Jewish Wisdom about Viewpoint Diversity
What are the most wonderful and memorable experiences you have had in your education? For me they are mostly moments of connection — when one set of ideas suddenly configures itself into a pattern that matches or slots into another set of ideas. It’s when you suddenly “get” a theory, or when you’re reading something in one course or discipline that unexpectedly solves a problem you’ve been puzzling over somewhere else. These are moments of illumination and excitement. At their most intense, they qualify as experiences of awe, which is an emotion that can change people’s identities, careers, and values. (For more on the joy of connection, see John Tomasi’s recent essay on curiosity.)
Writing my first book, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), was a long series of such joyful connections as I explored ten Great Truths that sages in most of the world’s ancient cultures had stated in different ways. But along with those ten, there were a bunch that ended up on the cutting room floor — quotes for which I didn’t have enough examples to justify writing a chapter. Here is one, from the Hebrew Bible, with particular relevance to Heterodox Academy:
Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. (Proverbs 27:17)
Years later, after I moved to New York City in 2012, I joined a synagogue so that my children could get some degree of Jewish education. My wife and I chose Central Synagogue largely because of its rabbi, Angela Buchdahl. We chose her not just because (like my children) she has a Korean mother and a Jewish father, but because she is a great orator: Her sermons are always emotionally moving as well as deeply scholarly; they address challenges of today while being grounded in Jewish scripture and lore.
A few years after that, in 2015, I cofounded Heterodox Academy (HxA) and, while advocating for the importance of viewpoint diversity, I fell in love with John Stuart Mill, particularly his essay On Liberty. I loved that text so much that when fate brought a Mill scholar (Richard Reeves) and an edgy artist (David Cicirelli) into my inbox in the same month, the three of us hatched the idea to create an illustrated book: All Minus One. It’s an edited version of Mill’s exploration of how, exactly, “one person sharpens the wits of another.” For example:
The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it.
As I got deeper into my reading of Mill, I also began to learn more about the Jewish tradition of Talmudic study in pairs, called “hevruta.” Jews long ago put into practice the idea that we need a partner to question us, criticize us, and help us overcome our own confirmation bias. Hearing these stories from the rabbis at Central Synagogue, I experienced moments of connection, waves of awe. Talmud scholars and John Stuart Mill had all encountered the problems that led to the creation of HxA. They all offered advice, and it was largely the same advice: Be humble, recognize your limits, and seek out those who differ from you because they are best placed to help you become smarter.
And then came Yom Kippur 5782 (also known as 2021). Rabbi Buchdahl put the argument all together in one sermon titled “Why Jews Value Dissent.” Like most people leading anything these days, she has had to manage a community often strained by political disagreement. Her sermon offers guidance to anyone who is in a leadership role or would simply prefer to get smarter rather than angrier. I knew, while listening, that I had to post the sermon at HxA.
I’ll offer you one quote here, and then I hope you will watch the 20-minute video.
Let’s remember what our tradition teaches: not what to believe, but how we get to beliefs worth holding. Questioning is sacred. Dissent is productive. If you start to debate, you may discover something that transcends the binary: You may discover a third opinion. And it will inevitably be wiser than either of the first two. On this day of Atonement, in this restless return to our best selves, consider committing to this core Jewish practice: Seek out a hevruta in your life.
Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. It is a Great Truth, and it is what makes universities great. Thank you, Rabbi Buchdahl, for this connection.
[A transcript of the sermon is also available.]
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