Constructive Disagreement: The Pardes ‘Mahloket Matters’ Project

In a hyper-polarized world in which dismissal and demonization of the other is the norm, what wisdom might Jewish tradition offer regarding the importance of multiple perspectives and the positive power of constructive disagreement?

In 2018, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth, founder and director of the Pardes Center for Jewish Conflict Resolution (PCJCR), sought to address the troubling trend of polarization in society. He recognized that the world had become so fraught with suspicion and tension that people had lost interest in talking with others with whom they disagreed. In fact, sometimes engaging with people who hold views that oppose our own was perceived as a sign of weakness or even an act of betrayal.

However, Jewish tradition views makhloket le-shem shamayim (loosely translated as “constructive disagreement”) as a vital tool to generate discussion, critical thinking, personal growth and the deepening of relationships. After all, Jewish texts are filled with makhloket. For example:

  • Opposing commentaries and interpretations of the Bible abound.
  • Rabbinic texts, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, record thousands of debates between the sages and preserve minority opinions.
  • Even the way that we study our texts through havruta (partner study) is a style of learning that invites discussion and debate; we don’t just read the texts, we engage with them by way of our engagement with each other.

With all of that in mind, Daniel created the Pardes Mahloket Matters project to utilize Jewish texts and wisdom, together with social psychology, in order to promote the value and skills of makhloket le-shem shamayim. With this project, we aim to help participants — teens and adults — cultivate a “constructive disagreement mindset,” which reflects the understanding that disagreements can be a positive opportunity for enlightenment, growth and deep connection with others.

This constructive disagreement mindset is not aimed at any one specific situation or issue; rather, it is meant to be a lens through which we view, experience and engage with the world.

Pardes offers a variety of models for engaging with the Mahloket Matters material. We have a curriculum geared for adults, as well as a curriculum designed specifically for teens.

The full adult curriculum dives into the following timely questions:

  • What do Jewish texts have to say about the value of multiple perspectives?
  • What distinguishes constructive disagreement from destructive disagreement?
  • How might good people have diametrically opposing views on moral issues?
  • What are the variables to consider when determining if, when and how to engage in a difficult conversation?
  • Might there be people or ideas with whom we should not engage?
  • How do we determine when to stand by our truths and when to compromise?
  • What are some value tensions within Jewish tradition related to specific contentious, contemporary issues?
  • What practical tools and skills can I use to become adept at considering an issue from multiple perspectives and engaging with the other?
  • How can I help foster a culture of constructive disagreement?

There is a range of opportunities for adults to take part in Mahloket Matters. We teach individual sessions that present its seminal concepts. For those interested in more extensive learning, we offer a series of Mahloket Matters classes dedicated to how our textual tradition reveals the complexity of competing values and the challenge of decision-making in real life. In our most recent three-part series, the competing values in discussion were meritocracy versus inclusiveness, peace versus truth and privacy versus protection as it relates to the issue of public shaming. Additionally, some organizations have asked us to design professional development sessions tailored to meet their particular institutional needs.

In its most immersive model, the online Mahloket Matters Fellowship is an eight-week program taught by Pardes Mahloket Matters faculty in the fall and spring. At the conclusion of the eight-week course, each fellow plans and implements a Mahloket Matters community engagement project for their own network using the Mahloket Matters curriculum, with financial support from Pardes. Since the launch of the Fellowships in the spring of 2021, we have conducted Mahloket Matters cohorts for Clergy, Educational Leaders, Jewish Professionals, Hillel professionals and more.

Mahloket Matters Teens: Navigating Inner Challenges and Societal Discord through Jewish Text and Social-Emotional Learning is a curriculum designed specifically for use with middle school and high school-aged kids. Though there is certainly content overlap between the teen curriculum and the adult curriculum, the teen curriculum is founded on the idea that the integration of a constructive disagreement mindset, Jewish text study and social-emotional learning is a powerful combination. Taken together, these three ingredients that can effectively help equip teens with the cognitive, emotional and interpersonal skills they need to better manage internal and external conflicts. We weave these components together via text study, discussion questions and an array of activities in order to maximize the impact of each component by creating a cohesive and skill-building experience for teens.

The curriculum consists of three units. Each unit includes an extensive educator’s guide, accompanying slides and a digital student workbook that may also be printed. The slides and the student workbook are in an editable format so that educators may adapt the material as they see fit for their particular learners and educational contexts. We welcome and encourage educators to make this curriculum their own.

Pardes offers a wide variety of professional development training and workshops for day-school educators, congregational school educators and experiential educators who are interested in using the Mahloket Matters Teens curriculum. 

Mahloket Matters was never intended to live exclusively in the world of ideas or theory; rather, it was designed to make an impact on the personal and professional lives of the people who interact with it. So it is inspiring to hear the creative ways in which Mahloket Matters alumni have adapted the concepts and activities for their specific settings and needs. Here are three examples of Mahloket Matters at work:

(1) Three administrators and teachers, two in the middle school and one in the high school, from the pluralistic Charles E. Smith Day School in Rockville, Md., participated in the training. They then decided to integrate and adapt the Mahloket Matters Teens curriculum to enhance their seventh grade Toshba (Rabbinics) course. In their article, titled Tokhehah Leshem Shamayim,” the middle school administrators, Jennifer Newfeld and Derek Rosenbaum, explain how they thoughtfully introduced Mahloket Matters terminology and practiced Mahloket Matters concepts in their Toshba classroom. They report:

We started to see moments of makhloket leshem shamayim pop up all over the middle school day. We noticed that students were attempting to see the other side in an argument. We noticed that students called each other out appropriately and respectfully with the phrasing, “that’s not leshem shamayim (constructive).” We noticed that in the middle school culture, where it is seen as cool to put each other down, there was a bit less of this style of engagement happening. We began to see how Toshba was impacting our students’ everyday behavior for the better.

We noticed that students called each other out appropriately and respectfully with the phrasing, “That’s not leshem shamayim (constructive).”

Jennifer and Derek go on to say that as they observed the impact that the Mahloket Matters teachings and tools had on students both inside and outside of the classroom, they decided to broaden the Mahloket Matters “ideology and vocabulary throughout the entire upper school: in the middle school, the high school and across academic disciplines.”

And why stop with the students? Together with the high school administrator who participated in Mahloket Matters training, they developed a professional development module for the entire upper-school faculty. Their working title for the professional development session was, “Thinking About Makhloket and Civil Discourse in School Culture: How do we help our students have deeper, more respectful conversations across differences?”

(2) Each summer since 2022, Pardes has launched a new cohort of the Senior Educator Learning Fellowship for congregational school directors and senior educational leaders. The fellowship includes an intensive, in-person Mahloket Matters seminar. Debra Ackerman, the director of Congregational Education and Programs in her Fairfax, Va., synagogue, shared that based on what she learned in the fellowship and in conjunction with her Pardes mentor, she developed a “Family Sanhedrin Program” for fourth-seventh grade students and their parents. The program included a taste of Jewish texts, an intriguing case study and a room absolutely buzzing with the wonderful sound of kids and their parents discussing different perspectives of the case under review. Parents and children were delighted to (constructively) argue with each other! Debra remarked that though it was one of the most aesthetically simple programs she had ever designed, it was among the most successful. She said, “I am proud of what I learned from the program and equally proud of putting that learning into action.”

(3) Bruce Manning, an alumnus of the 2021 Spring Mahloket Matters Fellowship, served as the president of his Minneapolis synagogue. He teamed up with his synagogue’s rabbi to lead a Mahloket Matters text study and a constructive conflict scenario for the board of the synagogue. The constructive conflict scenario revolved around the question of whether to keep or cancel a controversial speaker. Following a protocol, the board members had to carefully read the case, consult and debate with each other, argue both sides of the issue and ultimately vote on whether to keep or cancel the speaking event at the synagogue. In other words, the board exercised its makhloket le-shem shamayim muscles. Bruce shared the following reflection about his experience:

I’m feeling pretty energized about how it went. … One board member told me, in comments that others in hearing distance echoed, that the evening was “mind-blowing, invigorating and excruciating.” That’s a positive use of the word “excruciating” because working through conflict, even ‘fake’ conflict, is hard and good work. I think there is some interest among a board member or three to help me run a version of this with congregants, perhaps as a shabbaton or over two longer sessions.

These examples illustrate that one person can indeed launch impactful Mahloket Matters learning and experiences within their own spheres of influence. Pardes is under no illusion that Mahloket Matters will magically or quickly solve all the deep tensions and highly charged disputes that are currently tearing our society apart. But as these Mahloket Matters alumni demonstrated, perhaps each of us can move the needle in the direction of makhloket le-shem shamayim.

To learn more about the Pardes Mahloket Matters project, please contact Sefi Kraut at:

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