Safe Spaces, Maimonides and Civil Discourse
The following d’var torah set the tone for one of our days at the Wexner Summit on Civil Discourse, which brought together close to 60 of our alumni dedicated to raising the level of dialogue across difference in the North American Jewish Community and Israel.
A few months ago I started a new job as Dean of Students in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I am responsible for the learning and experience and life of 292 graduate and professional students studying in programs ranging from ordination for ministry, to Masters degrees focused on Tibetan Buddhism and to doctorates about the redemptive role that dogs play in American cinema. The faculty and students are brilliant, and it’s truly an amazing place to be.
One of my jobs is to enforce our codes of conduct, and recently I found myself managing a case. It was far from a clear-cut matter, so I investigated, talked to people, listened and finally I found myself writing an email to the complainant to update them on the situation and what actions we would take next. I was midway through when I tried to finish the following sentence: “We are 100% committed to your…” To your… what? To your safety? Well, yes, your physical safety. Your emotional safety? Hmm… Your intellectual safety? No way—this is the University of Chicago, which prides itself on not guaranteeing intellectual safe spaces. I knew that these students needed reassurance from me, as the person in authority charged with the stability of their learning environment, but what were the conditions I needed to guarantee in order that learning could happen?
In the last couple of years, there has been much maligning of the idea of safe spaces, particularly in higher education. Some of my own colleagues at the University of Chicago have contributed to that. And with good reason. As I used to tell undergraduates when I was a Hillel rabbi: You are likely paying an enormous amount for this experience. If it doesn’t prompt at least one serious identity crisis during four years, you should ask for your money back. Education, and particularly higher education, isn’t really happening if we emerge from the experience who we were when we entered.
And yet it’s common sense that dismissing the idea of safe space is also misguided, because there are some minimal conditions of safety that do have to apply in order for people to learn. At a very minimum, we need to be free from the threat of violence. We have to know that our bodies will not be harmed. And then, given what we know about the neurobiology of emotions, we realize that if we are feeling emotionally threatened, that can actually lead to a physical perception of danger. And that’s where things get muddy, where learning becomes really hard to make happen.
During these same weeks that I started work at the U of C, I have been having a long-distance havruta with Meredith Lewis, a Wexner Field Fellow who directs the PJ Library program nationally. Meredith and I have been studying Maimonides’ Laws of Torah Study, and in one of our sessions we learned the fourth chapter, where the Rambam details the laws of learning in the beit midrash. While the whole chapter is remarkable, here’s what I take to be the very central halakha:
הָרַב שֶׁלִּמֵּד וְלֹא הֵבִינוּ הַתַּלְמִידִים לֹא יִכְעֹס עֲלֵיהֶם וְיִרְגַּז אֶלָּא חוֹזֵר וְשׁוֹנֶה הַדָּבָר אֲפִלּוּ כַּמָּה פְּעָמִים עַד שֶׁיָּבִינוּ עֹמֶק הַהֲלָכָה.
When a master gave a lesson which the disciples did not understand, he should not get angry at them and be moody, but go over it again and repeat it even many times, until they will understand the depth of the treatise.
וְכֵן לֹא יֹאמַר הַתַּלְמִיד הֵבַנְתִּי וְהוּא לֹא הֵבִין אֶלָּא חוֹזֵר וְשׁוֹאֵל אֲפִלּוּ כַּמָּה פְּעָמִים.
Likewise, a disciple shall not say, I understood, and he did not understand; but he should repeat and ask even many times.
וְאִם כָּעַס עָלָיו רַבּוֹ וְרָגַז יֹאמַר לוֹ רַבִּי תּוֹרָה הִיא וְלִלְמֹד אֲנִי צָרִיךְ וְדַעְתִּי קְצָרָה:
If the master angers at him and becomes moody, he may say to him: “Master, it is Torah, and I need to learn, but my mind is short of understanding!”
So many things about this passage are astonishing and wonderful, but at root here’s what I see happening: Both the teacher and the student have humbled themselves in the service of truth. And by truth here I mean, to borrow the great educator Parker Palmer’s phrase, an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline. While the teacher may be in a position of authority, as the Rambam makes clear here and in many other passages in the chapter, that authority is only a construct used to hold the learning environment. And indeed, as we see here, when the teacher’s emotions get the better of him, making the learning environment unstable, the student has a duty to remind him, “Rebbe, Torah hi—Rebbe, it is Torah, and I’m trying to learn!”
Counterintuitively, perhaps, that presumes not only courage, but humility, on the part of the student as well. And indeed, the Rambam begins this chapter by telling us that only students who are on the right path, who are ready to take up the responsibility of their position as learners, can be admitted to the beit midrash.
As we enter today’s learning and dialogues, I invite you to imagine what the world might be like if we could model this behavior in our leadership with and without authority.
What might it be like if we were humble enough to remain calm, even when the other person isn’t getting it?
What might it be like if we could separate ourselves from our positions, and acknowledge that our authority is only in service of something far beyond us?
And what might it be like if we could help those who are getting heated to remember that all any of us are seeking is to understand and be understood?
Josh Feigelson is Dean of Students in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. From 2011-2017, he served as Founder of Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel International that creates training and resources for people of all backgrounds to build trust and understanding across difference through civic conversations. Ask Big Questions won the inaugural Lippman-Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom in 2016. Josh previously served as the Hillel Rabbi at Northwestern University, where he also earned a PhD in Religious Studies. His scholarship focuses on American religion and higher education and his doctoral dissertation centered on the work and teaching of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. A 1998 alumnus of Yale with a BA in Music, Josh thought he was going to be an orchestra conductor (and was, in college) until he spent a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and fell in love with Torah study. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005. Josh and his wife, Natalie Blitt, are the parents of three boys and live in Skokie, IL, where Josh is a member of the village Human Relations Commission.