The column | Another essential teaching tool: the art of argument

Driving to my job at Jewish LearningWorks one day, I saw a rainbow. I’m a sucker for rainbows. In our parched state, a rainbow means we’ve had some rain — a cause for celebration and gratitude. When I see a rainbow from the road, it means that the worst of the rain is probably behind me and the drive will be easier and safer.

No doubt my Jewish literacy enhances my appreciation of the rainbow. I see a rainbow and think about its appearance after the biblical flood, as a sign of peace and covenant with Noah and the rest of us.

The rainbow also symbolizes diversity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observed in the 19th century that “one ray of light is refracted seven-fold in the rainbow,” symbolizing both the diversity of humanity and its common source. It is that diversity, commonality and harmony that Rabbi Hirsch observed that are celebrated in the Pride rainbow.

As educators, we want to give our students a Jewish lens to help see the world, making use of our yerushah, or inheritance of this tradition, to make sense of our lives — to be able to see a rainbow Jewishly and derive deeper meaning from that knowledge.

There’s another aspect of the rainbow that intrigues me. As Rabbi Hirsch pointed out, the rainbow is simply the water in the air, acting as a prism, refracting a white light into a spectrum. Another way to look at it is that the rainbow spectrum of colors is always there, present in every ray of light. But we cannot see the colors without the prism effect of the moisture.

Jewish tradition teaches us that reality is like the rainbow, far more complex and beautiful than it may appear on the surface. We often see the world in a particular way. It is easy to imagine that what we see is truth, and that everyone with whom we disagree — they’re just wrong.

That’s a common way to think. But it’s not a Jewish way. The last 2,000 years of Jewish thought have been filled with what the rabbis call “disputes for the sake of heaven.” These are arguments in which we learn from one another and, as a result, gain new understandings. The Hebrew word for this is machloket. Its root is chelek, which means a segment or piece, as in a puzzle piece. The suggestion is that each of our perspectives is a piece of the puzzle, and, as in a jigsaw, the big picture is attained when our diverse perspectives are shared.

Constructive conflict is a great Jewish idea and one that is essential to education. That is why Jewish LearningWorks is partnering with the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, which has designated the first week of the month of Adar (mid-February) as the “Week of Constructive Conflict.” Commemorating a destructive conflict among Jewish scholars two millennia ago, the week will celebrate “disputes for the sake of heaven” — building our capacity to listen to and learn from one another, putting together the puzzle pieces to see the big picture.

During February, we’ll be working with educators to promote the study of machloket in our schools. And, on Feb. 20, hundreds will gather at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills for this year’s Feast of Jewish Learning, where the theme will be “Holy Discord: The Art of Jewish Dispute.”

The point? Our Jewish tradition teaches us that our world is best understood not through forced uniformity, but by appreciating and understanding its diversity. Kinda like the rainbow.

David Waksberg is the CEO of Jewish LearningWorks in San Francisco.

David Waksberg
David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.