March 2009


I just recorded a new podcast (12 minutes and change) exploring the idea of play and playfulness and the Passover seder. It’s available here.

Some of us with young children are blessed with the opportunity to be wide awake and preparing breakfast on a Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. Such is my life. For the uninitiated: At that hour, NPR in Chicago airs funky documentaries on a program called Re:Sound, part of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. This is the stuff that will one day become Ira Glass, but which is today oftentimes just out there, in both senses of the phrase.

Lo and behold, this morning (or yesterday morning, by the time many of you read this), they’re airing a documentary interviewing what sounded like a bunch of American World War II vets. I tuned in mid-way through. They’re telling their stories about their ship being stopped, something about the British and the French and the Germans. I wasn’t paying much attention. I was more focused on brewing my coffee. But then my ears perked up, as they mentioned they were on a ship full of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. Slowly but surely, it turned out they were telling the story of the ship Exodus 1947, made famous by Leon Uris and Paul Newman. So of course they got my attention.

The story is worth listening to. (Here it is.) What I found particularly interesting, however, was the short interview afterwards with the creator of the documentary. Specifically, he wound up dwelling on the question of whether or not any of these young men were aware of what they were getting into when they signed up. Most of them claim they were, but one of them says the others are mis-remembering, that in fact none of them knew that they were going to be attempting to run a British blockade and be part of a story that would turn the tide of history. The producer reflects on the way in which we tell our stories, and how our narratives don’t always jibe with history, even though they are true to us now.

One reaction is to point out the poetic symmetry between this moment of mis-remembering and the more famous conversation around the fallibility of Holocaust testimonies, which Daniel Mendelsohn explored in his book Lost. What does it mean, and what does it matter, to say that this kind of thing is counter-factual? It doesn’t do a great deal to the story itself, but it tells us a tremendous amount about the human psyche. At the same time, it calls into question our notions of objective historical truth in ways that may be troubling.

Related to this is the broader question of the relative value of history and memory, a timely question as Passover fast approaches. In his seminal book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi makes this very distinction (he was an emininent historian at Columbia), arguing that it is memory and not history that preserves the Jewish people. I have reflected on this before in relation to the Exodus (from Egypt, that is): the historical question (did the Exodus really happen?) is not nearly as meaningful as What can we learn from the story of the Exodus? As anyone who has read the book of Exodus knows, it is an account full of gaps and questions–the stuff of midrash. And as anyone who has read the Passover Haggadah knows, we don’t even read the story of the Exodus at the seder! Instead we cut straight to the gaps and questions and midrash. (As the Mishnah tells us: “One begins in shame and ends in praise. And one expounds–creates midrash–on the passage [from Deuteronomy 26] ‘My ancestor was a wandering Aramean’ until its conclusion.”)

We are too close to the events of Exodus 1947 to stop being interested in the facts. They matter too much for present-day politics. But as the producer of the episode said, he aimed to sidestep those questions for the purposes of this story, and instead chose to focus on the enduring human questions within the story as it is told by its participants. This is an essential move for a twenty-first century consciousness–for those of us drawn to religous narrative and all of us striving to be human.

One of the difficulties presented by the system of sacrifices which we begin to read about in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is that sacrifices run against the grain of some of our key modern sensibilities. They seem a bit magical, as though by killing and burning parts (or all) of an animal, we balance our accounts with God. We can resort to symbolic or allegorical forms of interpretation, but behind the scrim of those approaches lies the observation of philosopher (and former Northwestern faculty member) Charles Taylor, one of the most significant thinkers about religion and modernity today:

Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so. Let us take a well-known example of influence inhering in an inanimate substance, as this was understood in earlier times. Consider melancholy: black bile was not the cause of melancholy, it embodied, it was melancholy. The emotional life was porous here; it didn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerability to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extended to more than just spirits that are malevolent. It went beyond them to things that have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with the evil meanings.

Taylor argues that this distinction, between inner thought and outward reality, lies at the heart of modernity. And there’s no question that, to use his phrase, it marks an inescapable framework of our experience. While our ancestors might have said that God resides in the Temple, that He literally spoke to Moses from the burning bush, or that the ashes of a red heifer literally made someone clean, today we would call people who made these claims crazy. Of course, we have ancient sources–beginning even as early as the book of Deuteronomy–that begin to make the inner-outer distinction. But Taylor would argue that it is in modernity that such formerly marginal thoughts become central, the basic frameworks of our thinking. And that’s what makes Leviticus so challenging for so many.

One of the other places where the ancients were perhaps ahead of their time was in Rabban Gamliel’s statement about Passover: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as though s/he personally left Egypt.” As I have written about elsewhere, the key point in this sentence is “as if,” which demonstrates the Rabbis’ awareness of the symbolic nature of the seder. It presupposes historical distance: we are not literally leaving Egypt, we are remembering something that happened a long time ago. Like Civil War re-enacters, we can put on the costume and play for a while, but at the end of the day we will go back to our homes in our own space and time.

This “as if” awareness is instructive for us today. Few of us are likely to become mystics, shedding the idea of separation and individualism so fundamental to our modern situation. But we also don’t have to reject the idea that our relationship with the past, with the world, and with each other is devoid of mystery, either. The feminist Catholic theologian Susan Ross provides a helpful insight in this regard, as she explores the ideas of “expressive ambiguity” and “symbolic complexity.” Both, she writes are “ways of suggesting that symbols be understood in their capacity to open new ways of seeing reality, not so much to close them, to restrict possible meanings.”

The seder, which we will enact in less than two weeks, is just this kind of ritual, with this approach to symbolism. We uncover the matzah, and we talk over it. We use the symbols of the seder plate to open up conversation, discussion, and reflection. While we maintain our historical distance when we eat the matzah and maror, we also move somewhere in time as well. As Ross adds, ““Symbolic thinking is marked by an ability to hold together multiple ideas and meanings without collapsing them into an either/or dichotomy, and a willingness to enter into a world of meaning that is neither purely material nor utilitarian.”

To quote one of my teachers, who I’ve quoted before, “It’s religion, it’s supposed to be spooky.”

This article was the most-emailed yesterday on the Times website, and essentially asks the question: what has MBA education wrought, and is it time to rethink how it’s done? Specifically, has the focus on bottom-line and profits at many business schools undermined a sense of social responsibility? Put more bluntly: what responsibility do our business schools have for the problems in corporate culture that led to the financial mess?

Now I don’t think it’s fair to blame business schools for the whole financial mess. But at the same time, they were eager to take credit for the success of the economy in good times, and should be willing to shoulder some of the load during the bad.

For me, the question extends further. Ask undergraduates at Northwestern, and they’ll tell you that the Kellogg School of Management–located on prime real estate in the dead center of the Evanston campus–radiates an aura that permeates much of undergraduate life. One in eight NU undergraduates is an economics major, and those students walk the halls of Kellogg for their classes. The sense communicated to undergrads seems to reinforce the notion that college education is meant to be pre-professional, that success involves making money and entering the culture of Wall Street and finance. (One NU staffer I know keeps a collection of letters from students who had been involved in global do-gooding, and who ultimately took jobs in the financial industry.)

One more layer: My employer, Hillel, has emphasized MBAs as the model for Hillel directors. Business principles, including a focus on measurement (how do you quantify a ‘meaningful Jewish experience?’) and an emphasis on the financial bottom-line, have definitely influenced the culture, just as they have at the university.

The questions in all of this are many. But the biggest one is this: Will the university–and by that I mean academe in general–have the courage to seriously evaluate its values, goals, and culture?

A short exploration of the relationship of work to rest, and the workweek to Shabbat, tied to this week’s Torah reading. Click here to listen.

I promise my blog isn’t devoted to Roger Cohen. As I’ve written previously, I genuinely like his writing–most of the time. But each of his columns in the last weeks about Iran and the Jews has been progressively more and more off-key. This morning, he blows it completely, in my view. Over the weekend, he relates, he went to Los Angeles at the invitation of Rabbi David Wolpe to meet L.A.’s large Persian-Jewish community. He writes:

Earlier, Sam Kermanian, a leader of the Iranian Jewish community, said I had been used, that Iran’s Jews are far worse off than they appear, and that my portrayal of them was pernicious as it “leads people to believe Israel’s enemies are not as real as you may think.” He called the mullahs brilliantly manipulative: “They know their abilities and limitations.”

On at least this last point I agree. Just how repressive life is for Iran’s Jews is impossible to know. Iran is an un-free society. But this much is clear: the hawks’ case against Iran depends on a vision of an apocalyptic regime — with no sense of its limitations — so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.

The presence of these Jews undermines that vision. It blunts the hawks’ case; hence the rage.

So he agrees that the Iranian leadership is manipulative, but then chalks it up to American/Jewsh apolocalypticism and neurosis? He goes on to talk about how pragmatic Iran has proven to be since the revolution, and how we can count on that pragmatism in the future. Roger, if we could count on level-headedness and pragmatism, how do you explain the presidency of George W. Bush? Just because people have shown–occasional–good sense in the past does not mean you should rely on that in the future. Here Reagan was right: If you’re going to trust, you also have to verify. The testimony of the Iranian Jews you met undermined Cohen’s argument, yet he didn’t draw any lessons from it.

Finally, in the last paragraph, he bought the anti-Israel view of Chas Freeman’s withdrawal, the refutation of which I showed in a previous post.

I really want Roger Cohen to be right. I don’t like the idea of a clash of civilizations, and I do believe that moderation is possible. But this column finally convinces me that when it comes to Iran, Roger Cohen is being played.

William Damon has been writing about character education for a long time. The current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an interview with him, which is worth reading (he talks about big questions, integrative educational experiences, and other stuff near and dear to me).  An excerpt:

20090313-b14Q: How do you see your work in the context of the school-reform movement?

The message of my work is that schools need to give students a better understanding of why they are in school in the first place — that is, how the skills students are learning can help them accomplish their life goals. That is the only way to really motivate students in a lasting way. And if you ask any teacher what the major problems in schooling these days are, I’m sure that student motivation will be at the top of the list.

Now in order to help students understand what schooling can help them accomplish, they must be given opportunities to reflect on what they want to do with their lives. What are their ultimate concerns, their highest purposes? What kinds of people do they want to be? Those questions should not be asked or answered in a vacuum. Good schools can provide students with rich historical and literary knowledge about how such questions have been addressed by thoughtful people throughout the ages.

Present-day school-reform movements tend to focus on basic skills, especially ones that can be measured by standardized tests. The skills are important, and the test scores can be useful as indicators of learning. But the skills and the scores are means to an end and not ends in themselves, and they should be presented to students in that way.

Students learn bits of knowledge that they may see little use for; and from time to time someone at a school assembly urges them to go and do great things in the world. When it comes to drawing connections between the two — that is, showing students how a math formula or a history lesson could be important for some purpose that a student may wish to pursue — schools too often leave their students flat.

If you visit a typical classroom and listen for the teacher’s reasons for why the students should do their schoolwork, you will hear a host of narrow, instrumental goals, such as doing well in the course, getting good grades, and avoiding failure, or perhaps — if the students are lucky — the value of learning a specific skill for its own sake. But rarely (if ever) will you hear the teacher discuss with students broader purposes that any of these goals might lead to. Why do people read or write poetry? Why do scientists split genes? Why did I work hard to become a teacher? How can schools expect that young people will find meaning in what they are doing if they so rarely draw their attention to considerations of the personal meaning and purpose of the work others do?

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