For our 12th grade shabbaton, the Rebbetzin sent shock waves through the classroom with the announcement: there was going to be a debate. There would be two sides. The two sides would be “Chitzoniyus mi’oreres hapnimiyus” and “pnimiyus mi’oreres hachitzoniyus.”
This was shocking because “chitzoniyus m’oreres” (henceforth CM) is the party line of bais Yaakov. It is the single reason given to convince thousands of teenage girls to conform to a specific code of external appearance and behavior that they don’t always understand or agree with. The idea that the school might be willing to hear the matter debated filled many students with hope. Maybe the school would listen. Maybe they’d understand that conviction — and by extension, convincing reasons -– was just as important to living a fulfilled Jewish life.
The team lines were drawn very quickly. They didn’t even need to be drawn; our class was divided geographically.
On the right side of the classroom you had the students who went to teachers after class to ask how they could fulfill visamachta bichagecha while saying “mipnei chata’einu” in davening.
On the left side you had the students who wanted to know why, if dressing in non-Jewish fashions was chukas hagoyim, could men wear pants? (It’s pashut from the bigdei Kohen that pants were non-standard attire for men under Jewish sovereignty.) Although, by 12th grade, most of the left side of the room had stopped bothering to raise their hands at all, or interact with teachers in any meaningful way — with the exception of the inimitable Devorah.
So, while nobody was shocked to see the right side rapidly fill the ranks of the CM team, I was shocked to watch my most cynical left-side friends line up to represent PM.
“You’re never going to win,” I pointed out. “They won’t let.”
“It’s a debate,” they replied. “The team with the best argument wins. What are they going to do?”
I didn’t know, but I was still skeptical. As a result, I sat alone on my windowsill during breaks for the next four weeks. But the view was astounding.
Students who never opened a Chumash except for schoolwork were stepping off the bus in the morning, their fingers tucked into a sefer. Friends who had distrust of teachers were talking to them during breaks and lunch. And every spare moment, these otherwise disinterested students were gathered around Devorah’s desk – for she had been unofficially elected team captain – talking Torah and strategy.
By giving dissent a chance to make a case, the school had garnered the active interest and participation of their most disengaged students.
It was too good to last.