The Summer Ahead 2023: Chutzpah & Humility

Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, Head of School 

The story is told of Novardok, the great 19th-century yeshiva in Minsk, where the students were known for their great humility. To reach such levels of humility, students would sit for 30 minutes each morning, rocking back and forth, chanting the mantra, “I am nothing, I am nothing.”

One morning as a new student arrived. He was startled to hear hundreds of students saying, “I am nothing.” But soon he caught on and started rocking back and forth himself. Chanting, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” Abruptly the student next to the newbie turned and berates him, “The nerve of you! I was here an entire year before I was nothing!”

For Summer 2023 the Torah reading cycle draws our attention to humility. From the Torah reading that starts Summer Break to the one that ends it. From Behaalotcha in early June which calls Moses “the most humble person in the world” to Shoftim in mid-August warns any king of Israel “not to feel superior to others” – humility is a core theme. 

Humility also, in a way, is at the core of the JCHS educational philosophy. As I told the Class of 2023 at their graduation last week, the summer they entered preschool the JCHS educators and board read Carole Dweck’s “Mindset.” For Dweck and JCHS the foundation of authentic learning depends on a “growth mindset.” A belief that learning can be developed, in large measure, through the humility to receive input from others. A growth mindset depends on cultivating the dual humility of understanding our own mistakes and valuing the perspectives of others. 

A couple of years later, when the Class of 2023 was entering 1st grade, the JCHS educators and board read Kathryn Schulz’s book, “Being Wrong.” As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Schulz documents the transformative power of making mistakes. Being wrong, reports Schulz, is not laziness or indifference or a moral flaw. Rather, the power of being wrong is about having the humility to recognize our mistakes as a vital part of how we learn and grow.

The type of humility idealized by Torah, Dweck, Schulz, and JCHS, however, is not about debasing oneself in front of others. Rather it is about basing oneself on understanding and respecting the view of others – even if we disagree. Moses did not debase himself. He confronts Pharaoh, leads a revolutionary exodus out of slavery, and even argues with God. 

What kind of humility is that? It’s a kind of Jewish humility. The 3,000-year-old Hebrew wisdom book of Proverbs puts it this way: “Just [as] one piece of iron sharpens another, so one person sharpens [the wisdom] of their friend. (Proverbs 27:17). I really like the Proverbs view because by personifying learning with iron, Proverbs shows empathy for how hardened we can become in our positions. More than that, it affirms the balancing act of standing up for oneself while listening to others.

This is the essence of humility at JCHS – balancing respect for oneself with honor for others. It is the type of humility that educational theorist and activist Parker Palmer identifies with the ideals of American democracy. He writes: 

If I were asked for two words to summarize the habits of the heart American citizens need in response to twenty-first-century conditions, I would choose chutzpah and humility. By chutzpah, I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility, I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all, so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other,” as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction.

JCHS wants every student to develop the kind of chutzpah that comes from both recognizing and lifting their unique voice. And the kind of humility that is expressed by listening with openness and respect for others. That balance of chutzpah and humility is Jewish humility. 

In that sense “Jewish humility” is amplified by two books the JCHS educators and board are reading this summer. For Summer 2023 board and staff are reading Robert Evans and Michael Thompson’s “Hopes and Fears: Working with Today’s Independent School Parents.” Faculty are reading Rhonda Bondie and Akane Zusho’s “Differentiated Instruction Made Practical.” Balancing chutzpah and humility are a central theme in both books. 

For example, for Bondie and Zusho effective teaching and meaningful learning are rooted in empowering students to take ownership of their learning knowing they are valued members of a supportive community empowering them to pursue rigor. For Evans and Thompson schools need to be animated by educators who listen actively, question deeply, talk straightly, collaborate selflessly, and demonstrate awareness of how each student is unique. For me, these are all variants of the theme of Jewish humility. 

Authentic learning depends on having intellectual and emotional humility – the capacity to see ourselves more through the eyes of others and to further consider the beliefs of others. 

As we all take a break from the school year that just ended and prepare for the year ahead, may we be inspired this summer to practice the balancing act of blending chutzpah and humility in our lives. Balancing respect for oneself with honor for others. 

Have a wonderful summer!