May 2010


As readers of my blog know, one of the dead horses I tend to beat is the line that “more than anything else, what defines American Jews is that we go to college.” Depending on which survey you believe somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of American Jews go to college—a larger number than celebrate Passover seders or light candles on Shabbat or go to shul on Yom Kippur, and a figure that blows away any other demographic group. I continue to believe that going to college—particularly to secular colleges and universities—is one of the great unexamined parts of the American Jewish story.

That belief has motivated my own academic work, and it is propelled by my professional life as a campus rabbi. My reading is colored by it: I tend to look for the university as a site or even an actor in many of the issues and debates of American Jewish life today. When Danny Gordis wrote his recent piece about the response to Israeli Ambassador Daniel Oren’s commencement address at Brandeis, my interest honed in on the question of what it meant for Brandeis to be a Jewish university (a notoriously complicated question). What seemed at play, in my reading, were competing imaginaries: the imaginaries (in the Benedict Anderson or Arjun Appadurai sense) of the Jewish community, on the one hand, and those of the liberal, secular university on the other (though I would also argue that the two are braided and overlapping—Jews have been deeply involved in constructing our imaginaries of universities).

Or take Peter Beinart’s recent essay, which has generated much discussion and some gnashing of teeth. Note that in the very first line—the very first line!—of his essay, Beinart invokes the imaginary of the Jewish college student: “In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel.” He goes on to say that “Most of [them]… were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel.”

Those values—particularly that one about open debate—are associated for many of us with a key element of the college imaginary: the development of “critical thinking.” In the words of the former dean of Harvard College: The adults colleges produce should “rejoice in discovery and in critical thought.” They should “advance knowledge, promote understanding, and serve society.” The education provided by the college “should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead.” These adults should be free agents, independent and inner-directed subjects who can make up their own minds, and who will be able to do so throughout their lives: “The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built.”

This is what we aim for in higher education, in the words of the nation’s oldest institution in the business. It is what we imagine about ourselves as college-educated people. And since Jews are college-educated people, it is also what we imagine of ourselves as Jews.  To close the loop, we could put it this way: to be Jewish is to be a critical thinker.

But that’s wrong. (more…)

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This week at Northwestern has been filled with conversation–in person and on email–about the secular humanist student group’s decision to draw stick figures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on the walkways of the university. They did this in the name of free speech. The discussions I have been a part of have been heartening, in that they have focused much more on the question of the responsibilities of speech than on the question of rights (which are assumed by all parties to be absolute).

While I will give a fuller treatment to the question of Jewish approaches to the duties and responsibilities of speech, both in public and private, in a public class on Wednesday evening (stay tuned for details), I can’t help but read this week’s Torah portion with these questions in the back of my mind.

To me, the question is ultimately tied up with a question of intimacy and anonymity. If I know, or think I know, my neighbor, then I will want what is good for him. I will not go out of my way to cause him pain or humiliation, and he will do the same for me. But if I do not know my neighbor, if I don’t have a bond with him, then I don’t necessarily feel this same sense of responsibility towards him. He is anonymous–another resident at the inn to be tolerated, at best; a competitor for scarce resources to be eliminated, at worst.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:10) teaches as much:

There are four types of people in the world:
He who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” This is an average person…”
He who says “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is a fool.
He who says “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is a righteous person.
He who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” This is a wicked person.

The first type, which can be summarized as “live and let live,” is a relationship of anonymity–one which can at best achieve tolerance, but will never rise to the level of altruism (type 3). Fair enough. But what the ellipses leaves out are the rest of the words the Mishnah uses to describe this philosophy of living: “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. And there are those who say is the type of the people of Sodom.” That is, Sodom–the most wicked of places, the place in which dehumanization became the norm–was based simply on a live and let live philosophy. The message is clear: that isn’t enough.

Parshat Bamidbar begins with a count. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families,” God instructs, “listing every man by name, one by one.” (Num. 1:2) The purpose of this exercise is to organize the people into the army they will need to be in order to conquer the land. But the count is not to be anonymous: Moses and Aaron are to count not just the number of the people, but count them “b’mispar shemot,” every one by name. The fifteenth century Italian commentator Sforno writes that “every member of that generation was considered according to the name that revealed his true essence… in the way that God tells Moses (Ex. 33:17), ‘I know you by name.'” This is not a count that reduces people to numbers; it is a count that includes the fulness of individual stories in the numbering.

Sforno continues that this was a unique type of counting, one which is not repeated after this generation loses faith in God and is condemned to spend forty years dying out in the wildnerness to make room for a new generation. But it was the ideal type of counting, and it reflected an ideal of community: not a community of anonymity, suspicion, distrust, but a community of intimacy, care, trust, and love. That was what we were meant to be, and what we failed to be in the wilderness.

It may be true that we live in a society of live and let live, a society of anonymity. But as the Mishnah tells us and the Torah reminds us, that is not what we should aspire to. We should aspire to fulfill the instruction of Hillel the Elder: “That which is hateful do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” We do not need to be intimate with everyone–that isn’t possible. But we do need to see them, to recognize them, and to love them in the ways that we can.

Shabbat shalom.

There’s a van I see regularly when I go to the gym with a bumper sticker that reads, “Remember who you wanted to be.” It’s a powerful little statement. In six words, it conveys one of the great challenges of adulthood in the modern era: the divergences between the life we hoped or dreamed of at one time, and the life that has emerged. For Freud, and for many of us, the gap between aspiration and reality becomes the source of neurosis, ‘unresolved conflicts.’

That’s on the other side of adulthood. At the outset, in the lives of the emerging adults with whom I work (and who I hope are reading this), the sense is less one of regret over dreams deferred than being overwhelmed at the dreams available. I spoke this morning with a senior about to graduate, who reflected on being a freshman and entering the college dining hall for the first time. “People have to learn not to drink three cups of soda, or not to eat five pieces of cake. College kids have to learn discipline.” So many options are available, so many possible choices, that the issue becomes less one of being enslaved to a future already scripted than paralyzed by a future without a direction. And discipline, rather than being imposed from without, is largely left to the individual to develop for him or herself.

This reality comes to mind as we read the opening words of this week’s double-parasha, Behar-Behukotai: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.” (Leviticus 25:2-4) For six years we are to toil and labor, a reflection of the six days of the week on which we work. But in the seventh year, the land itself–and we, by extension–must rest.

Likewise, the Torah continues, “Count off seven sabbaths of years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:8-10) During this Jubilee year, not only does the land rest, and not only do the people rest, but something even larger happens: liberty is proclaimed throughout the land. Specifically, the Torah states, “It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.” Land sales are effectivley cancelled, and everyone is to return to the plot of land from which their ancestors came. It is, in effect, pressing the reset button on society. That is the liberty of the Jubilee year–not to own, not to accumulate, not to exploit, but simply to be.

In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Judah Loew, also called the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) explains why the Jubilee year is proclaimed not on Rosh Hashanah, as we might expect, but on the tenth of the month of Tishrei, on Yom Kippur: “The Jubilee and Yom Kippur—the two are really one: For the Jubilee is the return of each individual to his original state, to be as it was in the beginning. And so too with Yom Kippur: everyone returns to his original state. As the Holy One Blessed Be He atones for them, they return to their original state.” (Gur Aryeh Behar, s.v. “M’mashma”)

This is a utopian vision, to be sure. It is unclear whether the Jubilee year was ever actually implemented in ancient times. But the Torah’s vision is a profound one of what human life is really about: we work and toil while we number our days and our years. That is, we create a story, a context for our work. Knowing that the Sabbatical or Jubilee year is coming focuses us on those things that are most important, on work of value, on relationships of substance–because everything else is ultimatley ephemeral. By creating a rhythm for our lives, we discipline ourselves–we give shape to our dreams and dimensions to our visions.

The college dining hall, with its overwhelming choices, is a concrete example of the larger challenge for many emerging adults today: How to create structure and develop discipline on your own. For so many students, time is not a dimension to be considered–except when a deadline is approaching, when a paper is due or a test is about to happen. But in college you can make your own hours, you can choose your own courses, you can write your own story–all, in most cases, without being committed to anyone else in particular.

Yet, as the senior I talked with this morning realized, that’s not a healthy way to live. Time is the dimension that distinguishes human beings from the rest of Creation. To be human is to live in time. And to live in time, just as to live in space, requires discipline.The Sabbatical and the Jubilee, like Shabbat, exist to discipline us to live in time.

Shabbat shalom.