The Shalom Hartman Institute is a leading center for research into major questions facing the Jewish people, and for educational programs for leaders and change-agents in the North American Jewish community and in the State of Israel. The Institute has enormous reach among North American rabbis, who the Institute engages through field-leading robust, rigorous, and well-attended programs for continued rabbinic education; in Hillels on college campuses across North America; in the Jewish education system throughout the State of Israel; at major conferences and gatherings of North American and Israeli Jewish leaders; and through media, publications, and leadership convenings. The Institute is concerned with a wide but limited set of major religious and political questions facing contemporary Jewish and Israeli life, born of the confrontation between tradition and modernity, and including the meaning and value of pluralism, Jewish peoplehood, and the questions facing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
SHI’s educational methodology is rooted in a deep commitment to the power of ideas and an equally deep commitment to education for its own sake, and not as an instrument for an advocacy agenda. In the work of education for its own sake, the instructor may enter with strong views on an issue but has a moral obligation to help the student understand how s/he formulated their views, and to indicate that the instructor’s views represent a reading – and not the only possible reading – of the material they are presenting. In this model, the instructor must also anticipate the possibility that the unexpected will happen and must be comfortable with unpredictable outcomes. Education for the sake of advocacy intends to lead the student to a particular conclusion and therefore manipulates the material and the pedagogy toward the inevitability of that conclusion.
The template for a Shalom Hartman Institute class is that the scholar/teacher will frame an issue for discussion, provide a set of texts drawn from the classical tradition and/or the canon of modern scholarship and ideas, provide an analysis of the material based in his/her disciplinary competency, and then lead a discussion of the implications of the material for the originally formulated issue. Many of our programs, including MLI, include hevruta-style study of the source materials, in which small groups of participants – often together with a trained facilitator – encounter the source material directly and so are able to formulate more effective questions and challenges to the use of the materials by the presenter.
MLI faculty is drawn from the core faculty and scholars of the Shalom Hartman Institute in both Israel and North America as well as guest lecturers, representing a wide array of disciplines, ethnic backgrounds, and political leanings; throughout the program, we have rigorously maintained a commitment to gender balance in our faculty, and have ensured that not only are MLI participants exposed to different ideological, religious, and political viewpoints, but that those different viewpoints are often on display in the same sessions in the forms of debates and arguments between different lecturers. The educational goal of the program has been to provide participants with as in-depth and honest an understanding as is possible of the meaning(s) of Israel to the Jewish people, which means making clear the sources of dissent and disagreement among the Jewish people about the meaning of Israel.
Our program and our method overtly and explicitly leave open and unanswered what conclusions the participants draw from their encounter. We do not measure for agreement; we measure for the clarity of how we express our views, and for whether they have been clearly understood. Nevertheless, in the climate in which we operate, many on the right and left reject the very legitimacy of complexity as relates to Israel-Palestine and accept as legitimate only loyalty to particular political expressions. In this climate there is a widespread assumption that any educational program is a coded advocacy program. We believe that in presenting a wide diversity of Jewish attitudes and ideas about Israel, in modeling internal Jewish disagreement about the meaning of Israel to the Jewish people and about Israeli policies, and in offering educational methodologies that privilege the curiosity of the learner over the fixed curriculum, we have designed a program that honors the true intent of education. We are including sample program courses and source sheets, and sample itineraries to provide examples of our methods and our approach.
A core question Muslims ask in deciding whether to engage this program – knowing the Institute’s ideology and understanding its methodology – is whether they feel it is important to hear and understand the best articulation of the inner struggles and beliefs of the Jewish community in how they relate to the State of Israel and questions of Jewish peoplehood and identity. We believe that if the only conversation partners that a community has among members of another faith tradition or among adherents to a different political narrative are those who share the same political loyalties, then it is not meaningfully engaging with the other; it is merely finding allies to its own particular political cause. There are faith communities who believe that the American Jewish community and the United States are drifting away from Israel, and that that drift can be easily exploited for political gain. We do not share the belief that such a drift is inevitable or desirable, and it concerns us when interfaith efforts are predicated on one community’s fractiousness. We believe that the most powerful relationships that can be built between Muslims and Jews will emerge from efforts by the mainstream members of both communities to understand and appreciate the political and ideological loyalties of the other, and not through efforts to exploit each other’s perceived communal weaknesses.