Written into the mission statement of Rochelle Zell Jewish High School – where I teach – is a commitment to nurturing our students’ ability to think critically. In all of our classes – be it History, English, Chemistry, Bible, Talmud, or Jewish Thought – we pursue that goal avidly and teach our students to think critically about everything we read and say.
Critical Thinking in Today’s American Culture
In a culture like ours, at this time, I don’t know that I can think of anything more important than critical thinking. Not only are certain facts denied but there many that deny that there is any such thing as a fact; everything said is merely opinion. This began several decades ago with the left’s attempt to read everything in terms of bias, perspective and power and now the right has adopted the same tactic. Learning how to read and analyze sources, consider their origin, uncover the arguments and biases behind them and, finally, decide whether they are true or a matter best understood as interpretation – those are crucial skills for our young adults as they make their way into this world.
And yet: utilizing the tool of critical thinking perpetually can fall under the heading of “too much of a good thing.” There are times when critical thinking can become a liability.
When Critical Thinking Gets In The Way
I’ve noticed, over our years as a community, that for some of us, sometimes, our stance during learning is: “prove it to me.” Whether we’re discussing a particular lesson of the Torah or why someone should wear a tallit or why faith is important, the starting point is: “I won’t accept it until you prove it, until you overcome every argument that I can raise against it.” The default position is: I won’t do it/agree to it/believe it until you prove it to me.
In some circumstances, this is not only useful but necessary, as I wrote above. But it is a two-edged sword and the other edge of that sword is a self-defeating resistance to learning, growth and change.
An Open Mind, An Open Heart, The Benefit Of The Doubt
The chair of our Jewish Studies’ department, Dr. Rebecca Schorsch, encourages all of us – faculty and students alike – to give the texts we study a “generous read.” That is, give the author the benefit of the doubt – assume that she has something worthwhile to teach – and then read the text at its best. Make the best case for it. There is always time, later, to critique it. But the better path to learning is to begin with the embrace of an open mind.
Franz Rosenzweig, a German-Jewish philosopher of the early twentieth century embodied this principle. He grew up virtually assimilated into German culture and was near conversion to Christianity, as a close cousin of his had done. Instead, he changed his mind and, one step at a time, become a committed and active Jew. When asked, once, if he wore tefilin, Rosenzweig answered “not yet.” Rather than a quick “no,” he held the door open to new possibilities. He didn’t now, and he wasn’t ready to try, but in the future he might.
And rather than wait for intellectual conviction, along the way Rosenzweig would try rituals before becoming convinced of their value or efficacy, knowing that the ritual, itself, might be persuasive enough.
With this he indicated an openness to the entirety of our tradition. All of it possessed the potential for growth. He didn’t wear tefilin yet but, in the future . . . who knew?
Our Kallah: Learning About The Journey Of Prayer
I thought of this as I was planning the learning for our kallah next week, on prayer. I will share with those who participate several ideas and practices, some of which might be new to them. Some of them might intrigue; others might sound foreign; while still others might put them off. I will begin the weekend by asking that they approach our learning with an open heart and an open mind. After all, if prayer itself requires that, shouldn’t our learning about it require it as well?
Our learning during the weekend will not be a search for truth so much as a search for growth – a growth of the soul that animates us. To say, continually, “prove it to me” is to gird ourselves for a battle that, eventually, might leave us protected but also unchanged. To say “not yet,” however – to be open to possibility – that is where real living and real spirituality is to be found.