I originally joined the Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) to meet new people within the MIT grad Hillel community, so I thought it would be fitting to write a blog post about our session centering on friendships. Friendships are really important to me, and as most students can tell you, it’s been difficult to make friends when starting a degree program during COVID. Students (and probably most people) are reaching for any friendship that they can possibly maintain either virtually or through social-distanced gatherings. With all of this in mind, it was interesting to take a step back with the JLF group and get to the bottom of what we each truly value in a friendship: What makes a friendship strong?

The main discussion point centered on honesty. I’m all for honesty, but I still believe that there are some moments where the right thing to do might not be in line with outright honesty. If my friend asks me how she looks as she’s about to walk down the aisle on her wedding day, I would 100% tell her she is a beautiful goddess, even if I personally think her makeup is a little much. This isn’t just because I’ve been backed into a corner of “lying”; even if she doesn’t ask me outright, I think it’s my responsibility to make her feel absolutely stunning, and I will volunteer that information. Our group was pretty divided on this issue. While some people were aligned with my opinion, others viewed my response to the hypothetical situation as dishonest and therefore not a value of friendship. Alternative reactions to the hypothetical situation were also raised; they ranged from subtly avoiding giving an answer (“You look so happy!”) to bluntly honest but friendly responses (“I’m not the biggest fan of your makeup, but your gown is a dream!”). 

Unbeknownst to us (until we had reached these sources later in the session), renowned sages and philosophers had quite a similar argument many eras ago. It turns out that those who disagreed with me have the support of the philosopher Kant, who believes lying is inherently morally wrong. I was glad to hear that I have Hillel on my side, who taught that we should always say “beautiful and graceful bride!” regardless of the bride’s beauty. The school of Shammai, much like my JLF peers, were shocked by this, and asked, “If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Isn’t there a verse in the Torah that teaches, ‘Keep far away from any kind of falsehood?!’” Shammai aligned with the more subtle responses; at a wedding of any bride, the School of Shammai taught not to embellish, but to simply say, “The bride is…as she is.”

These conversations continued through many difficult questions. It turns out most people have a point that would bring them to accept lying as the unquestionably correct action: to spare someone else embarrassment, for the sake of humility, to avoid extreme familial conflict or, at the extreme, to save a life. Some members of the JLF group even volunteered real dilemmas they had currently in their lives and asked the group for thoughts on how others would approach the situation. I learned a lot from hearing other viewpoints, especially the ones I disagreed with, and seeing how different people have very valid ways of approaching tough situations.

JLF has been wonderful for me in meeting new people, making friends and now in discussing and understanding the qualities of friendship that I value and strive toward. Even though COVID has tested the limits of what truly classifies as a friendship, at the end of the day it has definitely strengthened the relationships in my life. It forced me to take a step back and be really intentional about creating and maintaining friendships. This led me to sign up for JLF, and in a full circle, to write this blog post about friendship.

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