Consider and Converse: A Guide to “bekhira / making choices to live in a democracy”
Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of “bekhira/the choices we make about living in a democracy.” Over the past couple of years, I’ve grown more concerned about the fragility of our democracy. I’ve watched as democracies in Europe have elected authoritarian demagogues — in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and elsewhere. We see just how fragile democracy can be. I became curious about how we talk — especially in such a polarized environment — about this fragility. Would a more robust civic education, where we learn about the nature of democracy and practice be warranted? What choices do we have as citizens to exercise our democratic principles? As citizens, we are faced with many choices — not just at the ballot box. I hope this issue of Sh’ma Now will inspire you to accept the fullness of your civic responsibilities and make your voices heard.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.
How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel, director and co-founder of Civic Spirit, a program that aims to educate, inspire, and empower schools to enhance civic belonging and responsibility, opens up this issue of Sh’ma by sharing a powerful story about her father — a man with enormous gratitude for his citizenship in the United States. Drawing on her father’s legacy of civic engagement, Tamara writes, “Democracy requires education. It is not enough to know American history or political philosophy; our students must also feel that political freedom is a gift worth striving for and protecting. How we teach this truth is one of the major challenges of our time. This is both a Jewish and American challenge. And it is a challenge our people can be at the forefront of efforts to address.” Democracy is a fragile enterprise. As American citizens, how do we draw on our Jewish legacy to uphold the “noble aspirations of this country and begin to articulate how we, as the Jewish people, will show up as grateful citizens”? Where does the fabric of democracy weave together the strands of Judaism? Where are these threads out of sync with each other? Passing on to children — in a classroom setting or at home — that freedom is a profound gift not to be squandered, is challenging. How do you imagine a curriculum for teaching this gift in the classroom? And as parents, how in our homes? How would you prioritize civics education amid the many subjects that students are required to obtain fluency in today? How do you show up as a “grateful citizen”?
- Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: the rabbinic call for human rights, writes about how Jewish values are not necessarily in line with the democratic values we know in the United States. The Torah provides models of monarchies and top-down leadership. It provides the voices of prophets and priests. But the rabbinic tradition (including the Talmud and midrash) “models one key value of democracy — the celebration of a multiplicity of voices. One midrash describes the Torah as having 70 faces and another imagines the community of Israel standing at Sinai and all of the people receiving Torah in their own way.” Jill goes on to write that “democracy has not always made Jews safer, as the rule of the people sometimes opens the door to so-called populism, and to the rise of far-right groups and autocratic rule — a situation that virtually always puts Jews in danger.” She cites Rabbi Chaim David Halevy, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who teaches that “‘the greatness of the Torah is that it does not have a carefully delineated system of governance, neither political nor economic,’ but that Torah instead offers principles that can be applied to every system of governance.” (Aseh L’kha Rav 4:1) What principles of governance are most precious to a democracy? How does the Torah and other Jewish writings inflect both the principles of a strong democracy and systems that challenge democratic rule? How do we hold and weigh both perspectives? How do the ideas of democracy and liberalism support one another — and where are they at odds with each other?
- Dr. Jonah Hassenfeld, assistant director of teaching and learning at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Mass., writes about teaching his students about democracy and Israel. He begins by explaining that American Jews and Israelis have different legacies that result in their divergent associations with democracy: “American Jews see liberalism, the idea that an individual’s civil rights must be protected from the government, as a necessary foundation of any democratic society. Israeli democracy doesn’t place the same emphasis on individual rights.” He goes on to explain that for American Jews, liberalism is “the very foundation of their success. Even American Jews who identify as conservatives remain committed to the fundamental liberal values at the heart of American political culture. Similarly, Israel cannot easily abandon its raison d’etre: the protection of Jewish collective rights.” How do you understand this clash of values historically — that is, how do the origin stories of the U.S. and Israel contribute to their notions of liberalism and democracy? Do you think that this clash of values contributes to a distancing between Jews in the U.S. and Israel? And, if so, what are the factors that contribute to that distancing? How might a more robust civics education impact this relationship?
Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
- In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators — two of whom are first-time voters — examine a verse from the book of Deuteronomy warning against becoming apathetic and indifferent:”You must not remain indifferent.” לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם (22:3) Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a senior fellow at Hazon and the director of Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, quotes the 18th-century conservative Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Sid goes on to write that the Torah had the same idea: “We cannot afford indifference.” Ben Rosenn, a first-year student at Emory University, agrees and writes, we “can combat indifference by helping young people understand why they should have a stake in the democratic process — that their voices and actions can help shape the policy of the America that they will inherit.” He suggests that we invite young Americans to “explore the core values and issues that are most important to us — such as relieving student debt or making affordable healthcare available to a sick relative.” And Josie Krieger, a freshman at Pennsylvania State University, writes about combatting apathy on her college campus. “This collective student effort to decrease the indifference on campus was inspiring.” When have you felt apathetic and what helped you overcome that apathy? What inspires a sense of obligation and responsibility to vote, to be counted in the democratic process? When have you felt most inspired to be civically engaged and what contributed to that feeling?
- Abby Michelson Porth, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, writes about the importance of a robust democracy for Jews. “History has taught us harshly that we are secure only when we live in a robust democracy and where there is cohesion in civil society. We know well the ramifications of the decay of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, the consequences of strains in the social fabric, with neighbors betraying one another.” She goes on to say that “Authoritarianism and demagoguery are on the rise globally. In America, where an estimated 40 percent of Jews live today, the past two years have seen a dramatic uptick in antisemitic incidents, rhetoric, and imagery in political races and neo-Nazis marching in daylight.” And then, quoting Pirkei Avot, she writes, “Democracy is a well-tended, never-finished garden… ‘It is not [our] responsibility to finish the work, but neither are [we] free to desist from it.’” (2:21) If you were developing a class on civic consciousness, which Jewish values would you deem most resonant? How might civic leaders along with Jewish leaders in the U.S. work together to foster a greater commitment to civic society? What draws you into conversations about civic engagement and what obstacles to engagement do you personally have to address?
Call to Action
- Vote; write letters to your elected officials; go to city council meetings and let your voice be heard; volunteer on political campaigns
- Attend marches and demonstrations along with others Jews carrying a Jewish banner for civil discourse
- Eitan Hersh writes, in the NY Times “Use Your Untapped Political Power” that people should exercise their political choices in several ways, including: 1) organize your own precincts at a grass-roots level; 2) get to know your neighbors and mobiliaze your neighborhood.
- Activate with your Jewish hat on: Civic Spirit educates, inspires, and empowers schools across faith traditions to enhance civic belonging and responsibility in their student, faculty, and parent communities. Through professional support and student programs, Civic Spirit prepares the next generation to be knowledgeable, ethical, and active participants in the civic life of their community and the political life of our democracy. To learn more about Civic Spirit and the growing renaissance of civic education in America, contact Dr. Tamara Tweel at email@example.com r sign up for the Civic Spirit Digest: https://civicspirit.org/subscribe/.
- Learn about democracy and get involved: The Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco has developed a non-partisan democracy initiative.