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. Being Jewish is not ultimately about being a critical thinker—that is merely a (not even the) starting point, the definition of an educated person. Being Jewish is about commitment. It is about living your life in relationship with Jews and Jewish tradition, with the idea and the reality—the story, the imaginary—of the Jewish people. It is about Torah in its largest sense. To be Jewish is to do what Jews do: to mark Jewish time, to speak Jewish language, to read Jewish texts, to eat Jewish foods. All of that comes before and after critical thinking.

It seems to me that somewhere in the last 40 years, we allowed ourselves to become comfortable with the idea that asking questions—the beginning of critical thought—was a Jewish activity. No. Asking questions is a human activity, one advocated by Socrates as much as the Talmud. What makes us Jewish is how we explore the questions we ask: do we ask them with other Jews, both those alive today and those from the past? If the answer is no, then we may be good critical thinkers, but we’re unengaged Jews.

While I have taken issue at times with the tone of Danny Gordis’s recent writing, substantively I agree with him much more than I disagree. The questions ultimately center around how to nurture deep and abiding commitment to the Jewish people—not simply ‘feelings of peoplehood,’ but real and deep commitment—among Jews around the world to promise a meaningful future for Am Yisrael. They are questions of education. Jane Eisner of the Forward is absolutely right that families are central to this effort, it cannot be the sole burden of Jewish institutions. Our schools, federations, camps, and synagogues have roles to play.

There is little new here, though. Students of the history of American Jewish education know that these questions have been around for over a century, as have the prescriptions to solve them. Mordecai Kaplan wrote of the need for family education in Judaism as a Civilization in 1933. Hirsch, Buber, Rosenzweig and many others have offered diagnoses of the challenges of modern Jewish identity and educational programs to remedy them. What strikes me as new and more or less overlooked in our moment is the university. I don’t believe we can overlook it any more.

To be clear, I don’t mean tinkering at the margins. Hillel is a wonderful investment—contribute, please!—but it is not robust enough to do the job alone. Jewish Studies is a mixed bag: some Jewish studies professors see themselves as educators for the Jewish community with a sense of responsibility, and others seek the respect of academic colleagues who eschew what appears to be religious silliness.

No, if we really want to make a difference in the imaginaries our young adults construct for themselves, we have to work on the university itself. By which I mean: the elite, secular universities which we imagine our children attending. As long as our universities are animated by an abhorrence of words like commitment, particularism, spirituality, religion, and Torah; as long as they don’t actively foster both the life of the mind and the life of the heart; as long as they cling to a myth of objectivity and empiricism that leaves students with a desert in their souls; and as long as we, Jews, continue to send our children to them, we will continue to delude ourselves that being Jewish means thinking critically, when it really means living one’s life in dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people.

The university has done more to promote Jewish material and intellectual prosperity than any other institution in American life. If we want a robust Jewish future here, we have to start thinking critically about what we want from college, and whether what we’re getting today aligns with what we need. We need to start thinking about how our colleges can open both minds and hearts. We need to encourage our universities to be asking our young adults questions about the meaning of their lives. In short, we need to recover the heart of higher education. Without doing so, the secularist imaginary of contemporary university life will overwhelm particular Jewish commitments.

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