2 Sept 2011
3 Elul 5771
This week our students, faculty, and staff traveled to Camp Yavneh for our annual All-School Retreat. We open the year with this retreat for three primary reasons: to reaffirm and practice living out our values and school culture; to open up and warm up our minds and hearts for learning; and to develop and strengthen the relationships at the heart of our learning community. This short but powerful retreat lays the groundwork for a productive and meaningful school year.
One program re-introduced our students to the concept of pluralism and its implications for our school and community. In small groups, students and faculty wrestled with three different “pluralism dilemmas.” As an introduction to these dilemmas I led a brief text study where I asked students and faculty to study together the following rabbinic source and to consider what we can learn from it about learning and pluralism:
“. . . Rabbi Hiyyah bar Abba said: Even a parent and his child, a teacher and his student, who are occupied with Torah at the same gate become enemies with one another (through their disputes over Torah), yet they do not move from there until they come to love one another . . .” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 30b)
After a brief period of chevruta (partner) study, we began an all-school discussion of the text. Students from every grade offered interpretations and insights that spoke directly to our pluralistic educational mission. One student suggested that the reason they move from enemies to loving one another is because, even though they initially disagree, they, ultimately, are able to find the shared values that united them. Another student countered that they do not come to love one another because they find an area of agreement; in fact, their dispute continues, yet, through their engagement with each other, they come to understand their own and each other’s positions better. As a result of this, they grow to respect and love one another.
Both of these interpretations illustrate core beliefs of Gann. First, we can honor and preserve our diversity while also affirming and celebrating our commitments to the shared values that unite us, such as the State of Israel, Shabbat, and Talmud Torah. Second, diversity actually can strengthen our community when we choose not merely to tolerate our differences but rather to respectfully engage with them, to wrestle together about our values and beliefs, and to hold firm to our convictions even in the face of challenge and makhloket (principled debate).
The final comment on the text came from a freshman, who taught me something that I had not heard before. She suggested that the reason why the text emphasizes that “they do not move from there” is because it takes a long time for them to explore why exactly they disagree and why a disagreement has turned them into enemies. It is as if they are working through the questions, “Where have we gone wrong here? Why has this turned from makhloket into enmity?”
This beautiful reading reminded all of us that communication is essential to learning and to full engagement with one another. When we are willing not only to discuss what we disagree about but also to reflect critically and humbly on how we disagree, then our capacity to communicate effectively with one another truly can transform our relationships and our learning.
May the levels of energy and engagement that we experienced this week pave the way for an inspiring year of learning and growth for all of us.
Rabbi Marc Baker