Leading Jewish Ethical Discussions

  • by: Zvi Grumet

I. What is a Jewish ethical discussion?

Ethical discussions are designed to challenge participants to clarify or their thoughts. The process of clarification often involves listen to different opinions, rethinking and reevaluating one’s own preconceptions, or formulating ideas for the first time.

By the nature of the questions involved, ethical discussions often have no right or wrong answers. It is not the answer that is the goal, but the thinking process which leads to that answer. A well-run discussion will leave its participants thinking about issues rather than walking out with conclusions.

Ethical discussions pose particular challenges for discussion leaders who have strong opinions, or who rely on sources which for them are considered authoritative. The introduction of an authoritative opinion at the beginning of a discussion can stifle that discussion , and the introduction of an authoritative opinion at the close of a discussion can render the prior discussion meaningless in the eyes of the participants, or an attempt to manipulate. This relates directly to the role of the discussion leader, which is not arbiter of right and wrong nor as the final authority on what is ethical, rather, as facilitator of the discussion.

Within the world of Jewish thought (and even Jewish law) there are a multiplicity of opinions and authorities, often in conflict with each other. To transform a general ethical discussion into a uniquely Jewish one it is valuable to introduce these Jewish sources to help frame and guide the discussion. Care must be exercised, however, not to let the introduction of the sources serve as a means by which to curtail independent thought required to internalize values or obviate or delegitimize the necessary exploration for the discussion to be valuable.

II. Setting the Tone

A prerequisite for effective ethical discussions is a proper environment. First and foremost, participants must feel “safe”, that is, that they can express opinions freely without fear of being denigrated or ridiculed. Mutual respect is the sine qua non of the ethical discussion. Neither the participants nor the discussion leader should be allowed to make disparaging comments about another participant. This is not to suggest that the discussion be a platform for moral relativism, in which all expressed opinions are considered equally correct, but that the participants should feel that they can express those opinions and that they will be considered seriously.

Logistics of the room can affect the discussion. Participants sitting in a circle are more likely to feel equal to others than in a traditional setup of rows. The circular setting also encourages participants to speak with each other rather than to the discussion leader, an important element in dynamic discussions.

One important function of the discussion leader is to set and maintain the guidelines and environment. Most rules are common sense – only one person can speak at a time, participants must listen respectfully to others, participants may speak TO but not ABOUT other people. Generally, the fewer the rules the better, so as not to waste valuable energy on enforcing rules as opposed to on the discussion itself.

III .  Discussion Techniques

There are a number of techniques which can be helpful for discussions. The opening moments of the discussion are critical, for it is this time which must draw participants into the discussion. It is valuable to have a trigger to spark the discussion. That trigger can be a scenario that the leader presents, a short story, a newspaper article, a musical selection, a video clip, etc. which will present a dilemma, situation, opinion, etc. This needs to be followed by the formulation of the relevant question/s. The questions need to be formulated in such a way that the answers require thought and are not black and white – often they will present both sides of a problem, challenging the participants to choose between competing values. At various points in the discussion the leader can “take charge” by introducing new material, religious texts, Rabbinic rulings, sparking a new direction for the discussion.

Throughout the discussion the leader plays a number of critical roles, especially those of instigator and gatekeeper. As instigator the leader presents the problem, asks participants whether they agree / disagree, prods them to justify their positions, plays devil’s advocate or challenges participants to do the same, takes positions to their extremes to generate thoughtfulness, probes the implications of positions taken, adds new information or twists on the original question, etc. It is often valuable for the leader to demonstrate active listening by restating or summarizing positions that were expressed.

As gatekeeper, the leader needs to manage the discussants and ensure maximum participation, both in quantity and quality. The leader should be prepared not only with material to help move the discussion along, but with ideas for managing the variety of situations and personalities present in group dynamics. A speaker’s stick (only the person holding it can speak) or a speaker’s list (to keep the order of the speakers organized) are valuable tools, as is a time limit for each speaker. These are especially helpful if there are individuals who like to dominate discussions or give long preambles prior to expressing their opinions.

Questioning is an essential component of discussions. It is important for the leader to encourage questions while, at the same time, not allowing the discussion to veer too far off topic. Comments such as, “That’s a very good question, but let’s today try to focus on X” are important for keeping the discussion on topic.

One technique that can be employed is the use of “breakout groups” to create small discussion groups in which everyone can participate, or asking the group to divide themselves based on which positions they take and preparing for debate.

IV. Closing the Discussion

There are a number of elements that should be present in closing the discussion. The question/s should be restated briefly along with a summary of the different opinions expressed. Alongside those opinions should come the reasonings behind them, as well as the problems with each side. It can also be helpful to ask participants to summarize positions other than their own. The leader may inject their own opinion, taking care to state that it is their opinion, or bring in information such as polls, court opinions, Rabbinic responsa, etc. The discussion can also close with a question to spark further thought on the topic.

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