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

 

War with Iran Isn’t on the Horizon. So Why All the Arguments against It?

As the U.S. has responded to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, various observers in the press have argued that National Security Advisor John Bolton somehow seeks to drag President Trump into a war with Iran against his will. Matthew Continetti points out the absurdities of this argument, and its origins:

Never mind that President Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Bolton have not said a single word about a preemptive strike, much less a full-scale war, against Iran. Never mind that the president’s reluctance for overseas intervention is well known. The “anti-war” cries are not about context, and they are certainly not about deterring Iran. Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.

It’s a storyline that originated in Iran. Toward the end of April, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up in New York and gave an interview to Reuters where he said, “I don’t think [Trump] wants war,” but “that doesn’t exclude him basically being lured into one” by Bolton. . . . And now this regime talking point is everywhere. “It’s John Bolton’s world. Trump is just living in it,” write two former Obama officials in the Los Angeles Times. “John Bolton is Donald Trump’s war whisperer,” writes Peter Bergen on CNN.com. . . .

Recall Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes’s admission to the New York Times Magazine in 2016 [that] “We created an echo chamber” to attack the Iran deal’s opponents through leaks and tips to the D.C. press. . . . Members of the echo chamber aren’t for attacking Iran, but they are all for slandering its American opponents. The latest target is Bolton. . . .

The Iranians are in a box. U.S. sanctions are crushing the economy, but if they leave the agreement with Europe they will be back to square one. To escape the box you try to punch your way out. That’s why Iran has assumed a threatening posture: provoking an American attack could bolster waning domestic support for the regime and divide the Western alliance.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Javad Zarif, John Bolton, U.S. Foreign policy