September 2008


With Rosh Hashanah only a few days away, the Torah annually brings us the poetic words of Parshat Nitzavim on the Shabbat prior to the New Year. Central to this Torah portion is the idea of teshuva, return, which is also at the heart of the High Holiday season. “You will return your hearts to God,” says Moses. “You will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice… you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.” (Deut. 30:1-3)

What, though, does this return really entail? What does it mean to return to God?

Returning implies that we have been here before. One cannot return to someplace one has never been. So when we say we are returning to God, we really imply that we have been with God before, and that we are restoring a relationship that once existed. This is an important Jewish idea, one which I learned from my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss: While on Rosh Hashanah we commemorate the creation of the world, it is not a day of newness, it is not a day of firsts. Instead Rosh Hashanah is a day of seconds, a day of repeating, a day of returning.

In the story of Noah, the Torah relates (Gen. 8:13) that Noah left the ark on the first of the month. But it doesn’t specify which month. The commentators on the Talmud interpreted the Torah to mean that Noah left the ark on the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because Noah was engaging in the re-creation, the second creation, of the world. And the major difference between Noah’s experience and that of Adam and Eve is that Noah carried with him a memory of what had come before. Unlike Adam and Eve, who were placed on the earth, Noah and his family returned to the earth after a period of separation.

In our society, and especially in the university environment, we give honor and prestige to innovators, people who think of that which has never been thought, who “boldly go where no man has gone before.” And while this is important, it is precisely the opposite of the ethos of Rosh Hashanah and the value of teshuva. Returning means going back over our memories, reviewing our actions and our relationships, and reliving them so that we may repair them. It is not about leaving the past behind, but instead about repairing the past. That is the miraculous power and possibility of teshuva–that the past is not frozen, but is always in dialogue with the present and the future.

So when we say that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are returning to God, what we mean is that we are opening ourselves up to another dimension. It is a dimension beyond time and space, in which past and future are an open book. In this divine dimension we can set right that which has gone wrong, and can re-experience the sense of wholeness and unconditional embrace that lies deep in our souls. As Moses says, “For it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14) May we all find that place to return to this year.

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As part of my PhD coursework I’m doing an independent study in the philosophy of education this quarter. Each week I’m reading a major work in the subject and writing my response. Below are some of my initial thoughts on reading Plato’s Meno and Republic for the first time in a very long time.

Education is central to Plato’s vision of the Republic, because it is the primary means by which the Guardians and Philosopher Kings will be identified and prepared for their roles. His program is clearly a very elitist one, and Socrates himself acknowledges that it is highly improbable. Yet in the course of The Republic, and to a lesser extent Meno, Plato outlines many of the foundational questions of education that persist to this day, among them: What is the nature of education? Who should be educated? Why should they be educated? How? And to what end?

In the Republic, Plato outlines a systematic approach to education that begins with gymnastics and moves on to music. These two areas were meant to enable soldiers to do their work, and would help to identify those capable of further study, which would include arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and ultimately dialectic, the highest of the disciplines. While at the end of his discussion with Glaucon in Book 7 he states that all above ten years old are to be spirited away to the country for proper breeding away from their parents, he maintains throughout that different people will be able to achieve different levels of education and will ultimately perform different functions in society.

The purpose of education in Plato’s scheme is to enable the Republic to be a just and virtuous state. Individual desires are subordinated to the good of the collective, to the extent that the shoemaker happily accepts his role for the good of the state, and the true Philosopher King will be the one who does not desire to be a leader at all, but only serves because the state demands it of him or her. Plato’s commitment to principle-that is, justice and the good and welfare of the state and its citizens-as the motivating force in all decisions is thorough, and helps to explain his openness to gender equality.

Still, Plato has a difficult time defining virtue, as he makes clear in Meno. And in that sense, Meno serves as a check on the utopian vision of the Republic. As Socrates points out, we have a difficult time defining virtue, and we are hard pressed to identify true teachers of virtue. If something cannot be defined, it cannot be taught. This begs the question in the Republic: How does Plato envision the education of these virtuous leaders? He is not clear on this point, other than to identify certain subject matters to be mastered and certain life tests to be passed.

Perhaps the most striking moment for me in this reading of the Republic was Socrates’s description of the curse of enlightenment towards the end of Book 7. How is the highly educated person able to re-enter society after he has learned Truth? Yet it is precisely this test that determines one’s aptitude for leadership. It is a test of integrity, one which I imagine resonates with many highly educated people: Does one abandon the falsehoods of society and become a hermit, or does one learn to engage society with its paradoxes?

On this score, paradox plays an important role for Plato, leading ultimately to the consciousness that is capable of dialectic and truth. He who can recognize things that can be categorized in multiple and contradictory ways are the ones who can advance to the highest levels of education. So, perhaps paradoxically, only those capable of paradox are apt to be highly educated, and the greatest test of their aptitude is their ability to engage in a paradoxical existence.

Bruce Kimball has written that Plato’s singular emphasis on the search for Truth is the intellectual foundation of the current shape of American higher education, which values (or at least claims to value) the search for Truth above practical considerations. Certainly that is a strong element in the Republic. Yet I could not help but notice how much education for Plato is rather performative and relational: For Plato the philosopher who becomes a closeted intellectual is of lesser character than the philosopher who toils-stoically, as it were-in affairs of state. Education involves learning (or recollecting) a certain vision of culture, including taste and manners and behavior. Of course, for Plato those visions of culture are not simply visions or opinions, but absolute truths.

“My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…” These words, perhaps familiar to us from the Passover seder, are articulated in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Ki Tavo. In the lines that follow, the Torah very concisely tells the story of the Jewish people.

As the Torah states, however, this short history was originally intended to be recited not at Passover, but when the Israelites brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem at the holiday of Shavuot. As a result of this recitation, nearly every Jew was familiar with this story. And so when the ancient Rabbis sought a text on which to base the seder, they started with this one.

As we enter the High Holiday season, it seems a little out of place to think about the Exodus from Egypt. Yet the Jewish calendar is arranged such that we always read this section of the Torah a week or two before Rosh Hashanah. Why?

The High Holidays and Passover are both moments when we deeply focus on one of my favorite questions: What’s your story? At the High Holidays, we ask this question in a very broad, human sort of way: Have I lived a good life? Have I done the right thing? What has your story been this past year, and what do you want it to be in the year to come? By contrast, at Passover, we ask the question focusing more on our relationship to the Jewish people: What does it mean to me that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt? How I can make myself freer? How can we make the world freer?

The High Holidays are, generally speaking, personal; Passover is national and communal. Yet each of them end in the same place: We close the seder, and the Neilah service of Yom Kippur, with the song “Next year in Jerusalem.” This signals us to a more fundamental reality: Both Passover and the High Holidays are, in essence, times of renewing our own stories with the story of the Jewish People. One journey begins on the human side, the other on the Jewish side; but they both end up in the place where our Jewish and human identities meet.

Our slogan at Hillel is ‘Distinctively Jewish, Universally Human.’ Our work is an elegant dance that brings together the stories of our students with the story of our people. As we embark on the High Holidays and on a new school year, parshat Ki Tavo reminds us that the biggest question to ask is, “What will our story be this year?”

This week I had the great pleasure of participating in Hillel’s Engagement Institute in the hills of Simi Valley, CA. All 14 of our new Campus Entrepreneurs were there, along with our phenomenal Doppelt Director of Engagement Andrea Jacobs, who flew straight to the west coast from a full Birthright Israel trip of 40 Northwestern students. CEI interns and Hillel staff from six other campuses were there with us.

There’s no place like camp to form a group, and the Brandeis Bardin Institute is a fabulous camp. Our CEIers went on the low ropes course. They sang with a guitar-strumming song leader at a campfire. They had deep late night conversations in a dark room illuminated by the flame of a candle. As I write this they are preparing for Shabbat by decorating the camp dining hall, making challah covers, and learning songs.

What emerges so quickly–within 24 hours–in this kind of environment is a strong sense of group cohesion. In a short time these students have already established a strong connection with one another’s stories and the story of the Jewish people. And that’s precisely what they will now be able to nurture in their friends and fellow students when they return to campus.

Parshat Ki Teitzei, which we read this week, develops this theme of peoplehood very strongly. The Jewish people shares a collective memory: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Deut. 24:18, 22). This is a beautiful part of group identity, our common participation in the same story. But, as the parasha reminds us, group identity almost always involves identifying a “them,” which enables us to identify an “us.” So, according to the parasha, the Jewish people is also defined by the law that certain people–Ammonites, Edomites, and men without the ability to procreate–are prohibited from entering the “Congregation of God.”

Here in twenty-first century America, the exlusiveness of these verses can be difficult for us to read. The tension that these verses create is one we still struggle with–and indeed should always struggle with. How can we be simultaneously about developing strong Jewish identities while also welcoming the many fellow-travelers who make up our communities and families?

In what appears to be a direct response to this parasha, the prophet Isaiah (ch. 56) proclaims “Observe what is right and do what is just… Keep the Sabbath.. and do not do evil.” And in the lines that follow, Isaiah articulates a vision in which “the foreigner who has attached himself to the Lord” will be brought to God’s holy mountain, the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, to join in the celebrations of the Jewish people. Rather than the group cohesion based on exclusion articulated in Deuteronomy, Isaiah envisions a world in which, to borrow a phrase, every person is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. Jewish identity is not fostered through exclusion, but rather comes about through engagement.

In preparing for the new school year about to begin next week, our staff and student leadership has made “warm and welcome” it watch word. Our vision is a vision of deep and rich Jewish engagement, built on shared memories and experiences. It is a difficult task, but as Isaiah understood, it is crucial to the life of the Jewish people and the world.