Debate and Jewish Democratic Education

 18 October 2013 
14 Cheshvan 5774  
Shalom Chaverim,  

While the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week about the Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria for college admissions, Gann students seized the moment to debate the merits of affirmative action. A group of primarily underclassmen (9th and 10th graders) chose to spend their lunch block participating in a political debate hosted by Gann’s Junior State of America (JSA) club. I had the opportunity to observe the debate, led and moderated entirely by students for students.  

I was not able to stay for the entire debate, but I did hear several arguments on both sides of the affirmative action resolution, with each side making a strong case.   I left unsure which way I would have voted had I stayed until the end. Later in the day, I saw the student moderator and eagerly asked him, “Nu? Did the resolution pass?” “Yes,” he said, “by a unanimous vote.” I was shocked. “How is that possible, when some of the students argued so passionately and articulately against the resolution?” I inquired. “Oh,” he explained simply, “those students were asked to argue the con perspective even though they did not agree with it. That’s part of what JSA and these debates are all about.”  

This was not the first time that one of my students became my teacher, enlightening me about the JSA debate format and, more significantly, reminding me about a principle and pedagogy of democratic education. One of the most effective ways to teach students to think critically, to develop intellectual flexibility and adaptability, and to empathize with ideas and perspectives different from their own is to ask them to inhabit new and different views and opinions. Our teachers ask their students to do this all the time through examining historical events, close literary analysis, scientific exploration of natural phenomena, geometric proofs, and Talmudic give-and-take. In order to navigate a complex world, students need to be able to see and hold multiple perspectives on what is true and right, while also developing greater confidence about their own moral, intellectual, political, theological convictions.  

At the heart of Gann’s pluralistic educational philosophy is our belief that these two stances toward the world—passionate conviction about one’s own views and genuine respect for and engagement with different and opposing views—are not irreconcilable. On the contrary, if our students are going to contribute their voices to the betterment of the Jewish People, American democracy, and the world, we must make these oft competing habits of mind a yes-and rather than an either-or.  

In this week’s Torah portion, as he passionately argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom, Abraham is the great debater, modeling passionate moral conviction and artful rhetoric. He exhibits holy chutzpah with his famous challenge to God, “HaShofet kol haaretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? Will the Judge of the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25) Abraham is not arguing for argument’s sake, nor is he playing “devil’s advocate.” God invites him into a conversation about God’s decision to destroy Sodom in order to teach him and us that it is our covenantal responsibility to challenge one another and ourselves—with humility, yes, and with moral courage—in pursuit of the just, the right, and the true and out of genuine compassion for those who cannot argue on their own behalf.  

Some of the most important lessons we can learn from Abraham and from the JSA debate are that great Jewish education is great education, that sharpening minds and shaping character go hand-in-hand, and that, at its best, pursuit of intellectual and academic excellence aligns with and serves the higher purposes of promoting moral responsibility, civic engagement, and Jewish, American, and global citizenship.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  





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