As a 20-something in the mid-1990s, I taught high school English. Part of my course load was a collaborative Grade 10 World Civilizations course that I co-taught with a social studies teacher. One day, I flippantly advertised our next assignment to a room of 16-year-olds, saying, “Oh, hey, we’re going to start reading Candide by Voltaire next week! You’ll love it! It’s full of sex, drugs and violence.”
To my surprise, many of those students talked to their parents. I received a flurry of concerned phone calls, messages and emails. Parents were worried about the curriculum. In the end, my explanations were successful. Yes, it’s true that Candide is probably rated R, but this fantastical satire was first published in 1759. It’s a famous classic, it’s definitely “literature,” with lots of intrigue and ideas we can learn from – and, oh yeah, it’s not true.
Literature teachers often speak of the great truths found in the classics, but fiction isn’t “the truth.” It’s complicated to untangle, and that’s why we study it to develop our critical thinking skills. In our multi-discipline history and English course, we had opportunities to discuss how history evolved, how we could examine primary sources to draw conclusions, and more. Literature was just a part of our opportunity to read and analyze important texts.
All this came to mind recently when some antisemitic posts came my way via social media concerning the Talmud. People started quoting the Talmud and inferring from brief quotations that Jews did all sorts of evil things. This was something of a modern blood libel approach; using brief snippets out of the huge body of law and literary work to condemn an entire ethnoreligious group. What followed was both a lot of nonsense and some deep belly laughs from Jews and scholars who study Talmud. Now, if you want to understand this text, buy all the tractates of the Babylonian (and don’t forget the Jerusalem) Talmud. You’re looking at a several-thousand-dollar purchase, which you can’t read unless you know Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew, as well as Rashi script, to read his commentary.
In recent years, Sefaria, an online database, has offered access to Talmud and many other Jewish texts, both in the original and in translation, for free. It’s been a tremendous gift and democratization of these ancient texts. However, having access doesn’t mean you have understanding. Like reading Candide for the first time, it’s helpful to have a teacher, some historical context, and lots of support to aid in your comprehension. These online X commenters, taking short rabbinic quotes out of context, had no idea what they were talking about. In many cases, the Talmud’s rabbinic musings explore arbitrary legal situations that never happened in order to explore and define the minutiae of Jewish law.
Also online, I saw others bemoaning how learning historical “facts” seemed solid and unquestionable – dates and events – but that, with modern events, it seemed hard to define what had happened and what was true as compared to misinformation. This anecdotal experience is common but it’s misleading. It takes a long time to establish a common narrative around a historical event, and “the winners” of war or political events create their version of history. Using multiple primary sources, as well as multiple historians’ accounts, helps learners see how historians lend their biases to their interpretation of what happened. We only get a full picture of “what happened” through exploring many perspectives from multiple sources. Even then, it’s hard to know if the history we’ve learned is “true,” or not.
Developing a mature understanding of literature and world events requires us to be critical thinkers. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1936, “… the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
I’d say that, often, intelligent people explore complex political, historical, social or literary scenarios that hold multiple opposing ideas at once. But this kind of learning takes time and energy. It does not happen automatically. Our society loves binaries, where we get a quick yes/no answer.
My kids aren’t in high school. Yet, as a parent, I look forward to the day they come home excited about a “mature” literature assignment full of “sex, drugs and violence.” Each new milestone achieved fills me with hope. This year, for the first time, I have two kids who skate on their own, and I don’t always have to lace them up. At the same time, we’re trying to get to complex, but age-appropriate understandings of the Hamas-Israel war. We explore what is happening along with how the media depicts the situation. Who shapes our understanding of what’s happening? How? Most difficult is exploring the questions around whether anyone “wins” in a war when there is so much suffering involved.
The world is complicated. We can use literature and ideas for enjoyment, but also as tools to help think about big issues. Thinking critically about complex issues is a sign of intelligence and maturity. We must cultivate this skill. I hope it’s something my kids achieve as those long-ago high school students did.
Critical thinking is also a lens through which to examine the multiple simplistic social media and news narratives we’re facing every day. One can ask why the description of an event is so simplistic or who is consistently blamed in the narrative. Often, a short take on Talmud doesn’t demonstrate a deep understanding. A news article that fails to include the back story isn’t going to cut it. A view that always blames only one country – Israel – or one ethnoreligious group – Jews – might be similarly flawed.
Developing our thinking skills enables us to understand complexity. It also helps us discern an argument’s flaws. Let’s nurture smart thinkers so they can recognize and discard the nonsense, misinformation and hate that pops up so frequently now online and in the news.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for the Winnipeg Free Press and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.