In this, the 15th year of SAR High School, I have found myself asking: if I were charged with opening a new school today, what would it look like? Having confronted that question 15 years ago, it feels useful to ask it anew. In what ways would our thinking be similar and in what ways different? More than a blog’s worth can be said in response to that question. Much has changed over this relatively short period of time, changes that have significantly impacted the lives of high school students—the uses of technology and the nature of the college process are two such examples. But something else keeps coming to mind as I consider the question, something that is crucial for us as members of the Modern Orthodox community in America.
Over the course of the past decade, our community has experienced increasing polarization. We have become more divided over many issues and the political climate of recent years has helped draw those dividing lines even more thickly. And I am concerned that we are not the better for it.
Unless we use this awareness to make us better. If we acknowledge from where it comes, this polarization can help serve as a check and an opportunity for meaningful exchange within our community. Allow me to share some of the theoretical work that has been done in this regard. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, published an oft-cited book, “The Righteous Mind” (Vintage: 2012). In that work, Haidt describes the results of his research on the nature of moral development. He suggests that just as there are five taste receptors on the tongue, people operate with sixfoundations of moral intuitions. He calls this Moral Foundations Theory. The categories people use for moral consideration, in pairs, are: care/harm, fairness (equality)/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Seen from this vantage point, Haidt shows that, just as people have natural tendencies when it comes to taste, the same is true regarding moral judgment. Applied to politics and religion, he describes that conservatives tend to endorse all six foundations more equally overall while liberals tend to prioritize the care and equality foundations over the others. That means that conservatives grant more value to the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity than liberals do, while liberals grant more value to care and equality.
Most important in this analysis: we all value all of these foundations. At the same time, it is not surprising that we are each invested in some more than others of these foundations, according to our personal dispositions and inclinations. Given that understanding, each of us can benefit from interacting with a peer who prioritizes certain of the moral foundations more than we ourselves do. If I naturally prioritize fairness and equality, I might gain from hearing someone speak of the importance of loyalty, or the necessity for an authority figure to help guide us. Haidt suggests that we can “disagree more constructively” when we are both aware of the foundations that are shared most broadly, and understand that we each have our own way of prioritizing them. These acknowledgements allow us to become vulnerable, to consider other perspectives, knowing that those perspectives are rooted in the same moral foundations that I, too, believe in.
The national and communal polarization has of course affected our school too. Last spring, a group of parents asked to meet with me to review the events at school over the past year and a half surrounding the presidential election. The people in the room were coming from different political perspectives. And the conversations were purposeful. Purposeful, because we were able to consider the range of values that we all shared—and the different ways that we prioritized them. This did not bring everyone to agreement on the political issues; however, it did provide context for a constructive exchange.
Interestingly, I also found that my awareness of the political debates occurring in our school community informed my response to our senior Jewish Identity curriculum, a seminar I have taught numerous times over the years—one that is not focused on politics. The curriculum focuses on many of the communal and theoretical issues and challenges that an engaged Jewish adult should be familiar with: denominations in American Judaism, Jew and non-Jew, biblical criticism, sexuality and other topics. It is impossible to be totally neutral on such matters.
The act of putting any of these topics into a curriculum is, itself, not a neutral decision. And we should be proud of that, and be able to articulate why we choose to incorporate them into the curriculum. Yet, more than once, I felt that we would do well to present a second side: why would someone choose to reject Modern Orthodoxy and become Haredi? What is the concern of someone who sees feminism as a challenge to Orthodoxy? Might Jewish chosenness indeed be a sign of Jewish exceptionalism? I have spent time thinking about these topics and feel that it is my role to share what I believe and what we, as a school, stand for. At the same time, there are instances where we could and we must do better to ensure we are teaching toward the issues with binocular vision, emphasizing the range of moral foundations in our teaching.
And the same holds true for religious practice. SAR is a school that prides itself on providing women with the opportunity to learn and teach Torah on the highest levels and participate in tefillah to the degree that Halacha allows. This has been a culture-shaping value of the institution since its inception. And those who emphasize certain moral foundations will find that quite resonant. Still, even if one agrees halachically (and some do not), the foundations of loyalty and authority might lead one to disagree with a particular decision promoting female participation in tefillah. And both should be respected and engaged. This is not a matter of compromising on convictions but of sharing our convictions in the interest of a more constructive exchange.
Which brings me back to where I began: SAR High School should be a thinking, courageous institution, prepared to stand tall in its beliefs. It is also a “big tent” institution as yeshiva high schools go, home to a range of modern, observant families. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is my hope and prayer that our students become adults who are committed to Halacha, confident in their beliefs and, at the same time, aware of the range of members in our community and able to engage constructively with them. Our students and faculty must develop a deep understanding of our Modern Orthodox community and the range of people and views that populate that community. To develop that capacity, we must practice listening carefully to and disagreeing respectfully with others. We should be the model for how best to hold a diverse community of committed Jewish men and women together in discourse and practice so that the next generation is prepared to engage, shape and strengthen our community spiritually, religiously and ethically.
On a personal level, I feel this as well. I have learned from the constructive exchanges that I have had over the course of last year. As principal of this great school, it is my responsibility to do so. I will work to ensure that in the classroom, conference room and beyond, SAR is a space where we listen, we respect, we learn and we grow.
We look forward to a wonderful year of learning and growth together at SAR High School. May we all be blessed with a year of health and growth—physical and spiritual—a year of peace, happiness and wellbeing for our families, our community, the Jewish people and the world.
By Rabbi Tully Harcsztark
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is the principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York.