The High Holy Days are rolling around again: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Weren’t we here a few months ago? It seems so, but the kids are taller, and my oldest is studying for her bat mitzvah. I guess another year really has gone by.
A lot has changed in my life, and yours too, I’m sure. I’m working from home, and I no longer dine in at restaurants. My children are enrolled in remote classes. I’ve become quite the Zoom maven out of necessity. I now say things like, “Cute mask!” And I’ve been in leadership roles for the past year, well out of my comfort zone.
I’m used to being in the background, contributing but not leading, strengthening voices left unheard but not steering the debate. I’m certainly not used to being the face of decisions, the focal point for all who disagree. My new leadership roles make me feel like I’m under a hot spotlight. I am on stage at some live quiz show, standing at the microphone; the host has just asked me to answer a question on theories of how modern humans dispersed. Wait, bioarchaeology?! I haven’t studied that in decades! To add drama, hecklers spring into action if I get the question wrong. Or right, for that matter. OK, so it’s not quite that bad, though at first it felt that way.
Judaism, like leadership, is filled with debate and challenges to decisions. Our long tradition is one of engaging in spirited discourse, and not necessarily agreeing in the end. The Talmud, for example, is a body of hundreds of years of back-and-forth scholarly commentary on ancient Jewish laws. Although some scholars’ insights carry more weight than others’, matters are almost always open to respectful re-examination. In the end, a Jewish scholar of old didn’t need to convince everybody. The same is true of scholarly and non-scholarly decisions today, even mundane, pragmatic ones. Was moving religious services online the right decision? It was the best decision our synagogue’s board could make after carefully weighing available evidence and ensuring that our decision-making process was fair. When new research comes out and circumstances change, we will re-evaluate.
Surely, you also have been faced with difficult decisions recently. For example, parents of school-aged children have considered multiple factors in choosing to how to educate them this fall. Years ago, I watched my husband nearly die from an asthma attack and spend three days struggling on a ventilator, so we’re taking extra measures to protect family members with asthma. That was the right decision for us out of no perfect options.
Whatever you do, may you make decisions like Jewish scholars: use the best information at hand, debate well and without fear, respect other informed positions, and be open to re-examining when you have new information. The conversation may be uncomfortable at times, but the goal is not to be liked. The goal is to do what is best.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. The views she expresses are her own and do not necessarily represent those of any organizations with which she is affiliated.