30 May 2014
Rosh Chodesh Sivan
This week was our last Hakhel, our weekly, student-run assembly and community announcement time. As part of this week’s announcements, our Student Council president followed up on the Debate Midrash about the Pledge of Allegiance that I described in my weekly message two weeks ago.
He began by thanking and praising the students for their passionate and respectful engagement during the debate. It was a powerful display of leadership, democratic process, and citizenship-enacted. What particularly inspired me were the thoughtfulness, the range of student voices, and the active participation through listening, even from those who did not hold strong opinions or feel moved to speak. Rather than reduce the question about whether or not to say the Pledge to a simple matter of patriotism, of who loves America more, our students made sophisticated arguments about many of the values and value conflicts underlying the question at hand. How do we balance our aspirations and vision for the future with the acknowledgement of current reality? How do we honor our diversity while finding enough unity and conformity to be a strong community? Should we be pledging allegiance to anything, especially in light of our Jewish historical consciousness (let alone our developmentally appropriate resistance to conformity…)? One student compared the Pledge to the Torah, in that it is a timeless text. “It might not have reflected or included all of our current values, such as civil rights and gender egalitarianism, when it was written, but, like our Jewish canonical texts, it is a timeless text that can evolve and whose words we can imbue with new meaning and interpretation.” What an extraordinary example of what it means to think like a Jewish American!
After thanking the student body, our Student Council president explained that the final vote, an approximately 60-40 split, left us in a challenging situation and revealed the difficulty with a majority-rules, decision-making process. While we would say the Pledge as a result of the majority’s decision, he charged a student committee to seek a path forward that would be more inclusive of a greater number of students. Just before Hakhel, one student approached me, questioning this decision in the name of pluralism. “I thought there are no minorities in pluralism,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right for the community to be asked to do something with which many of us do not agree or feel comfortable.” This wonderful question prompted my final Hakhel remarks of the year.
I took the opportunity to explain a built-in paradox of pluralism that is also reflected in our Jewish tradition. One of the complexities of the human condition that emerges from our rabbis’ thinking and arguments is the notion of a “makhloket l’shem shamayim – a dispute for the sake of heaven,” described in Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot. When we are arguing with the right intentions about matters of theological, philosophical, moral import, often there is not and never will be one right answer. These disputes will never be fully resolved. The debates will and must continue. “These and these are the words of the living God,” the Talmud teaches us. Thus, our school’s laboratory of pluralism strives to develop in our students the capacities to enter into and participate in these sacred makhlokot (debates, disputes), to embrace value conflicts and to find meaning and purpose because of, not in spite of, the nuance and complexity of our Jewish tradition and the world in which they live.
At the same time, I told our students, we also strive to develop in them the skills and capacities of value-based living and community building. We are not merely a pluralism laboratory or an ivory tower of debate and intellectual-theological wrestling. We are a living community of human beings and, as such, we have a human need and responsibility to live out our values with conviction and commitment. This means making choices as individuals and as a community, choices that inevitably will, at least temporarily, weigh some values and viewpoints over others. In the revelation at Sinai, which we will re-experience on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, God calls to us in a voice that is simultaneously uni- and multi-vocal, and the Torah is revealed with 70 faces. We are also called, commanded, to act, to bring this voice and these faces into our concrete, time-bound, human world at all times in every generation. The future of the Jewish People, American society, and the world desperately needs people, citizens, and leaders who embody both the capacities to embrace and live with complexity and the willingness to act and to lead. Our students give me great hope for our future.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
Rabbi Marc Baker