve our most pressing problems with soundbites and easy answers, let alone chest-beating and insults.

This was what our student was trying to tell thousands of her peers when she bravely stepped up and into their online discussion. This is the kind of Jewish-values-based moral courage and peer-to-peer activism that our community and our country need.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

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