Adam Grant and the Case for Nuance in Jewish Education

This article was originally published in The Jewish Journal by Dr. Noam Weissman. Reprinted with permission.

The word “nuance” is more than a buzzword, but often it can feel like one. Nuance is the single most important element of a healthy educational experience. What is nuance, and how does using a nuanced approach to a difficult question lead to surprising outcomes and cause us to rethink our previously held assumptions? And why does it matter in education?

A nuanced approach breaks through echo chambers by exploring the wide contours of dispute that exist on any given issue. When we encounter diverse perspectives on any given issue, we gain a more complete understanding of the issue and people who are different from us.

This approach is needed now more than ever because it will counter the polarization in our politics, media and social lives. And bringing a nuanced approach into our classrooms is not only necessary if we want to break down the silos in the Jewish world and expand understanding of one another; this approach is also fundamental to Judaism and our responsibility as Jewish educators.

In the Talmud (Eruvin 13b), there is a well-known debate concerning whether the law ought to follow the opinion of Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai. For three years, this was debated. These two schools of thought had fundamentally different approaches to education and the law.

Beit Shammai was what the Talmud describes as “charifei tuva,” meaning they were significantly sharper than Beit Hillel. They knew the facts involved and had a clear answer to every legal question. In modern parlance, one might say they were adept at logical argumentation and analysis of an issue. Perhaps that is why there is a tradition of believing that in the Messianic era, the opinions of Shammai will prevail.

But until that Messianic Era, Beit Hillel is the victor for decision making in Jewish law. The Talmud provides three reasons for this:

  1. Beit Hillel was “nochin vi’aluvin,” often translated as “agreeable, patient, humble and forbearing.”
  2. Beit Hillel studied their own opinions and the opinions of Beit Shammai in their academy.
  3. When they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, Beit Hillel made the decision to prioritize or give precedence to Beit Shammai’s statements over their own statements.

Beit Shammai was also a deeply important part of the Jewish tradition, but they only engaged in their own positions. Micah Goodman, in his new book “Chazara Bli Teshuva” (“The Wandering Jew”), explains that Beit Shammai was “an echo chamber.” Beit Hillel, who we are the descendants of and whose legacy we inherited, behaved differently. They reached outside of their own school of thought and learned the positions of Beit Shammai as well as their own.

The two schools’ different behaviors likely stemmed from their radically different ideas about the goals of Jewish education. To quote the organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his recent book, “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” Beit Hillel understood that “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.”

Beit Hillel was not merely interested in proving their existing views right. Rather, by including Beit Shammai’s views, they sought a complete understanding of the issue as well as the “other.” They viewed their intellectual and religious rival with respect, integrity and dignity. This approach is the Jewish people’s foundational narrative of what it means to engage in education.

To be clear, applying Beit Hillel’s approach — a nuanced educational approach — does not mean being relativistic or having less conviction. We ought to remember that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agreed on the fundamental truths of Judaism and disagreed on 300 cases of law and lore. Both schools ultimately had clear positions on these matters.

Where the two schools differed was in how they arrived at those positions. Specifically, Beit Hillel considered diverse perspectives as part of their standard process of forming opinions and reaching conclusions. By proactively including Beit Shammai’s opinions and genuinely considering them, Beit Hillel was able to reduce the chance of falling into two common psychological traps Grant discusses in his book: confirmation bias (seeing what we expect to see) and desirability bias (seeing what we want to see).

We may have the impulse to follow the example of Beit Shammai and be “right,” but that is not our heritage as Jewish educators. So, how can we follow in the footsteps of Beit Hillel and bring a nuanced approach into our classrooms?

  1. Model being curious, and reward your students for showing curiosity. Openly share with your students and peers when you are curious or even ambivalent about an issue. Encourage your students and peers to lead with their curiosity, rather than immediately looking to prove a point. Some of the most profound moments I had as a student happened when I asked my teacher or rabbi a difficult question, and they responded, “I don’t know. I need to think about it.” As Grant wrote, “When someone knowledgeable admits uncertainty, it surprises people and they end up paying more attention.” Teach your students that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
  2. Showcase a range of perspectives on any topic. There are rarely only “two sides of a coin” for any given complex issue. Whether you are teaching about the binding of Isaac, the Spanish Inquisition or the emergence of the state of Israel, present multiple historical and philosophical viewpoints so your students can appreciate the topic’s complexity and consider different perspectives. There is no need to overwhelm students with 25 perspectives on a given topic: highlighting three or five perspectives will allow students to see the textures of an issue.
  3. Motivate your students to consider nuanced perspectives between two extremes. Help your students overcome the tendency to think about issues in binary terms by asking them, “Are there any additional perspectives that could be missing between the extremes?” Consider discussion questions like, “Should Israel allow public transportation on Shabbat?” and “Was King David a courageous hero, a flawed leader or both?” “Does God intervene in the world?” Let’s help our students engage in what is called “spectrum thinking,” exploring perspectives in the grey zone.

Two thousand years ago, Beit Hillel modeled a way to reach beyond the silos in the Jewish world, explore the perspectives of their religious counterparts and gain a more complete understanding of any given topic. As Jewish educators, lay leaders or parents, we are all descendants of Beit Hillel, and it is our responsibility to follow in their footsteps and break through the echo chambers and division that characterize our own times.

In a world in which too many people have huddled into their silos and taken hardline partisan positions, we need to make nuanced Jewish education accessible to everyone. As Beit Hillel demonstrated, nuance does not mean having less conviction; it means bringing more people into the discussion. Nuance does not mean being less passionate; it means being more compassionate.

The world has a population of almost eight billion people. Comparatively, the Jewish people are merely trying to crack the 15 million mark. Because of our relatively small population size, we simply do not have the luxury of shunning others within our Jewish family. By using nuanced educational approaches, we can help reverse polarization trends in our community and build a Jewish future that is more compassionate, empathetic, informed and connected to Judaism and each other. We have no time to waste.

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