by Stacy Katz
At Gann Academy, the language of the middot, soul traits like truth (emet) and humility (anavah), are used often to describe our habits of mind and habits of heart. But using those to describe how we read a book about a post-apocalyptic world? Apparently, that’s just how Gann Academy rolls.
For those of you who haven’t read Divergent, the bestselling young adult novel by Veronica Roth, here’s the short, not too spoilery synopsis. In a post-apocalyptic world, the population is divided into factions. The factions – Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite, were formed based on the evils that they saw in society, and in human nature. Those who blamed selfishness formed Abnegation; those who blamed aggression formed Amity, and so on and so forth. Everyone is born into a faction and then goes through an aptitude test at 16. They then must choose a faction and complete initiation into that faction, or risk becoming factionless. To be factionless is a fate worse than death since they abide by the mantra of “faction before blood.”
Most of us probably don’t read that synopsis and immediately think of “Mussar” or even Jewish values. But isn’t Abnegation the same as the middah of anavah (humility) or Amity as chesed (kindness), Candor as emet (truth), dauntless as zerizut (enthusiasm) and erudite as chochma (wisdom)?
This was the frame of our discussion at our Young Adult (YA) Lit Lunch. In Divergent, the aptitude test, administered by serum, reveals their disposition and which faction they should choose based on their innate characteristics. Without a serum at our disposal, we asked students to identify which faction they would join, why, and what that reveals about our soul choices. As one student said to me in a hushed tone, “wow, Stacy, that’s really private.” She was right, and yet, the discussion that followed illuminated the profound thinking that our students engage in.
We walked away from our conversation with more questions than answers. Is it better to be authentic and “own” your faction or to strive to balance these traits within yourself? What happens in society when we only talk amongst ourselves and don’t meet others who are different than we are? Is the world of Divergent really that different from our own world? What is the best approach for creating a society? I don’t know the answers but the exploration of these questions, and the development of ethical and moral Jewish leaders at Gann Academy gives me hope for the future.
Resources: The Mussar Institute: Everday Holiness
Stacy Katz is the librarian at Gann Academy, an independent Jewish pluralistic high school in Massachusetts.