April 2012

Advertisement for the 1928 opening gala at Yeshiva College.

Given that the 1920s marked the height of Jewish exclusion from university life, it is perhaps not coincidental that the 1920s witnessed both a major attempt to found a national Jewish university (a forerunner to Brandeis University, which would only be created in 1948) and the opening of Yeshiva College (in 1928). Zev Eleff’s 2011 article on a proposed national Jewish university highlights the possibilities and tensions inherent in the former idea: Proponents, most notably Louis Newman, argued that Jews needed an outstanding institution of higher education that would welcome them, just like their non-Jewish counterparts had. Eleff points out that Newman was inspired by the contemporaneous founding of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But the idea found many detractors, most of whom argued that Newman’s proposed ‘Menorah University’ would be essentially throwing in the towel on the effort at joining the American mainstream—it was, in their words, un-American. Instead, they encouraged Jews to continue going to state universities.

Where Newman’s vision had its roots in the assimilationist narrative of late-19th and early-20th century Reform Judaism, Bernard Revel’s vision of Yeshiva College, which he first outlined in 1923, had its roots in the yeshiva world. Revel himself was an iluy, a child Talmudic prodigy, and upon his arrival in the United States he earned the first doctorate at Dropsie College in Philadelphia, writing about Philo.

(As an aside, it is fascinating that Philo was the subject of research not only for Revel, but also for Samuel Belkin, his successor at Yeshiva, and for Harry Wolfson, the first chair of Judaic Studies at Harvard. After World War II, Philo would not be as prominent a topic of research—Maimonides came to replace him as the model of integration between Western and traditional Jewish thought. My own theory of this is that one couldn’t easily write on Maimonides in the context of a basically Christian university, since knowledge of Maimonides requires Talmudic knowledge, which had been avoided in university life. Philo can be read as a Bible commentary through a Greek philosophic lens, and therefore was an acceptable topic in early-20th century American academe. For several reasons, not least of which was the development of university Talmud scholarship, Maimonides could become the exemplar of synthesis, displacing Philo, after World War II. More on this later.)

Revel’s vision received similar critiques to those leveled against Newman’s idea—essentially that it was un-American to develop parochial education; but Revel was also attacked by traditionalists who saw the idea of Yeshiva College as leading on a dangerous path away from tradition. Yet the idea for Yeshiva College was initially a concession to reality: students at the Yeshivat Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan (RIETS) needed to get college degrees in order to get decent jobs. Their choices were thus to attend night school or drop out of yeshiva. Revel himself had some loftier visions for what the institution could be, and invoked language of integration and synthesis, but largely he was alone in this effort, one of only a handful of men with deep Talmudic backgrounds and PhDs. With the founding of Yeshiva, he began to collect others who shared similar training and commitments, but it would be left to Samuel Belkin and the generation after World War II to make Yeshiva into a University and truly flesh out a vision of synthesis.

Menorah Society members, University of Washington, 1917

Veysey’s typology is helpful for understanding where Jews have fit in, and where they have been excluded from, American academic life. As David Hollinger has demonstrated in numerous papers and books, Jews found a haven in the research ideal, which was inspired by a meritocratic notion of science. Social pedigree didn’t matter; intelligence did. And thus Jews could become scientists—and they could especially contribute to the development of the virgin intellectual territory of social science. Likewise, the ideal of utility or professionalization, from which developed the university medical, law, engineering, and other professional schools, often created room for Jews through a meritocratic spirit. (By the same token, when the professions and the schools that developed their professionals, behaved more as guilds to protect their members, they could be used to exclude Jews.) Thus reform-minded leaders of American academe, including William James, John Dewey, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, embraced Jewish graduate students and professors and helped them become leaders in psychology, sociology, and law.

The key conceptual site of contestation for Jews was in the ideal of liberal culture, and particularly the oratio concept of liberal culture, which saw the liberal arts as that which cultured people studied, was the animating force of a college, Jews had a harder time. To much of the elite establishment, upwardly-mobile Jews represented a threat, and a narrower conception of liberal culture frequently intersected with arguments against wider access to college education. Where the first two decades of the twentieth century saw universities mimicking Harvard’s free-ranging elective system, the 1920s brought a tightening of the curriculum, typified in the introduction of the core curriculum at Columbia in 1919, which was soon emulated at other campuses. If the free elective system developed by Charles W. Eliot at Harvard in the 1880s drew on the research ideal and the notion of the student as a free, autonomous subject, the core curriculum of Nicholas Murray Butler enacted the liberal culture ideal and the vision of the student as a young man in need of immersion in his pedigree.

‘Transmitting the best of Western culture’ often aligned with discriminatory policies in admissions, as the history of Ivy League institutions during the interwar period shows. Two years before the U.S. Congress adopted severe restrictions on immigration, Harvard’s president, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, began a quota system for Jewish admissions at Harvard in 1922, arguing that, “Where Jews become numerous they drive off other people and then leave themselves.” Under this system, ‘character,’ and not simply raw intellectual promise, could be considered in offering admission to undergraduates. As Jerome Karabel has shown, this provided a means by which to exclude undesirables from campus.

Thus the changes in admissions reflected the changes in curriculum, and liberal culture became a pronounced ethos for university organization, even at universities which in the previous generation had been animated primarily by the research ideal. As Julie Reuben and Linda Perkins write, all of this was part of the development of the “collegiate ideal—the virtues of residential education and nonvocational liberal arts curriculum.” The aim of these changes was to “solidify the prestige of certain colleges and universities by maintaining the social exclusivity of their students.”

This overlapping, even self-contradictory motion within university life, illustrates Veysey’s basic point: ultimately the agendas of universities do not remain focused, and all of the various ideals come to be deployed for various purposes. The scientific ideal, by and large, was used in a way that democratized participation in intellectual life, often butting heads with established sources of authority, particularly religious sources. (That process was not new to the 20th century; it had begun centuries earlier, in the days of Galileo and Erasmus. But the independence of science from religious knowledge achieved new levels in the 20th century American university.) In response, the ideal of liberal culture was deployed by elites to maintain their position. (This is certainly not the exclusive way in which liberal culture was understood and used. The settlement house movement, first in England and then in American cities, emphasized western arts and culture as a means of educating and improving the lives of the urban poor. cf. Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, in his discussion of Jane Addams, as well as Hollinger’s biography of Morris Raphael Cohen.)

Randy Pausch delivering the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University, 2008.

I have been looking at commencement speeches over the last few days, for work purposes. (No, I’m not giving a commencement speech anywhere.) Commencement speeches are an interesting genre, and living in the post-modern times we do, many commencement speakers now make reference to that very fact—acknowledging the form of the speech, then trying to make light of it, and ultimately embracing it: Here’s what I’m supposed to tell you; Here’s what you really need to know; Here’s all of that restated in flowery language.

Besides this observation about form, what has struck me in reading through a bunch of these speeches is how many of them bring up something related to death. Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture—which he gave many times before he died, and published as a book as well—is now the classic example of the genre, but most commencement speeches tap into a similar sentiment, if not quite as dramatically: remember, the clock is ticking, so think about what really counts. Death awaits us all.

Bringing death to the forefront makes whatever we talk about more urgent. It thrusts the conversation into the realm of ultimate concern. In the Torah, as in our own experience, death—the limitation on life—is what makes human life human. “Humans have become like one of Us, knowing good and bad,” God says in the Garden of Eden. “‘And now they might extend their hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ And the Lord God sent them out from Eden to work the land from where they were taken” (Gen. 3:21-22) Human life would not be what it is were it not for death.

And yet, if commencement speeches are any indication, we seem to need to be reminded of this. The basic message of so many commencement speeches seems to be: “We live in a self-centered age. (Insert appropriate observation about iphones, Facebook, commercialism, etc.) But remember that we’re all going to die, and that you won’t care how many Facebook friends you had on your deathbed. Focus on what really matters. Live your passion. Don’t have regrets on the last day.”

Parshat Shemini likewise frames experience in terms of death. Partaking of the same dramatic arc as the opening chapters of Genesis, in this parasha we find a moment of union with the divine. Chapter 9 of Leviticus fulfills the story we began in Exodus 25, as the purpose of the Mishkan is fulfilled: “Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev. 9:23-24).

We would love to stop right here. But then, in the very next verse, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer esh zara, strange fire, and they die. The perfect moment would not last. Death intrudes. Following a line of midrashic interpretation, it seems that Nadav and Avihu partook of a brash youthfulness not unfamiliar to us today: they failed to show respect for their teachers, they got drunk (and, if the later commandments in the parasha are an indication, perhaps they also grew their hair long). Which is to say that they typified a young adulthood that forgets, or simply isn’t aware of, mortality and all the limitations that stem from it.

From this incident springs Yom Kippur, as we will read in two weeks (Lev.16). If the commandment of Pesach is to imagine ourselves as though we left Egypt, the goal of Yom Kippur is to imagine ourselves as though we are about to die. Pesach, a child-centered holiday which takes place in the youthful season of spring, evokes in us a youthful spirit, as the world opens up. Yom Kippur, an adult-oriented holiday that takes place in the older time of autumn, brings out a mature sensibility, as the world prepares for the death of winter. And just as we are to take a part of Pesach with us all year and remember the Exodus every day, likewise we are instructed to carry part of Yom Kippur with us do teshuva every day too.

This could all sound like the message of a commencement speech. But I would add one final word to distinguish it. I mentioned earlier that many of the commencement speeches I’ve read take the reality of death and lead to a message of the importance of self-expression, authenticity, being who you want to be. The Torah, and Jewish tradition more broadly, makes a different move. The reality of death demands less that we ask who we want to be, and more For whom and what are we responsible? The language of Torah is not as much about self-expression as about responsibility and commitment. The reality of death, the reality that frames all of our lives, prompts us to ask (Lev. 10:10-11) What is holy? What is good? And What is right?, and to strive for a life answering those questions.

Shabbat shalom.

Andrew Dickson White, founding president of Cornell University

As I mentioned in my post the other day, the starting point for many discussions of the modern American university is frequently Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University, first published in 1965. Purely as a work of intellectual history, Veysey’s volume still stands out. It is clear, comprehensive, interesting, thoroughly-researched, and original. I imagine that after first reading it, most people would have a similar reaction: Thank you for making this make sense, and for such an entertaining journey.

Veysey’s main thesis is that the modern American university took shape between the Civil War and World War I, and that the basic arrangements of that period remain with us to this day. While American colleges certainly existed and proliferated before the Civil War (mostly thanks to various Protestant denominations), the scene was transformed in this period through government investment (the Morrill Act, which established land grant universities, was enacted in 1862), the alignment of higher education with industry, and the importation of the German university model by the 10,000 Americans who earned PhDs at the University of Berlin and Germany’s other institutions in the mid-19th century. The increasing industrialization, urbanization, and ethnic and religious diversification of this period also had immense effects on the contours of the American academy.

Veysey argues that American universities founded or transformed in this period emerged out of three various understandings about the purpose of the university, which he identifies as: i) Service; ii) Research; and iii) Liberal Culture. The service ideal postulated that the university existed to train citizens who would be of service to society as professionals and political leaders. Andrew D. White, founding president of Cornell University, took this tack, bringing professional schools under the umbrella of the university. The purpose of the university in this understanding is to be responsive to, and at the forefront of, society.

The research ideal was modeled on the German university, and prized original scholarly research (wissenschaft, or what Americans came to refer to as Science) above all else. A university was to be at the apex of an educational system, and the faculty were to be its most honored individuals. A university did not exist for the sake of professional education, but rather to create the space in which a professor, surrounded by a small number of highly qualified graduate students who themselves would become professors, could produce new knowledge. Johns Hopkins, which originally did not have an undergraduate program, was modeled on this ideal. Henry Tappan’s vision for the University of Michigan, which led to one of the early developments of a public education system in America, also drew inspiration from Germany.

The Liberal Culture ideal, the third in Veysey’s typology, was understood in at least two different ways—which Bruce Kimball is very helpful in understanding. As Kimball observes in his outstanding book Orators and Philosophers, one way in which “the liberal arts” is understood sees reading the classics of civilization as handing down a tradition, forming the young adult mind and body into a person who does what liberal (meaning free—people with leisure) do. Kimball calls this the oratio ideal, in which the liberal arts teach the discipline of public speaking and influence, the work of only free people in the ancient world. The second version of the liberal arts, according to Kimball, follows the ratio ideal, in which studying the classics of Western thought trains one to be a critical, independent thinker (a rational person). According to this understanding, studying ancient Greek philosophy is less about doing what gentlemen do than about becoming truly free-minded. While Yale of the 19th and early 20th centuries might typify the oratio ideal, Robert M. Hutchins’s University of Chicago would exemplify the ratio ideal.

Veysey argues that these ideals do not remain distinct, but ultimately come to overlap. Johns Hopkins creates an undergraduate college; Cornell becomes a research institution; Yale allows electives and brings its affiliated engineering school inside the university; Hutchins ultimately leaves Chicago with Mortimer Adler to lead St. Johns College, where they can more fully develop the ratio approach of Great Books, while Chicago preserves some elements of his program and takes on aspects of the other ideals. (All of this leads to the situation Clark Kerr would dub “the multiversity” in his 1963 classic The Uses of the University, which will be the subject of a future post.)

Veysey’s typology, along with Kimball’s analysis of liberal education, is very useful for clarifying the confusion that often sets in when trying to understand many institutions of higher education. (more…)

Rabbi Bernard Dov Revel, PhD, first president of Yeshiva University.

I’m preparing for my last round of qualifying exams for my PhD program. One of the wonderful challenges in this process is preparing a reading list and writing the questions. As a recent column by a graduate student in the Chronicle of Higher Education observed, the point of qualifying exams is to have a collegial conversation with your future colleagues, the faculty. And that means doing original thinking, bringing together previous knowledge and ideas into new formulations and new theories. That’s both thrilling and daunting.

My general area of interest is the intersection of American Jewish life and American higher education, and particularly in the story of Modern Orthodoxy. My academic work has taken me well into the literatures of both these areas, and there aren’t too many other folks who have done the same thing. A number of Jewish historians have done work that touches on the academy, but few seem to have done so from the perspective of the literature on the history and philosophy of American colleges and universities. And some of those who work in the latter area have touched on Jewish life, but generally their treatments focus on the exclusion of Jews from elite academic life and their eventual inclusion as part of the expansion of American higher education after the Second World War. And virtually no one I’ve come across, with the exception of Zev Eleff, has taken up these two areas with an additional eye on Modern Orthodoxy (if you’re out there, we want to know!).

In the department of the general relationship between American Jews and American higher ed, Harold Wechsler and David Ritterband’s book on Jews in the Academy is the place to start. David Hollinger’s intellectual biography of Morris Raphael Cohen remains a formidable piece of scholarship, and his book Jews, Science, and Secular Culture is also a wonderful collection of thoughtful essays on the ways in which Jews and academe have worked together in mutually reinforcing ways. Lila Corwin Berman’s book Speaking of Jews is also very helpful, though its focus is not on universities per se.

But trying to find folks who are as conversant in Lawrence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (the classic starting point for most scholars of modern American higher education) and Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University (a more recent classic), on the one hand, and Jeffrey Gurock’s The Men and Women of Yeshiva or Samuel Belkin’s In His Image on the other, is a real challenge. Alan Brill, whose contributions to understanding Modern Orthodoxy in the context of wider trends in thought and intellectual history are enormous (and whose expertise and intellectual generosity have greatly assisted me), is essential. Among the handful of people who think about Jewish life from the standpoint of historical scholarship on higher education, most have focused on non-Orthodox figures like Cohen, Jewish social scientists (Horace Kallen, Oscar Handlin, Nathan Glazer, Marshall Sklare, etc.), Jewish historians or Semiticists (Salo Baron, Harry Wolfson, Felix Adler, Morris Jastrow), or Jewish literary figures (e.g. Lionel Trilling). While many of these men grew up in Orthodox families, none remained so. Thus virtually all of the studies I have read that have a foot in the world of scholarship on American higher education don’t deal with the Orthodox world, at least not as anything more than the background to a nostalgic or hated childhood in the lives of formerly Orthodox academics.

On the other hand, the literature within Modern Orthodoxy that deals with what the university is or should be tends to be rather limited. The writings of Belkin or Revel generally come at the question from a Jewish lens, seeing the issues as dealing with marrying Western and Jewish knowledges–not from the perspective of American higher education. Aharon Lichtenstein is certainly conversant in the works of Cardinal Newman (and there are some very interesting comparisons to be made between Catholic higher education and the issues for a Jewish institution like YU—see, for instance, Phillip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity; but the fact that Catholic higher ed is so much larger than Yeshiva makes the comparison of limited use), and he invokes Matthew Arnold and a late-19th century vision of college as one that Orthodoxy might aspire to. And a few thinkers, like Emmanuel Rackman, Walter Wurzburger, and Eliezer Berkovitz, see the possibilities for Modern Orthodoxy within Western philosophy and American life, which would have implications for a university. (And Rackman, who became president of Bar-Ilan University, clearly had more developed thoughts–but not necessarily in the American context. Had he been elected president of YU in 1976, things would likely have been different.) None of these thinkers is having a dialogue with Clark Kerr or Robert Maynard Hutchins; which is to say that they’re not having a self-conscious conversation about the aims and purposes of liberal education within the literature on liberal education, even though they clearly value such an education. (Just what is meant by a liberal education is something vigorously debated; see Bruce Kimball’s Orators and Philosophers for the standard work unpacking the term.)

So this is where I am aiming to come in. There are a few histories of Yeshiva University (Klaperman’s hagiographic piece from the 60s, Gurock’s work, Rakeffet’s biography of Revel), but none of them deal with Yeshiva from the broader perspective of American higher education. There are some sociological notes about the fact that higher education is a sine qua non of Modern Orthodoxy in comparison to Haredi Orthodoxy. But there isn’t a full-fledged examination of how the idea of the university influenced he development of Modern Orthodoxy, much less how that same idea functioned for the larger American Jewish community.

As I gear up for my exams, I’m hoping to write several blog posts by way of unpacking some of my ideas and trying out possible arguments. (I’m aware that my examiners may be reading too; I’d welcome your responses.) Though some of this may sound technical because of the reading involved, my aim will be to keep it simple and understandable. The issues here are not simply fascinating to me; I think they bear on some of the fundamental questions for higher education, which Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith articulated over 50 years ago in their anthology on the history of American colleges and universities:

How was one to adjust the competing claims of quantity and quality, of democracy and excellence, of the professional or vocational and the liberal? How would one reconcile the practical and the theoretical, the development of means and the formulation of ends, the criteria of the graduate school and the ideals of the liberal arts college? How many subjects can be effectively taught in an age of specialized knowledge? Is there any longer a common body of knowledge to which it is desirable to expose all college men and women? What kind of a liberal arts curriculum is meaningful in an age of specialization? How much common organization and how much individual choice should such a curriculum provide?

These questions have as much to do with American Jewish life and Modern Orthodoxy as they do with colleges and universities. What is it to be a good, educated human being, and a good and educated Jew? What should an educational institution look like based on that vision? How are Torah and ‘secular’ studies to be defined, learned, and understood? How does an institution’s approach shape the values of both the individuals under its roof and the larger communities of which they are a part?

Those are the questions I aim to explore.

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

I am a rabbi. When I tell people that I lead a program called Ask Big Questions, many of them respond something like this: “Oh, that makes so much sense. Judaism is all about asking questions!” Jews are a people who love questions, who are characterized by questions, who “answer a question with a question.” Or so we tell ourselves.

At Passover we encounter this line of thinking a lot. The Haggadah’s Four Questions, its question-and-answer of the Four Sons, the Talmud’s instruction that if one is having a seder alone, one must still ask oneself, What makes this night different? – all of these elaborate on the basic theme of Judaism’s love of questions. In his outstanding Haggadah, Rabbi Mishael Zion quotes Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who puts the sentiment beautifully: “Autocrats hate questions. We train children at the Passover Seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty is won with a good question. It is for this reason that God loves it when we ask why.”

But the Jewish People has no monopoly on questions. The most famous questioner in history was Socrates. The great philosophers, artists, writers, and political leaders who have asked powerful questions are, by and large, not Jews. Yes, Talmudic reasoning is animated by question-and-answer, but so are most quality intellectual traditions. So to say that asking questions is an inherently Jewish activity isn’t true. Jews may revel in questions more than some others, but the act of questioning belongs to all human beings.

Nevertheless, there is no disputing that the Seder is a night of questions. It is a night for discovery of the new. But it is also a night for rediscovery of what we already know. Questions become gateways to new reading, to new understanding, to “modes whereby to discover, interminably, new relationships or subtle correspondences, beauty kept secret or hidden intentions,” in the words of French philosopher (and Jew) Vladimir Jankelevitch. The questions of the Seder express the rebirth and renewal of the spring, the Jewish people’s season of redemption.

But not all questions lead to this kind of experience. There are different types of questions, and there are different ways to use questions. Questions can lead to connection and learning, but they can also lead to disconnection and disintegration. Questions can be used to build up, but they can also be used to destroy. All questions are not created equal.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great Torah scholars of the twentieth century, elaborated on this theme in explaining the answer prescribed for the Wicked Son in the Haggadah. The Haggadah reads:

The Wicked Son, what does he ask? ‘What does this ritual mean to you?’ To you, and not to him. By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: ‘It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt’; for me, but not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Among the striking elements of this passage is the fact that in the previous paragraph, the Haggadah tells us that the Wise Son also asks a question in the second person: “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” Like the Wicked Son, the Wise Son refers to “you,” and not to “us.” So why does the Haggadah come down so hard on the Wicked Son?

Rav Hutner comments that the issue here is the Wicked Son’s stance in asking his question. “The Wicked Son does not contribute to fulfilling the commandment to discuss the Exodus through question-and-answer,” he writes in his work, the Pachad Yizchak. “Only a question genuinely asked as a question contributes to fulfillment of the commandment.” The spirit, the tone, the emotion behind, surrounding, and within a question, matters just as much as the words of the question itself.

This is one of the most important insights of the Seder into the dynamic of questions: Questions don’t exist independent of a questioner. A question must be asked in order to exist. And thus a question implies a relationship, a stance of the questioner to the one to whom the question is asked. Yes, as Steven Greenberg reminds us, questions can be sources of instability, harbingers of revolution. But questions, when asked genuinely and coupled with real listening, are also seed-bearers of conversation and mutual understanding, of empathy and community.

The Wicked Son is the person who uses his question as a weapon, who is not interested in listening. He is there to remind us, through a negative example, of the amazing potential of questions.

The Seder is a night of questions. But more than this, the Seder is a night of questions and stories. It is a night of renewing relationships—to one another, to ourselves, to our tradition, to God. The Seder calls us to ask our questions with generosity. It demands of us to take our questions seriously, not only as an intellectual or rhetorical exercise, but with our whole self.

So when we say that the Jewish people are a people of questions, and that Passover is a holiday of questions and questioning, let’s delve a little deeper into what we mean. The great questions—the Big Questions—of Jewish tradition are ones that invite us into an eternal conversation. They are questions asked by everyone in every generation, questions that matter to everyone and that everyone can and must answer. In asking those questions, in having those conversations, we renew our lives and our commitments. That is what we aim for in the questions of the Seder.