“Continuous self re-examination – even after having arrived at what appear to be immutable conclusions etched in stone – is the conditio sine qua non of wisdom, humanity, meaningfulness, relationships, progress, success and pretty much everything else worthwhile in life” – Ze’ev Maghen, Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews
“There are seven things that characterize a boor, and seven that characterize a wise man. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or age. He does not interrupt his fellow’s words. He does not hasten to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to latter things later. Concerning what he did not hear, he says “I did not hear.” He concedes to the truth. With the boor, the reverse of all these is the case.” – Ethics of the Fathers 5:7
If you’re from the Modern Orthodox community, then you are probably aware of what is known as the “flipping out” scenario. The script is almost always the same:
Young 18-year-old Ploni Almoni graduates high school and leaves the warm embrace of his parents and community to learn for a year in a yeshiva in Israel. There Ploni is exposed to Rabbi Firebrand, a fiercely Charedi educator. Rabbi Firebrand does everything he can to get Ploni to change up his casual wear for a black hat and matching attire. He either rails against the Modern Orthodox life or solely advocates his own worldview. At the end of the year, Ploni has learned the lesson and become completely “black hat”.
The truth is that this sort of thing can happen just as much at a university as at a yeshiva (Someone even wrote a helpful e-book on the subject). The only difference is that while Rabbi Firebrand preaches Charedism, Professor Firebrand preaches some form of modern ideology on the left end of the political spectrum such as socialism, progressive liberalism, feminism and post-colonialism. Professor Firebrand will rarely acknowledge the existence of contrary views, and if he does, he will do so only to ridicule them and anyone who holds them.
My point is that the danger of becoming the worst kind of “recent convert” is an age thing. High school students and graduates – people like you – are often highly impressionable. Many of them mistake adopting the exact opposite view of their parents with being a genuinely critical and reflective adult. What they end up doing instead is becoming just as rigid and unthinking as the people they attack.
So how do I avoid this scenario, you may ask?
First, follow the advice of Prof. Maghen as quoted above: learn about yourself. Examine and flesh out your own positions, honestly acknowledge the existence of doubts, questions and contradictions even if you completely reject them. Decide which opinions and values are core to your being and which are less critical. This way you will only truly have to wrestle emotionally with a few key things rather than see every disagreement as an attack on your person.
Second, learn to read as many views you can on any subject, whether online or elsewhere. Just because Professor Firebrand doesn’t acknowledge the existence or legitimacy of contrary opinions doesn’t mean you have to do so. Regularly attend debates at a university debate club or watch youtube debates between people presenting different points of view.
Lastly, internalize and follow the advice given in the second quote. Learn to treat other opinions with respect and understand that only you decide whether or not to accept something. No-one is forcing you to do so. Carefully and patiently follow the advice on how to debate and discuss things, even if your counterpart is incapable of this. This is as true of a professor as it is of anyone else.
Even if you “lose” a debate with someone, it does not mean that you are permanently wrong – there may have been information or evidence that both of you missed. Your life and beliefs should not hinge on any one discussion or class, even if it is a debate on your core values.
If I may bastardize a known Jewish phrase:
No-one ever died from a contrary answer, as long as they knew they could question it.
Tip #7: Live within your means