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Jewish Heritage Month and the Value of Argumentation

Take a moment to think about some of the most iconic Jewish-American characters in film and television, particularly in the realm of comedy. You’ll likely imagine characters arguing, critiquing and heckling one another. You might see Jerry Seinfeld arguing passionately with his parents in Florida over whether or not he should have taken the astronaut pen from their neighbor (“Just take the pen!”). You might recall an almost nauseating back-and-forth between Midge and her parents over the best matzo ball soup recipe to use in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Or, you might think of Detective Jake Peralta pestering his colleagues and questioning his boss (needlessly so) in Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Why so much arguing?

To better understand this instinct, we need to go back in time—to over 3,500 years ago—when Judaism became one of the first monotheistic religions in the world. Known as the Israelites in ancient times, Jews lived and worshiped together as a unified people in the land of Canaan, or modern-day Israel. However, the Israelites were conquered by many empires including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and eventually the Romans, which led to the Jewish Diaspora, or the dispersion of Jews around the world. 

Over centuries, as Jewish people settled in different regions—namely the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and eventually North and South America—they have had to decide how to be Jewish apart from their ancestral homeland while living as a minority among the dominant cultures. Again and again, they have had to face the same existential questions: How should we practice Judaism in a different place and time? Is tradition or progress more important? Do we preserve our Judaism at all costs, or do we assimilate?

Much of this questioning naturally dovetailed with the religious practice of questioning and interpreting scholarly texts. Since Judaism is centered on the study of the Torah, or the Old Testament, a high premium was placed on understanding what is considered to be the word of God. Thus, to understand the precise meanings of each word in ancient text, religious scholars made it a point to welcome argumentation, critical thinking and even risk-taking. Why? Because when divergent thinking and opinions are welcomed, new perspectives and interpretations can emerge, potentially leading the way toward the most accurate understanding of “the truth.”

This scholarly tradition of questioning, debating, evaluating, and interpreting has led to a rich tapestry of Jewish American life and remarkable diversity where what it means to be Jewish today can be radically different from one person to another. There are a myriad of ways of practicing Judaism now – whether as a religion, a culture or even simply an ethnicity. An Orthodox Jewish person living in New York City, for example, will likely approach Judaism in a very different fashion from a secular Humanist Jewish person living in Los Angeles. Yet, it is likely that they will both feel great pride in the uniqueness of their Jewish identity.

Some may argue that dissension and disagreement within a community is problematic and can only cause disharmony. But consider the words of Rabbi Buchdahl, who recently said: 

Let’s remember what our tradition teaches: not what to believe, but how we get to beliefs worth holding. Questioning is sacred. Dissent is productive. If you start to debate, you may discover something that transcends the binary: You may discover a third opinion. And it will inevitably be wiser than either of the first two.”

For the month of May and in honor of Jewish Heritage Month, consider the value of healthy debate, of simultaneously expressing your opinion while also being willing to learn from those whose opinions differ from yours. Yes, argumentation can be uncomfortable, infuriating and even terrifying; but, it can also challenge us to make sense of complexity and to reconsider or reaffirm our personal values. 

And, if you disagree with me on this point, that’s okay too. I welcome it!


Jennifer Liff is an intern and student at Lesley University who will earn her master's degree in 2024 in Mental Health Counseling with a specialization in Expressive Arts Therapy. Prior to Looking Glass Counseling, Jennifer worked with adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and ran small psychoeducational groups to teach professional skills, emotion regulation and creative expression. Jennifer specializes in working with depression, anxiety, grief/loss, neurodivergence and high sensitivity. The modalities that guide Jennifer’s work include expressive arts therapy, person-centered therapy, narrative therapy and existential therapy.

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