The Closing of the American Jewish Mind

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Media Outlet: Tablet Magazine

From the earliest years of my childhood, I always learned that the Jewish community valued intellectual debate. I witnessed this at every stage of my Jewish education. I grew up as the son and grandson of Conservative rabbis, attending services every week where the congregants and leaders engaged in vigorous discussions about the meaning of the liturgy. I studied at the Solomon Schechter Day School where my favorite class was Talmud, where our teacher Rabbi Lerner would carefully walk us through each line of text and demonstrate how every word and sentence could be dissected for new meaning. Rabbi Lerner taught us that the Talmud showed us how the Jewish people believed in debate for debate’s sake rather than trying to make everyone conform to the same opinion. That is the essence of Judaism. At Camp Ramah, we spent the time in between sports and socializing learning about how part of our role as maturing Jewish teenagers was to engage with and proactively unpack everything that we learned about services and our history. I even remember on my many trips to Israel, watching citizens stand on the street in robust arguments about left-right politics, only to conclude by sitting down over food, drinks, and friendship.

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Julian Zelizer is a fellow in New America's Political Reform program. He is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and writes a weekly column for CNN.com.