Why civil discourse is imperative for inter-Jewish dialogue

Courtesy of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation Edgar Bronfman with Bronfman Youth Fellowships students. The increasingly partisan tone of the upcoming … Continued

Courtesy of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation

Edgar Bronfman with Bronfman Youth Fellowships students.

The increasingly partisan tone of the upcoming presidential election manifests a powerful cultural trend in which we seek out information that supports the views we already hold. More and more, we live in a society where people can shield themselves from interaction. They hear what it is they want to hear, seek news from sources they know will support their views, and socialize in groups that share their political and cultural beliefs. We tend to find our camps and stick in them—liberal on one side, conservative to the other. This has become particularly problematic for those of us involved in Jewish life.

Such a close-minded attitude does no one any favors. True learning comes from engaging in discourse with those who are profoundly different. Your mind may not be swayed, but the interaction should open up your eyes. The ability to broaden our vision moves us forward into a powerful Jewish future where we challenge each other in exploring difficult questions. Challenging what I believe has been one of the great joys on my life, especially when I don’t come to the expected answers.

Courtesy of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation

Edgar Bronfman founded the Bronfman Youth Fellowships 25 years ago.

I am 83 this year and after a lifetime of Jewish activism, I have determined that what I hold to be the greatest Jewish value is our ability to question. The confidence that Judaism can accommodate doubt is a deeply cherished value of mine, and one which a program I founded 25 years ago — the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel—hopefully embodies. As the silver anniversary of this program approaches, its mission is something I see as the most important value I wish to impart to the Jewish world: That Jews learn deeply, feel free to question each other, themselves, and the world around them. It is the type of Jewish education I wish I had gotten, and the one I wish I had given to my children.

The anniversary makes me reflect on how different the questions were in the Jewish world 25 years ago. When I was president of the World Jewish Congress dialogue in the Jewish world often felt like it came from the top down. Issues of Soviet Jewry, how denominations could best fulfill their own goals, and whether or not Israel had a viable economic future filled the air. Today, the questions that preoccupy us are different. Israel’s very survival often seems precarious, we are almost entirely post-denominational, and discourse has become much more fractured and partisan.

Trying to breach a divide while sticking to the party line is an exercise in futility. For dialogue to be successful I have found three rules have served me well, whether I am speaking to a college student or a head of state (I have had meaningful and difficult conversations with both). My guidelines are about governing my behavior in a situation, not trying to control what the other person will say. It is essential to remain respectful, no matter how much you disagree. Here are the rules I try to follow:

1) When they raise their voice, lower yours.

2) Listen as much, if not more, than you talk.

3) Don’t be insulting. When you sink to that level, you pretty much ensure nothing further will be discussed productively.

When I founded BYFI as a program to foster excellence in promising young Jewish men and women through a summer of study in Israel, I purposely did not want to create an experience where they would emerge indoctrinated with how to think and feel about Judaism. From its inception BYFI aimed to educate and challenge bright young Jewish minds with absolutely no agenda about their answers. The only misdeed that could be committed was refusing to learn. What you did with that knowledge was entirely up to you. Hopefully, the discussions these young people have had through the auspices of BYFI have been guided by the principles I follow in my own life. I do not want to tell others how to think, I want to see what they can teach me.

The type of discourse BYFI students engage in gives them time to contemplate big ideas: Why am I here? What does it mean to be Jewish? Does God exist? What does the Torah have to teach me? What is my relationship to Israel? But those questions should not be asked only by young Jews on educational fellowships. They are questions all Jews should ask themselves and each other as often as possible. It enriches our own lives, and the life of our community. Finding honest answers to these questions isn’t easy work, but its reward is a Jewish experience that is authentic and meaningful to the person who undertakes it.

I think Jewish lives are enriched when they know about their history, texts and traditions. It empowers Jews to go out into the world and live lives where they can ask big questions and know that Judaism is a deep and beautiful enterprise that can provide meaningful answers, but also accommodate their doubt. If they only find answers they do not agree with, they should be confident enough to ask new questions.

What I hope my greatest legacy as a Jewish activist will be is my encouragement of Jews who are unafraid to challenge the status quo. May their bravery ripple out and their questions expand the boundaries of Jewish possibility.

Former chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., Edgar M. Bronfman is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is currently working on a book about Jewish peoplehood with journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson.

Comments are closed.

Read More Articles

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.