By: Benji Richter  | 

Why Your Opinion is So Very Important

Recently, an article was published in The Commentator encouraging the Yeshiva University student body and its faculty to promote an environment of support for all its members, no matter their predilections and predispositions. As an addendum to that article, I would like to add an additional observation about the school’s environment that I feel still needs tremendous support—the freedom and courage on the part of students to formally express their personal opinions.

In my experience interacting with students throughout my years at YU, I was amazed by the plethora of personality types I encountered, and even more by the myriad of opinions. Perhaps the most significant feature of my overall learning experience was the array of perspectives I was exposed to from my fellow peers. The old adage that, for every two Jews there are three opinions, can be aptly said about the Yeshiva campus. This is readily apparent to anyone who has visited any of the Batei Midrash, cafeterias, lounges, academic courses, or hallways on Yeshiva’s campus. I believe that we have fostered an environment in which individuals feel entitled to have opinions, and to share them with their close peers.

However, the student body seems fraught with a pervasive fear of expressing these opinions in a formalized and public mode. As an editor of The Commentator, I have encouraged students to publish their nuanced opinions in the school newspaper, but they frequently fall silent upon hearing the proposition. When prompted to represent an opinion on some sort of panel or debate, the conversation quickly reaches a screeching hault.

After much deliberation, I’m still not exactly sure why this occurs, and I will be the first to admit that I have fallen victim to the same paralysis that I have observed in others. Perhaps there is a fear of lashon harah, being judged, feeling judged, what the dissenters will say, espousing beliefs or claims that can never be taken back, or  presenting observations and propositions that have no observable or immediate response or solution.  I lay no claims to sociological expertise, but it seems that the student body is too often living in fear of their opinions rather than impassioned and empowered by them. And I fear that much is at stake because of this.

Without a formalized mode of conversation, there can be no formal, conducive, instructive, and dynamic feedback. Conversations remain stagnant, between two disgruntled parties, and in an unfinished state of development.The results are often frustration with the institution where it is possibly unwarranted, a dull and cynical campus environment, and a disenchanted student body. Without an ear to listen deliberately and a voice to sing intently, there is no song, motion, or change.

I believe that a few things must be set in place to ensure an intellectually and religiously vibrant campus and an empowered student body. At the core of fostering a fluid and vibrant community is fostering a composition of individuals who are genuinely empowered by their opinions rather than simply entitled to them. What I mean is that their opinions invigorate them enough to actually spread  them, in an environment where they feel safe and encouraged to do so. Part of this process is having an infrastructure of faculty members that encourage students to express their opinions in an open manner, both through dialogue and writing.

On an institutional level, YU is thought to toe a very fine line between traditional Jewish learning and values on the one hand, and academic scholarship with an embracing attitude toward Western wisdom and values on the other. Because this dialectic is perceived to be so incredibly delicate, what potentially results is a very steadfast, one-sided, parochial approach to dealing with this balance, both in belief and in practice. In theory, this state of affairs should not necessarily be detrimental to fostering an intellectually vibrant and empowered student body, but in practice, considering the plurality of the student body, it is. The student body of Yeshiva University hails from diverse backgrounds, representing extremes and everything in between--though these terms are subjectively defined. Without an open arms policy to dissenting opinions because of fear of what these opinions might cause, a stagnant intellectual environment ensues. Alas, the student body lives out of fear, rather than love. A limited approach to a complex synergy of religion and scholarship ends up stifling a diverse community rather than empowering it.

I encourage you, the students of Yeshiva College, to have the courage that I did not have when I was a student, and to publish that article you typed up, saved on your computer, and decided not to complete for whatever reason. Help create an environment in which individuals’ opinions are important and needed, because an encouraged and opinionated community, regardless of its internal tensions, is ultimately an empowered, safe, and vibrant one.