Advice from the Talmud to Coddled American Minds

Dec. 17 2018

In their recent book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that many of the problems plaguing contemporary higher education stem from the tendency of professors to teach students to demonize rather than engage dissenting opinions. Mark Gottlieb, reviewing the book, suggests that some of the principles of traditional Jewish education can serve as an antidote to these trends:

Just look at any traditional Jewish house of study. . . and you’ll see students and scholars, young and old (and, in the modern Orthodox world, male and female), engaging in what the Talmud suggestively calls “the War of Torah.” . . . .

The heart and soul of the “holy intellectualism” [that, in the words of one contemporary sage, characterizes the Talmud] resides in the spirit of discussion, debate, and disagreement that animates the give-and-take on each page of the Talmud and in the classrooms and houses of study where these ancient texts are being interrogated and explained. And that is why . . . the Talmud and its commentaries are generally studied in pairs, ḥavrutot, who argue, dissect, and strive to plumb the depths of the text. These study partners, often but not always, go on to become lifelong friends and confidants—sweet fruit from the “War of Torah.” . . .

Consider, [moreover], the talmudic ruling requiring of a judge the ability to “declare an unclean thing pure in 49 ways,” an expression meant to convey that the critical capacity to see an issue from all competing sides is, paradoxically, the way to arrive at a more refined sense of the truth. Similarly, Jewish jurisprudence invalidates a capital court case in which the judges return a unanimous verdict of guilty—an endorsement of both the utility and the moral superiority of “viewpoint diversity” if ever there was one. . . .

The two most prominent rival schools of jurisprudence in the Talmud are known as the academy of Hillel and the academy of Shammai. As a general rule, the law follows the academy of Hillel. Why? Because, [tradition] explains, the rabbis of the academy of Hillel would teach the opinion of the academy of Shammai before their own. Whether this reflected mere etiquette or sincere commitment to a more deliberative and inclusive approach, it’s clear that, in taking seriously the arguments of its opponents, the academy of Hillel did something fundamentally praiseworthy. . . . Talmud study may not be for everyone, but internalizing the pedagogy of that ancient and eternally new discipline would go a long way toward opening American minds again.

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More about: History & Ideas, Jewish education, Talmud, University

The Riots on the Gaza Border are Carefully Coordinated Attacks on Israel, and Should Be Treated as Such

Jan. 16 2019

On Friday, the weekly riots at the Gaza security fence resumed in full force: 13,000 people participated, and a Palestinian woman was apparently killed by Israeli gunfire. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) had established a commission of inquiry in May, not long after these riots began, “to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human-rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, . . . particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests that began on March 20, 2018.” In a report to the commission, Richard Kemp, a retired senior British officer, concludes, after investigating the situation at the Gaza border, that there is no evidence whatsoever of Israeli wrongdoing, and that the commission is operating under faulty assumptions:

The terms of [the commission’s] mandate are self-evidently biased against the state of Israel and the IDF. The context cited—“the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests”—make clear that the UNHRC either failed to understand what was happening on the ground or deliberately misrepresented the reality. In addition, the commission’s mandate terms the Gaza Strip “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” which it is not. . . .

[T]he so-called “civilian protests” in reality were, and continue to be, a deliberate military operation, orchestrated and controlled by Hamas, [a] terrorist group that has been waging an armed conflict against Israel for many years. Their intention was and remains to kill and wound IDF soldiers, to break through the border fence, to murder and maim innocent civilians, to destroy property, and to compel the IDF to take defensive action resulting in the death of Gaza civilians for exploitation in the international arena. [Israel’s] “military assaults” were not what was implied by this prejudicial mandate. They were in fact lawful, proportionate, and restrained defensive actions. . . .

Suggestions that these demonstrations are [protests] against Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip are demonstrably false and easily refuted by cursory viewing of Hamas and other public statements made at the time of the events. . . . Further, it is clear that Hamas intended this violence to continue its long-standing strategy of creating and intensifying international outrage, vilification, isolation, and criminalization of the state of Israel and its officials. . . .

[T]he starkest indication that these events were entirely under Hamas control is the simple fact that, when it suited Hamas’s political interests, the [demonstrations] occurred and were of a violent nature, and when such actions did not serve Hamas’s interests, the border was quiet. As the most recent example of this, in November 2018, Qatar began to make large cash payments to Hamas in Gaza. The most recent payment of $15 million was handed over in December 2018. These payments are reportedly part of an agreement with Hamas to diminish violence along the Gaza border. [After] the first payment, the border violence [was] reduced [and the] demonstrations [became] far more restrained.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, IDF, Israel & Zionism, Laws of war, UNHRC