Four and a half years of study at the Hebrew Union College has taught me to ask questions. What does the text that we are studying say? What did the author or authors mean when they wrote it? Is there anything that I am missing? Can you help me with this? The rabbis of the Talmud were always asking questions, and HUC has taught me the value of doing to in today’s world as well.
Reading “Disunion” by Adam Chandler, published by Tablet Magazine, raised a serious question in my mind: How can an academic institution best foster an environment that is open and pluralistic, while at the same time allowing and encouraging each student to form and express his or own opinions and views?
It is not an easy question to answer, and becomes even more difficult if an overwhelming majority of a student body leans in a similar direction. Using anecdotes from students and observers, Chandler characterizes HUC as experiencing a “troubling trend that directly contradicts” its vision of openness and plurality. It is a difficult balance to create, and is especially difficult in a situation where a minority of students may be as small as just a handful. However, the suggestions raised and implied in Chandler’s article are misguided and they muddle the issue of openness and freedom to express one’s opinion within the halls and classrooms of HUC’s four campuses.
He opens with the story of a donor who offered to endow a chair for a politically conservative professor. It frames the tenor of his article, as his account implies that HUC’s administration refused the gift on the basis of that conservative charge. But dismissed in his analysis is the possibility that the gift was refused not because of the conservative charge of the chair, but because HUC didn’t want to have politically charged chairs at all. I ask the question, does reserving a place on the faculty for a conservative or liberal thinker foster an environment that is open and pluralistic? Not necessarily. Does creating such a chair ensure that students who share his or her views will feel empowered to speak amongst the student body? Not necessarily. Is political belief a good criterion for evaluating a potential faculty member? I would hope that among the top criteria for judging any potential faculty member would not be her political beliefs, but rather her expertise in her field and her skills as a teacher to her students.
The situation of Prof. Martin Sherman is an example of this. He was brought to HUC for a variety of reasons, one of which was to share his “hawkish” views with students in LA. Chandler laments the lack of interest in his courses, noting that only four students took his course in fall and “virtually no students” enrolled in the spring, prompting the College to cancel the course. That he is identified as a hawkish professor, brought to the College to express hawkish views, prompts many, including to Chandler, to determine that the lack of interest was caused by nothing other than the student body’s overwhelming opposition to hawkish ideas. I have no idea why students chose to take or not to take his course (at the time I was a third-year student, still making my way through the College’s core curriculum, and thus ineligible to take the elective courses that he was teaching). But, Chandler uses Sherman’s ideology as a canard, leading us to assume that the lack of interest in his courses was due to his ideology. Creating a chair for a conservatively minded professor would only increase the risk that others make that misleading assumption.
As a side note, I feel prompted to mention that four or fewer students in a class is not an uncommon occurrence, at least on the LA campus. I recently studied with Rabbi Richard N. Levy, generally considered to be a leading thinker of the Reform movement, in a class with a total of three students. It was a wonderful, intimate learning environment and something that, during the dark days of 2009, the College administration fought to protect in its decision to keep all three US campuses open. It would be wrong to assume that very small class enrollment is a statement about the students’ interest in or respect for a certain professor, and I fear that Chandler led his readers to do so.
On the Los Angeles campus, members of the faculty are evaluated by the students on a variety of criteria, including how well he or she maintains a learning environment that is open to a diversity of ideas. A good professor, regardless of their own beliefs, should encourage his or her students to speak their minds, to challenge assumptions, and to engage in civil argument with their peers.
Chandler’s analysis of the decision ignores this. It assumes that a left-leaning professor cannot tolerate the ideas of a right-leaning student, or vice versa. A good professor, a professor worthy of being hired by America’s oldest Jewish institution of higher learning, should be above this. What’s worse, he concludes that the dismissal by HUC of the idea of a conservative professor is a dismissal of the merit of conservative ideas. The suggestion of creating a chair for a conservative professor put HUC in a catch-22: create the position, and the open environment might be adversely affected. Don’t create the chair, and some might suggest that the school is trying to protect a liberal ideology. It would be foolish to accept this premise. One might also suggest that by choosing not to hire a professor based on political leaning, the College may have been striving to avoid questions of politics altogether, and instead desires to base its faculty hires on merit alone.
Chandler’s suggestions might have had more merit if they were accompanied by other actions of the College that suggest a hostility towards conservative ideas. The stories that Chandler chronicles do not offer reasons to suggest that the College is trying do anything of the sort. They are first hand accounts of students who have felt uncomfortable in expressing unpopular and, as they see them, conservative views on HUC’s campuses.
The true issue that the students’ mentioned in Mr. Chandler’s article have is not with HUC, its faculty, or administration, but rather with their fellow students.
I agree with my friend, classmate, and colleague Hannah Goldstein’s observation that a vast majority of HUC’s students are politically left leaning and that the faculty may be more diverse than the student body. For those students who are in the minority, she wisely notes that there is a difference between being lonely and being made to feel like an outsider, suggesting that while there may be students who feel alone in their views, the environment on campus nonetheless is open and welcoming to the expression of those views.
However, is not the role of the College to dictate to students what to say or to think. It is the role of the College, among other things, to teach its students to form their own opinions based on serious study, to express those opinions in a meaningful and respectful way, and to listen to those with whom you might disagree. The rabbis of the Talmud model this for us, and it is the responsibility of the faculty to foster an environment that allows for it. But it is up to the individual student to speak up when they feel moved to do so.
Does that mean that HUC should strive to create an environment in which students should be free to express their opinions without fear of repercussions from the College? Absolutely. Why then, should we take seriously the statements of Josh Herman, who suggested that the school should take punitive action against students who make “anti-Zionist statements,” including refusing to ordain them? Wouldn’t that inhibit the free flow of ideas with which he and Chandler seem so concerned? Our job is to engage with those ideas with which we disagree, to retort and respond to them, to refute them, not to silence them.
I am proud to say that I love Israel, and I am saddened when hear anyone, rabbinical student or otherwise, say that they do not wish to visit Israel. But I am even more saddened and deeply troubled to know that I have classmates who, in the name of openness and plurality, believe that HUC should put limitations on what a rabbinical student could say. That “anti-Zionist” student has just as much of a right to express his opinion as Herman has to reject and refute it. Herman is wrong to suggest otherwise, and the College should be proud of its decision not to take Herman’s suggestions seriously.
It is our responsibility as students to contribute to the open and pluralistic environment that the College strives to maintain by offering our ideas and by listening to those around us. Samantha Kahn, Josh Herman, and Josh Beraha each noted that they felt that their voice was part of a small minority on campus. That may be true, as Hannah Goldstein noted. They said they grew weary of being one voice in eight or part of two in nine, unable to engender more support from their classmates. While that may be frustrating, it is not a fault of the HUC faculty, administration, or the institution as a whole. Sometimes we find ourselves in the minority, a situation not uncommon in the Jewish experience. And that experience has taught us to speak our minds when we feel moved to do so. Rabbi Shirley Idelson proved to be a model for that when she took to the streets to express her personal views. She should be commended for that, not criticized. Sometimes, standing up for your beliefs is an uncomfortable, difficult, and potentially threatening enterprise (N.B. Rosa Parks, Émile Zola, and Abraham Joshua Heschel). But, the Jewish tradition teaches to stand up in the face of opposition if you have the courage of your convictions.
Which raises questions another comment of Josh Herman, who not only suggested that a fellow student should be punished for speaking his mind, but continued by saying that he felt that as Jews and as rabbis, we should be resisting the urge to speak about political issues. The responsibility to speak about issues concerning the society, whether as part of a majority or as the minority is something enshrined within the Prophetic tradition that is part of Reform Judaism’s core. Prophets like Amos and Hosea continued to speak although their ideas were unpopular and rejected. In the most recent Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ, wrote:
“In truth, Judaism does not endorse any specific political organization, party, or program.
“This does not mean that politics is to be avoided; it means that partisan politics is to be avoided. If you say that Judaism makes you a Democratic or a Republican, you are mistaken; but if you say that Judaism has something to contribute to a political matter, you are likely right. Judaism, after all, is about the application of ethical teachings to the moral dilemmas of our world. Judaism responds to the misuse of power, oppression of the weak, and everyday injustices in society.”
We ought to speak up. As Jews in general and as rabbis/rabbinical students in particular, especially in environments where we think our views may not be well received.
Chandler gave these three students a forum to express their own views and experiences; allow me to share mine. Over the past four and a half years, I have found HUC to be a place that is open to a diversity of ideas. I have felt challenged by my professors to think seriously before coming to a conclusion and encouraged to speak my mind once I have. I have also been taught not to stop listening once I have spoken, but to consider all ideas as they are presented. This does not exclude discussions to pertaining to Israel. I love Israel, and share that view with others. I have excitedly have returned to Israel multiples times since my year studying at HUC in Jerusalem. My wife, who I met during that year, is an alumna of HUC and a former employee of AIPAC. I do not share the same observations about the tenor of the campus conversation with the three students in Chandler’s article. There have been times when mine has been the least popular idea in the classroom. I credit my teachers for creating an environment where I felt comfortable expressing them, and as my classmates can attest, I often do so. In four and a half years, I have yet to be approached by someone from the College who has told me not to share those ideas, nor have I felt that my contributions are unwelcomed by my students.
But more importantly, I am concerned with the suggestions that the faculty and administration are or ought to be deliberately influencing the types of ideas that are expressed on the campuses. School should be a place where all ideas are welcome, and where the responsibility is upon everyone to consider ideas as they raised and to express pleasure or disagreement with them. As Jews, we have discussed and disputed the meaning of our tradition for thousands of years. Our job is to continue that conversation, and my job as a future rabbi is to foster it, not inhibit it.
Why? Because that is what the Jewish tradition tells to do, as I learned at HUC.