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Teaching Jewish Pluralism: 10th Grade Lessons

Perhaps the central question students will tackle in this opening unit is: How is a community able to permit freedom of thought and action, but still remain a unified group?

Editor’s Note: This is an introduction to a complete curriculum on pluralism. PDF’s with detailed lesson plans and other material are available for online viewing or download. Click here for them .
The teacher of this course in particular, and any teacher in a Jewish pluralistic setting, needs to formulate his or her own clear understanding of pluralism. What does pluralism mean to you as a Jew? How is it different from relativism and tolerance? What are the inherent problems and advantages to a pluralistic model of Judaism? How do you deal with those problems? What issues arise in a pluralistic Jewish educational setting? Thus, before even tackling how to teach pluralism, the teacher should grapple with his or her own understanding of pluralism in Judaism.
Perhaps the central question students will tackle in this opening unit is, “How is a community able to permit freedom of thought and action, but still remain a unified group?” Pluralism and democracy rests upon the individual’s freedom of choice and having many options to choose from. Judaism (at first glance) seems to rest upon a central authority with only one correct view (that of God’s). Does Judaism and pluralism contradict each other? Can modern Jews such as our students be both “authentically Jewish” and still be pluralistic? Is there a contradiction between the values of Judaism and those of democracy or pluralism?
The main idea is how to successfully live in diverse environments with people you may not agree with. So while students certainly spend ample time learning about how to create thriving pluralistic Jewish communities from a religious standpoint, this curriculum also spends a good deal of the year focusing on “non-religious topics”, like how to get along with friends you disagree with, how to get along with parents, and how to get along with non-Jews who don’t share your outlook on life.
The material in this unit looks at how to create this respectful dialogue, not only amongst the community leaders but amongst everyone in the community. Students will learn primary Jewish texts throughout Jewish history which pertain to this topic of Jewish pluralism. The assumption is that one can learn much from the successes—and failures—of the Jews over the millennia as they coped with the issues of living in diverse communities.
This unit will be focusing on the classic case of machloket in Jewish history, that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. (See note at end regarding this matter) The teacher should master introductory material on the historical circumstances surrounding the times when Hillel and Shammai lived, as well as their immediate disciples.
In general, Babylonian -born Hillel migrated to Israel in the first century BCE to study, and worked as a woodcutter, eventually becoming the most influential force in Jewish life. The Hillel dynasty ended with the death of Hillel II in 365 CE . Hillel’s adversary was Palestinian-born Shammai, about whom little is known except that he was a builder, known for the strictness of his views. He was reputed to be dour, quick-tempered and impatient. Both lived during the reign of King Herod (37-4 BCE), an oppressive period in Jewish history because of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Shammai was concerned that if Jews had too much contact with the Romans, the Jewish community would be weakened, and this attitude was reflected in his strict interpretation of Jewish law. Hillel did not entirely share Shammai’s fear and therefore was more liberal in his view of law.
Hillel was chosen by the Sanhedrin , the supreme Jewish court, to serve as its Nasi (president). While Hillel and Shammai themselves did not differ on a great many basic issues of Jewish law, their disciples were often in conflict, and it is how they approached their differences of opinion that will be the focus of this unit. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). The Rabbis of the Talmud generally sided with the rulings of the School of Hillel, although as we will learn, the Sages believed that both views were valid.
The purpose of this unit is not to simply learn Jewish history, or to simply study the history of the conflicts between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Rather, these studies ask the question of whether Judaism (as seen through Chazal/the Sages) views this classic machloket as positive or negative. What did they want the Jewish people for millennia afterwards to learn from it? How can Jews in pluralistic settings today conduct themselves based upon the values taught in these sources? In short, this curriculum presents history and texts as a guide to behavior and a source of Jewish identity. These texts teach that Tarbut HaMachloket is a positive value to be emulated in Jewish communities today.
This unit will focus on five central issues (many issues will overlap, obviously):
Part 1: The attitude and relationship towards the person with whom you disagree. Is it possible (or desirable) to disagree with someone yet still give them respect? What ways of arguing contribute to creating a respectful relationship between those who argue? Is the pursuit of your truth the most important value, or is the pursuit of peace more important, even if it means you must compromise your truth?
Part 2: Social coexistence in a culture of disagreement. Is it better to back down from your position for the sake of peaceful coexistence? Is it possible to peacefully coexist with those whom you disagree without backing down?
Part 3: The potential for communal confusion in a pluralistic model. Can the claim that “both sides are correct” withstand scrutiny? How can a community live with the notion that there is no clear final answer to an issue? How can an individual really be expected to repress his own opinion for the sake of the community?
Part 4: The impact of Tarbut HaMachloket on a community. Does machloket help or hurt a community? Should one who argues or disagrees with the majority be praised, or condemned?
Part 5: Authority and dissent. Is it preferred for an individual to act on the basis of personal reasoning or on the basis of the official rulings of society? Can one distinguish between expressing dissent on a theoretical level versus a level of action? How is one to act when one completely disagrees with the communal decision of “experts”? Is individual dissent ever permissible? To what extent?
Curriculum Documents
There are four detailed curriculum documents that comprise this program. They are all available here as PDF’s for online viewing or download: (Editor’s note: Please be patient during download; these are large files and may take a few moments to appear on your screen, depending on the speed of your Internet connection.) 
– Rabbi Yonatan Yussman is director of Jewish studies at The Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas.
Endnote: One might ask where “Tanur shel Achnai” is in this curriculum. It certainly has its place thematically. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate to teach it to most young, community day school audiences. My own experience learning that text at a young age, coming from a non-Orthodox background in which I hadn’t yet “bought into the system” of Rabbinic Judaism, actually turned me (and others) off to Rabbinic Judaism. I reacted negatively to what I felt was the sheer audacity of mortal rabbis arguing with God, beating God, and God supposedly being happy—it was unpersuasive, self-serving, and unbelievable. And that sugiya was taught by one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Now that I’ve matured religiously, I see it as a powerful, influential text. I think the same message of that text can be better taught by presenting other less problematic rabbinic texts, which you’ll find in this curriculum. Tanur shel Achnai can and should wait until they mature religiously.

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