Global, Religion

How facing troubling Jewish texts can make us better global citizens

[pullquote align=right] How is my generation to engage in the constructive conflict that makes us more morally courageous global citizens?
[/pullquote]Several years ago, I attended a lecture by Miri Eisin, former international media advisor for the Israeli Prime Minister’s office. She made a point that has deeply influenced the way I think about how I and my “millennial” peers interact with not just Israel-related media, but with cultural content generally – and what we might be missing.
The average 20-something Westerner, Eisin pointed out, consumes news much differently than our pre-social media predecessors. The more accustomed we become to consuming our news through the posts of our friends, she warned – and, I would add, the more sophisticated Facebook becomes at feeding us “trending” material based on our interests – the more homogenous the content we consume is becoming.
As my generation’s exposure to diverse viewpoints grows narrower, our capacity for engaging in thoughtful dialogue around such viewpoints also seems to be shrinking. “Today’s college students have come of age in a time of growing diversity and political polarization. No one could blame them for wanting to back away from confrontation,” notes Molly Worthen, a professor at the University of North Carolina, in her recent New York Times op-ed “Stop Staying I Feel Like” (which, I admit, I came across on social media via friends). But Worthen — who is watching a growing number of millennials avoid conflict by using the fuzzy and irrefutable language “I feel like” rather than the more clear and confident “I think” – is concerned such trends undermine our ability to engage in public discourse.
Global Torah podcast announcement 2016
Click to listen to episodes one and two of Global Torah Podcast.
I’m a firm believer in constructive conflict as a healthy exercise both for individuals and for societies. Encountering ideas that contrast with our own beliefs and values not only opens doors toward ways of thinking we haven’t considered, but also helps us to clarify, and recommit ourselves to, what we hold to be true and important. If, as Eisin pointed out, the sources from which we draw our opinions are becoming narrower and more in line with what is palatable to us; and if, as Worthen worries, we are unwilling to take ownership of our opinions; how is my generation to engage in the constructive conflict that makes us more engaged, compassionate, and morally courageous global citizens?
These questions were on my mind recently as I moderated a conversation for OLAM and Pardes’ new podcast, Global Torah. The first episode, called “What’s Text Got to Do with It?” explores the relevance of Jewish text in conversations about global justice and international development.
I asked our guests – a scholar of Jewish social justice and two Jewish professionals in the international development field – what they do when they encounter a Jewish text that “misses the mark”: that runs counter to conventional wisdom in the international development sector or comes into conflict with their own ethical attitudes.
[pullquote align=right] [A Jewish text] that I disagree with or isn’t politically correct in the terms of today, that doesn’t scare me in the slightest. It’s actually really exciting.
[/pullquote]Danielle Abraham, a seasoned development professional and a relative newcomer to the study of ancient Jewish text, shared the following insight:
“If I read [a Jewish text] that perhaps is uncomfortable for me, that I disagree with or isn’t politically correct in the terms of today, that doesn’t scare me in the slightest. It’s actually really exciting. I have to engage with the text and ask myself, well what do I do with this text? Do I reinterpret it? Do I disregard it and carry on because it doesn’t resonate with my moral compass?… the goal is to read critically, to see, does it challenge what I already think, or does it enrich my thoughts if that’s what I already think – is there something new to learn from that text, or to aspire to?”
What struck me in Danielle’s discussion of Jewish text study was a kind of accountability to the text that I personally feel too rarely when I encounter challenging posts on my newsfeed. Approaching a text is exciting, says Danielle, because we don’t know in advance how it’s going to land on us; and the best case scenario is not necessarily that it will land pleasantly. The most valuable read is the one that raises questions within us – particularly the question, what do I do with this text?
[pullquote align=left] My answer might be, I reject this idea as morally reprehensible!
[/pullquote]In an era where the ideas we interact with are increasingly correlated with our “likes”; where we’d rather temper the strength of our own opinions than, God-forbid, start a fight; I find myself returning to Jewish text study as an antidote to the creep of conflict-avoidance. Text study keeps my critical-engagement muscles active, and it reminds me what it feels like to be accountable to a marketplace of ideas. When I encounter an unpleasant idea in a Jewish text, the underlying principle is that, like it or not, that text belongs to me. It is part of my inheritance – my culture, my tradition – and therefore I am required to answer to it.
My answer might be, I reject this idea as morally reprehensible!, and I would, as one of our guests on Global Torah points out, be joining a long-standing Jewish tradition of moral outrage directed at our predecessors. Such rejection is an important option, but only after I have engaged; only after I have asked the question: does this have something to teach me?
Studying ancient Jewish texts is an ideal place to break down my fear of confrontation for several reasons. First, particularly in the study of Talmud — where arguments, not just bottom-line conclusions, are regarded as integral to the text itself — grappling with multiple perspectives is part and parcel to the learning process. And second, engaging in conflict with my ancestors feels like a low-stakes practice ground for engaging with my peers: I am unlikely to offend a scholar who has been dead for several centuries, and even if he could hear me, he’s probably used to it.
The Global Torah podcast series highlights ways in which our exploration of Jewish tradition can strengthen our capacity for global citizenship. The series contains plenty of quotable, inspiring Jewish insights that strike a sweet chord alongside my young Western liberal sentiments. But the more exciting moments for me in each episode are the moments of righteous indignation turned critical-engagement – when guests come up against a tough passage and ask, what do I do with this?
More than the individual learning from each episode, hosting this series has renewed my commitment to approach text – all text – with a stronger sense of accountability. As uncomfortable as it feels, I’ve been trying to pause before clicking “hide” on an offensive post and ask first: what can I learn?

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