Is it permissible to torture terrorists according to halacha? Are the #MeToo whisper networks a form of lashon harah?
Abraham Waserstein is encouraging his peers to grapple with these questions at Collegiate Moot Beit Din, the first and only halachic debate competition for Jewish college students. The 19-year-old founded the annual event at Princeton University Hillel last year.
Using ancient Jewish text, teams from campuses across North America and Israel tackle contemporary issues. The weekend experience also features a pluralistic Shabbaton, complete with traditional services, kosher meals and meaningful conversations.
Waserstein recently spoke with Hillel News about his vision for the second-annual Collegiate Moot Beit, scheduled from March 1-3. Below are highlights from the conversation.
What inspired you to create the Collegiate Moot Beit Din?
“At Princeton Hillel, there is an initiative called Co-Create. Students can propose different initiatives on campus, and Hillel helps to get those ideas off the ground and running. During my freshman year, I met with Rabbi Ira, the senior Jewish educator, at Small World Coffee. He asked me, ‘What would you like to bring to the Princeton Jewish community?’ It was like a light bulb moment for me. I knew that I wanted to make a Collegiate Moot Beit Din, an adaption of a similar competition that exists for Jewish high schoolers. I thought the best way to reach out to students was through the Hillel network. It’s something that Jewish students throughout the country and the world have the opportunity to be a part of. With that in mind, I thought that if we could create this network of Jewish students who are pluralistic and geographically diverse, we could do a lot with this.”
Who is eligible to participate in the competition?
“Any and all undergraduate students are welcome. They come from many different backgrounds. Some are on debate teams on their campuses. Others study Jewish text regularly. And some have no prior oratorical experience nor exposure to Jewish text. We believe there should be high end, Jewish learning accessible for all people, no matter their experience with Jewish learning.
“This year, there will be more than 70 students representing 20 schools from the United States, Canada and Israel. Last year, we had about 15 participants from campuses across the United States. I didn’t want the Collegiate Moot Beit Din to just be a Northeast competition. It brings different perspectives and connects Jewish students from around the globe.”
Students tackle a different case question at each competition. How did your team decide this year’s question?
“Last year’s question was, ‘Is torture permissible according to Jewish law in the context of the terrorist threat?’ It was applicable. Gina Haspel was just appointed, and people were talking about it. This year, we wanted to choose a topic more applicable to college campuses. That’s why we chose a question related to the #MeToo movement. Now, we ask, how can Jewish law and principles give us insight? I’m hopeful that students will take what they've learned back to campus.”
How do students prepare for the competition?
“We design the case in a way that’s very accessible. We make a sourcebook, which is complete with about 30 different excerpts from different Jewish legal texts which explore the question at hand. This year, we worked with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies to create it. There is one division of student teams that only use the provided sources to prepare for their for their argument. The other division allows student teams to use the sourcebook and external sources. For that division, they’re preparing with the source packet we gave them and they’re carrying out their own research, looking into other Jewish principles they can bring to the table to add on to their argument.”
During the inaugural Collegiate Moot Beit, what type feedback did you receive from participants?
“Charles Chakkalo, a student who graduated from Hunter College, told me that the Collegiate Moot Beit Din brought the text to life. That was eye-opening for me. It really does show that we can move Jewish legal learning from the book to a real-world platform. We're making it a lived experience.”
What do you want participants to take away from the competition as well as the Shabbaton?
“This is a launchpad for something bigger. Conversation doesn’t end at the Collegiate Moot Beit Din — it helps spark conversation. Conversations about the applicability of Jewish legal principles in contemporary thought are a launchpad for thinking about the #MeToo movement and whisper networks as well as how to improve the condition on college campuses, such as how to combat sexual harassment.
“The other piece is that I want students to connect, create friendships and have meaningful conversations throughout the weekend. Part of our priorities when planning the conference was financial accessibility and geographical diversity. 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.”
You’ve participated in Moot Beit Din competitions since you were in 10th grade. Based on what you’ve learned over the years, what do you think rabbinic sources can teach students about modern-day issues?
“There is no black and white answer. 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. And I think that Jewish law maximizes our decision-making process.”
Did you learn anything about yourself while organizing the competition?
“I didn’t know how to organize a conference — the recruitment phase, acquiring materials, the logistical aspect. But I learned. And I learned that I love creating, tradition and team building. I learned that I’m a person who has a passion for what’s happening on campus and an understanding that more needs to be done. Princeton has a deep-rooted tradition, and I’ve found meaning in adding new and innovative offerings to that tradition. And the teamwork aspect, receiving help from students on and off campus as well as the Hillel staff, has made the experience possible and worthwhile.”
How will your experience organizing the Collegiate Moot Beit Din at Princeton Hillel prepare you for the “real” world?
“I love being involved in the Jewish community, especially in programming that unifies people to think about things that are related to Judaism. Hopefully, the Collegiate Moot Beit Din will propel me to take the lead on other initiatives in the Jewish world and shape my future with Jewish organizations. Because I don’t want my involvement to end after college.”