Free-Range Judaism

I have to admit, as a parent of an elementary school-aged child, that I am a supporter of and practitioner of what has been called “free-range parenting.” I encourage my kid to strike out on his own – I offer him support and teach him how to manage certain kinds of situations; hand him a charged cell phone and a metro card, and give him a charge to go here or there at certain times.  I know the statistics about what is a danger to my kid, and I admit to always having been a bit of a data-hound – which means I probably worry less than some parents – and more than others. I worry mildly the first few times, and then once he’s handled an awkward situation or two well, I move on to finding something new for him to handle.

And in fact, I’ve noticed that my kid does fine in handling new situations – in fact, I have discovered to my great delight, that he has a fair amount of common sense. Possibly more than some adults I know of.

Recently, there have been a great many articles like this recent one in the New York Times which propose that college students looking for safe spaces on campus are a sign that we have infantilized our college students, and some of these articles have proposed that this is a result of our risk-averse parenting, sometimes described as “helicopter parenting.” Although I think that the authors of some of these pieces actually don’t understand what safe spaces are or how they work (a topic for another day, perhaps), I think that in the Jewish community, we might want to pay more attention to this discussion, because a more virulent version of it seems to be playing out on our campuses.

Oddly enough, though, it isn’t the students who seem to be wanting to protect themselves from dangerous ideas and dissent. In fact,  our students seem to be rather hardier than the straw students that have been described by these laments over the wimpiness of modern college students. To the contrary, Jewish college students across the country are demanding more dissent, more opinions, more information, more argument. The advent of Open Hillel is not because college students want protection from ideas, but rather because it is the “adults” surrounding them who want this protection.

Although it has not been made public who precisely is demanding that Hillels across the country exclude certain kinds of speakers –exclusively on the subject of Israel, and exclusively those who are considered out of bounds because they advocate BDS, or because they support maintaining a distinction between Israel and the settlements, or perhaps because they simply don’t support settlements adequately or toe the line on supporting Israel’s government’s actions- students in Hillels have been forced to either decline to be part of the national Hillel movement by joining the growing movement of “Open Hillels” (some of which have been forced to change their names by legal threats from national Hillel) or accede to being protected from hearing criticisms of Israel that are unpopular among a certain cohort of the Jewish community.

It seems to me that Jewish college students ought to have as much faith placed in them as I have in my elementary school kid. College is a place where we should all be exposed to new ideas, where we should be exploring them, evaluating what we think of them, even coming into conflict with those narratives that are popular in our community and may feel precious to some, and deciding what we will keep and what we will discard.

Telling our students that we think that they shouldn’t be exposed to dangerous ideas is – well, insulting. Telling them that they may not seek to hear these ideas is… beyond insulting. These are the young men and women who will be leading our communities in a few decades – or sooner. They need to be able to hear it all and judge for themselves. If we cannot trust them to hear and evaluate for themselves, we have done a terrible job of raising them.

But I’ve got a secret to tell. College should not be the end of intellectual exploration; it should not be the end of questioning, of criticizing beloved ideologies, of asking what the truth is, and whether we are pursuing it, or whether what we are pursuing is what is comfortable rather than what is true, or right, or good. When we tell college students they may not, as part of their Jewish college life, question what they are told about Israel, we demean not only them, but we demean Judaism. By putting some intellectual inquiry outside the bounds of Jewish life, we tell our students – and all Jews-  that Judaism is irrelevant; that it is afraid of the light of day; that it is weak. The sages would be ashamed of us.

I suspect, however, that it isn’t really that we think that students aren’t able to hear the different opinions and decide for themselves what is important, meaningful and true; rather I suspect that many of us are afraid that in fact, they are all too able to do so, and deep down, many of us are afraid that if they are able to discern for themselves that things are perhaps not quite as presented to them, we also will be forced to face some very difficult truths.

In tractate Baba Metzia of the Talmud (84a), the tragic death of Reish Lakish comes about because his chevruta – his study partner – Rabbi Yochanan, insulted Reish Lakish and when Reish Lakish took offense, Rabbi Yochanan refused to forgive him (the rabbis did understand human dynamics well, did they not?). As a result, Rabbi Yochanan was left without his study partner, a partner whose refusal to yes-man Rabbi Yochanan was the source of their quarrel. And yet, Rabbi Yochanan could not be consoled. His friends sent him the cleverest rabbi they could find  to console him and to study with him. The story ends,with his new study partner sitting with him, offering Rabbi Yochanan proofs that his arguments are correct.

Rabbi Yochanan finally realizes what he has lost: Reish Lakish would offer dozens of objections to every point he made, and so even when he was right, it led to a fuller understanding. In the end, Rabbi Yochanan cannot be consoled for the loss of the friend who in his love, would only argue with him, and he, too, dies.

The rabbis of the Talmud did not shy away from argument. They often described one another as mountains grinding against each other. For the sake of heaven, they tell us, great argument and great disagreement are not only tolerated, but sought out. The Talmud records not only rules and outcomes, but arguments and philosophies and stories about how the rabbis interacted with one another.  It does so because our sages knew that truth is hard to come by, and to get to it, one cannot shy away from hearing perspectives that are uncomfortable, and maybe unpleasant in what they reveal to us, not just about the world, but also about ourselves.


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