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.
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.