It’s rare that a text can accommodate both individual study and classroom learning. Yet in their latest educational resource, Stories for the Sake of Argument, Robbie Gringras and Abi Dauber Sterne do just that. Their book is an invaluable platform for students and teachers alike to explore some of the thornier and more divisive questions that Israelis and Americans face daily.
Each chapter of their impressive and thought-provoking book explores one moral quandary in depth. To do this, the authors tell three different categories of stories.The first, which they call “warm up” stories, explores general ethical issues, like whether a community can limit the number of pets a person owns even if it causes one resident significant pain, or whether a person can benefit from a nursing home that’s been set up by a local gangster through dishonest means. The second category, called “Israel,” delves into some of the most heated modern-day issues in the country. This includes whether an Arab Israeli should be made to sing “Hatikvah,” or whether racial profiling is ever right. Finally, the duo explores a set of allegories, stories that are meant to symbolize larger, more abstract frameworks for ethical wrestling. One powerful allegory asks whether a man who lives abroad should have a say in how his brother keeps their childhood home. It raises the all-important question about whether diaspora Jews should demand a say in what happens in Israel if they only visit occasionally.
What makes this book so user-friendly is that Gringras and Sterne do not leave the reader to ponder their stories on their own. After an opening few sentences summarizing the main issue at hand, followed by the text itself, the authors offer guiding questions and background information that succinctly situates the story’s issues, ethical tensions, and sticking points. The chapter continues with further questions that go deeper than the original set, now that the reader is more acclimated with the narrative landscape. The authors conclude with a set of open-ended questions called “Thoughts to return to after a night’s sleep” — and indeed, these thoughtfully constructed scenarios will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the chapter.
Peppered throughout the book are quotes about the importance of arguing. Apt and perfectly placed, they come from a wide variety of voices, including Oscar Wilde, Michelle Obama, and Michel de Montaigne. In addition to being entertaining, these voices give credence to Gringras and Sterne’s overarching theory: that debate serves everyone, provided that both parties enter it openly and respectfully.
Although it may be a departure from the main focus of the book, one of the most powerful elements appears in the last twenty pages, when Gringras and Sterne invent a narrative between two characters, Alex and James. Their discussion distills all arguments pertaining to Israel into four parts: security, collective identity, freedom, and territory. Such a distinction helps frame hard conversations not as platforms for opinion and emotion, but as opportunities to think critically about some of the most complicated issues on the planet.
It’s no accident that Gringras and Sterne choose to end their book with a call for hope. When we argue well, they seem to say, we welcome a brighter future. Our hardest questions need not stop us.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.