Mahloket Matters Curriculum

The one thing many people agree about lately, is that social and political disagreements are becoming more and more conflictual and toxic. The polarization in America, in Israel, and in many other countries in the world seems to increase, and people from one political camp treat people from another political camp as true enemies. One camp sees the other as a traitor, while the other sees the first as immoral. Civil discourse is turning less and less civil, and it looks as if no one is trying to actually listen and understand those with opposing views.

 

This is not something that happens out there, far from us or our community. People lose sense of belonging or feel alienated within their neighborhood, workplace, classroom, congregation and even family, and the rifts are not just theoretical, they are real, personal and painful.

As an educator, I believe that one of the best ways to study is through a dialectic process. Debates are a great tool for learning, and being in an uncomfortable place is so important and necessary for growth. However, in today’s climate it is not an easy task, and when the tension exists to begin with, it is a bit scary to encourage even more disagreements.  This is why I became really excited when I heard about an educational program created by Pardes Center for Jewish Educators, named “Mahloket Matters – navigating inner challenges and societal discord through Jewish text and social emotional learning”. Pardes adapted their “How to disagree constructively” program, especially for high school students, and was looking for schools to participate in a pilot of teaching their curriculum.

Both 9th and 10th graders in JTC are enjoying this program in the past weeks, in different capacities, and I believe that all of us – students and teachers – are learning and benefiting so much from it. We began by learning that disagreements and debates are of the fundamentals of Judaism. Through some selected Jewish texts, we understood that talking to others, and actually hearing them, can reveal things that you cannot see by yourself. We are wiser if we recognize the limits of our knowledge and therefore we should always seek to learn more. Intellectual humility (understanding that we can never possess total knowledge) and intellectual curiosity (always seeking to get more informed) are two necessary ingredients for an authentic conversation and a constructive debate. We do not have to change our minds while engaged in it, but when each side understands where the other is coming from, it has a humanizing effect which is crucial for having conversations with people whom we disagree with.

Mishnah Avot, 5:17, taught us about the difference between “Mahloket le-shem shamayim” (a disagreement for the sake of heaven) and “Mahloket lo le-shem shamayim” (a disagreement not for the sake of heaven). What mainly differentiate them from one another is the motivation behind the disagreement. If one engages in the debate in pursuit of truth, or in order to solve a problem, learn and grow – this is for the sake of heaven. If one engages in the debate out of a desire to be right or to prove the other wrong, motivated by jealousy or power – this is not for the sake of heaven. We further learnt from Hillel and Shammai some tips for a constructive disagreement: debate the issue without personal attacks and try to maintain good relationship; listen to the other and be open to admitting you might be wrong; consider that both you and the other might be right, despite holding opposite positions; and of course, always check your motivation.

Mahloket le-shem shamayim is not too easy to achieve! Unfortunately, many disagreements are destructive and not very productive, especially lately it seems. In class we dived into the field of social psychology and tried to understand the mental mechanisms in our brain that make us react in certain ways, those who are not so helpful for our disputes with others. By understanding, scientifically, why it is so difficult for people to engage in a constructive conversation, we can be more open to controlling it. If we understand where other people are coming from, we might be able to accept their opinions and not feel threatened by them.

We have few more units ahead of us, where we will try to provide our teens with tools to manage their emotions and navigate challenges effectively; We will work more on “how to” exercise a good debate; and we will practice through the Sanhedrin way (well, Mini-Sanhedrin). If we can teach the new generation to always listen, respect, get more informed, and not being afraid of speaking up what they believe in, we are on the path towards a less divisive society, where people with different views can only benefit from this diversity. Judaism encourages us to keep asking, to listen, to argue and to grow. We are embracing it!!!