On campus, waxing poetic about diversity is like oxygen: It’s everywhere. A major talking point from day one (e.g., Under1Roof, Perspectives on Diversity, and every ResLife session), it lies at the heart of the Columbia experience. Classes, professors, books, and fellow students will challenge your biases and push you to think beyond your own certainties. After eight years working on this campus, though, I’m not here to wax poetic, but to challenge how hollow these messages can ring, particularly in the face of conflict.
University President Lee Bollinger has emphasized the centrality of the “scholarly temperament”: the ability “to acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of things, to set aside our preexisting beliefs, to hold simultaneously in our minds multiple angles of seeing things, to allow ourselves seemingly to believe another view as we consider it.” This ability to consider many perspectives and to avoid the absolutist assumption of right and wrong is only of heightened importance outside of the classroom.
When conflict arises, our instincts urge us to filter world events through the facile binaries of good and evil, economical and wasteful, ally and adversary, etc. And so we must, both as individuals and as a community, look to our studies here as a lesson in the complexity that we ourselves must bring to bear on our understanding of world events. For that reason, I’m going to urge us to embrace a radical humility about our own views.
I’m thinking, for example, about the war in Gaza this past summer. For many of us, social media outlets revealed themselves as forums inhospitable to a diversity of opinions, unable to challenge inherited biases. Seemingly every Facebook post unleashed a comments section full of hateful speech or an echo chamber of cheerleading. But with this new academic year upon us, and the Jewish New Year approaching, I am challenging myself to choose the bravery of humility. Let's connect with one another and chip away at defensive postures, hear others’ narratives without often instinctual dismissiveness.
This notion can be traced back to an old rabbinic adage. In the Pirkei Avot, the collection of pithy teachings colloquially referred to as the Ethics of the Fathers, the ancient Jewish sages understood honest, well-intentioned dispute thusly: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure; any debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not endure.” Strikingly, the honest disagreement will not be resolved. There is no mention of a divine truth appearing to put an end to the controversy once and for all. Instead, real difference is axiomatic, and the rabbis insist that such debate will carry on.
To be sure, this is not something I have mastered. Nor is it everyone's cup of tea. This kind of openness can feel unstable for some or may lead to a weakened sense of identity. But for me, this kind of radical humility helps refine and strengthen my personal convictions. I have grown to feel most comfortable in my own particularity as I have come into deep contact with divergent opinions. Note that I am not endorsing using other people’s approaches as a foil for your own, in order to decide what you do not want to be. Rather, what I mean to say is that subjectivity is real, as real for others as it is for me, and as real for me as it is for others.
If you’re looking for disagreement marked by civility and sincere interest in seeing multiple sides of an issue, I’m easy to reach. If not, there’s always the comments section on the web page of this very article.
The author is the campus rabbi of Columbia/Barnard Hillel and a united campus ministrer for the Office of the University Chaplain. Each Thursday, After Office Hours features wisdom from Columbia faculty.
To respond to this professor column, or to submit an op-ed, firstname.lastname@example.org.