At Princeton Hillel’s Collegiate Moot Beit Din, students debate hot-button issues through a Jewish lens
By Shana Medel
[Fourth of a four-part series on the most unusual clubs at Hillel]
According to Jewish law, is it permissible to torture terrorists?
Abraham Waserstein is encouraging his peers to grapple with questions such as this at the Collegiate Moot Beit Din (CMBD), the first and only halachic debate competition for Jewish college students. The 20-year-old founded the annual event in fall 2017 at Princeton University Hillel.
Using ancient Jewish text, teams from campuses across North America and Israel tackle contemporary issues, building their arguments on evidence and precedent before presenting their case to a panel of judges. The weekend experience also features a pluralistic Shabbaton, complete with services, kosher meals and meaningful conversations.
“We can move Jewish legal learning from the book to a real-world platform,” Waserstein said. “We’re making it a lived experience.”
Waserstein was inspired to launch the program after a coffee conversation with Rabbi Ira Dounn of Princeton Hillel, who asked him, “What would you like to bring to the Princeton Jewish community?”
He experienced a “light bulb moment.”
Waserstein thought back to his participation in high school moot beit din competitions through his Jewish day school in South Florida. Eager to recreate the intellectual challenges and communal aspect of these competitions, he asked Rabbi Dounn if he could initiate a college level moot beit din.
Rabbi Dounn oversees Co-Create, a Princeton Hillel incubator program that enables students to pilot ideas in their Jewish community.
“I knew from that moment that somebody with his enthusiasm, energy and vision could make extraordinary things happen,” Dounn said. “But what Abe ended up accomplishing exceeded even my own wildest expectations.”
In 2017, Waserstein launched CMBD through Co-Create. The annual competition continues to grow under the aegis of the Hadar Institute, with support from the Maimonides Fund, which now oversees leadership and operations. Waserstein continues to lead the student planning committee.
The inaugural competition drew roughly 15 participants from campuses across the United States alone. Last year, more than 60 students representing 20 campuses from the United States, Canada and Israel competed.
Undergraduate students of varying levels of Jewish observance are eligible to register for the competition. While some participants have extensive Yeshiva backgrounds, others are just starting to explore Jewish text.
“CMBD believes in creating high-caliber, Jewish learning that is accessible for all people, no matter their previous experience,” Waserstein said.
The CMBD planning committee, comprised of 18 students, also prioritizes financial accessibility and geographical diversity.
“I want students to connect, create friendships and have meaningful conversations throughout the weekend,” Waserstein said. “I want someone from Canada to bring their perspective to Princeton and share it with the 20-plus campuses. The process of having conversations with people who have different experiences, let it be geographical or financial, is gold.”
The 2017 competition question asked students to debate if Jewish law condones torture. Teams based their arguments on a case study of a fictional country suffering from ongoing terrorist attacks. The country had recently captured one of the terrorist leaders. Students had to decide if the government could torture the terrorist to obtain information that would be used to stop future attacks.
The students unanimously said yes.
“This process actually forces you to construct a case of your own,” Charles Chakkalo, then a senior at Hunter College, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year, after participating in CMBD. “Learning [Talmud] in high school was more like, ‘This is what the Gemara considered and this is what they concluded.’ Here, we’re the authors.”
Last year, students were asked to debate if #MeToo whisper networks were a form of lashon harah, or derogatory speech. Wasserstein said analyzing the applicability of Jewish legal principles in contemporary social issues spurred discussions about combatting sexual harassment on campus.
“This is a launchpad for something bigger,” Waserstein said. “The conversation doesn’t end at the Collegiate Moot Beit Din – it helps spark it.”
The next debate competition is slated for Feb. 14-16. The case scenario will focus on a fictional climate change group which must grapple with whether to accept a generous donation from a donor whose business has a troubling record on human rights.
“There is no black and white answer,” Waserstein said. “The answers to a lot of these questions, especially the ones we’re looking at, are in a grey area. To create an informed decision in that grey area, we need as much information and perspective as possible. I believe that Jewish law helps maximize our decision-making process.”
Shana Medel is a senior communications associate at Hillel International.