I delivered this dvar Torah this past Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.

 

I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.

(more…)

It has been a slow summer for my blogging. That’s because most of my writing energy has been going into my qualifying exams and now my dissertation prospectus. So my apologies if you’ve missed getting something from me every week. But this is probably how it’s gonna be for a while.

My dissertation is taking shape, and it surrounds Yitz Greenberg (who I know is a reader of the blog; not many doctoral candidates can say that!). In 1993, the Jewish intellectual historian Steven Katz wrote that Yitz was the most influential thinker in American Jewish life over the past two decades. Katz argued that Yitz’s work through CLAL and his various other pluralistic educational endeavors changed the way Federation and communal leaders thought of themselves and related to Jewish learning and tradition. Yitz helped to create a new kind of discourse in American Jewish life, where today it is not unusual for Federation meetings to include a dvar Torah or for communal leaders to study Jewish texts. Yitz’s influence can be felt every time someone deploys the idea of “tzelem elokim,” humans created in God’s image, or talks about Covenant as an organizing concept in Jewish thought. Yitz did not invent these terms, but he made them into powerful teachings that spoke to a wide audience across denominations. I share Katz’s assessment: there aren’t many figures who have been as influential across so many communities.

Within the Orthodox community, of course, ‘Yitz Greenberg’ means something very different. For nearly fifty years, Yitz has become a marker in the Modern Orthodox zeitgeist, denoting an alternative might-have-been to what mainstream Orthodoxy became. To both his supporters and his foes, Yitz represented something powerful–to his supporters, powerfully inspiring; to his foes, powerfully threatening.

One of the distinguishing features of Yitz’s biography and thought is that he is an historian. This is significant for a number of reasons. As Alan Brill has observed, most of the major figures of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s and 60s worked in philosophy: Most notably, of course, Rav Soloveitchik, but also figures like Samuel Belkin, Eliezer Berkovitz, Norman Lamm, Walter Wurzburger, and Sol Roth. Emanuel Rackman was a lawyer and wrote his PhD at Columbia on law, and his approach to Modern Orthodoxy–which was, in its day, an even more powerful challenge than Yitz’s–was through law and halakha.

Unlike these other figures, Yitz’s PhD was in American history (on Teddy Roosevelt and the American labor movement), and his teaching appointment at YU in 1959 was to teach just that. Within a few years, and particularly after his sabbatical in Israel in 1960-61, he taught modern Jewish history as well, and was among the first people to teach about the history of the Holocaust. Yitz was a very popular professor, and not only because of his charisma. There was something striking in his approach to history. He didn’t teach the past as dead. He taught it as living. Similar to what I wrote a blog post last year about Daniel Sperber, this represents a different approach to history than we often think of as the norm, one which doesn’t see nearly as firm a split between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ as Yosef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor might argue. For Yitz, history represented something we learn from for the sake of our own lives. This enabled him to talk about even Biblical criticism, one of the most challenging areas not only for Orthodoxy, but even Conservative Judaism in the 1950s. The problem of academic Biblical critics, he taught, was not that they excavated the Bible, but that they ruled out the possibility that humans could have a relationship with God. Biblical criticism could show how humans in their time and place responded to God, and that could then inform us today about how we should do the same.

This approach to history thus had two compelling features: It made the past come alive, and it made the present a continuous flow from that past. Listen to what Yitz’s students at YU or Yavneh in the 1960s said about him, and this is what comes through. It led to Yitz’s calls for major halakhic adaptation and innovation, not only in internal Jewish areas like conversion or egalitarianism, but strikingly in the realm of American politics (social welfare legislation, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, etc.). Yitz’s work as an historian made him unique within Orthodoxy, and beyond Orthodoxy as well. He is not an historian who lets the past simply live in the past.

I would argue that for many Orthodox Jews it is this challenge that is so difficult. Orthodoxy (a term which demands a great deal of excavation itself) has successfully encountered modern science, modern philosophy, and modern culture, and proved able. There are great examples of Orthodox scientists, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and performers. But the realm of modernity in which it has had the most difficult challenge is history, particularly Biblical history, but also history that challenges the saintliness of great figures of the past. That is why Yitz was, and remains, simultaneously inspiring and threatening–he was willing to embrace such histories without reducing the past to a purely man-made affair. As Yerushalmi argues, modern historiography is built on the idea that there is a radical break from the past, one that enables us to stand and gaze objectively at it. Yitz agrees with this, but then makes the dialectical move of saying, There is no break: we are the inheritors of that past, and the past demands our action in the present.For Orthodoxy, this is a significant challenge.

But why? As we approach Tisha b’Av, I think we see an answer. Tisha b’Av was a holiday that Rav Soloveitchik took very seriously. All day he would recite Kinnot and teach about them (a tradition which Rabbi J.J. Schacter now admirably continues). For the Rav, the halakha generated a requirement to feel the magnitude of the hurban (destruction), to feel God’s absence. And for Jews, as so many Jewish philosophers have told us, God’s presence or absence is felt primarily in history. Our narrative as a people is built on the idea of God intervening in history. Yet Tisha b’Av marks the first–sadly not the last–cataclysmic moment when God seemingly wasn’t there, when God hid Godself and allowed the destruction to happen. Though the challenge of God’s presence or absence is one we encounter every day through our prayers and performance of mitzvot, on many days we can go through the motions, or we can focus on the celebratory aspects in which we enjoy feeling the presence of God (a bris, a wedding, Shabbos dinner, holidays). Tisha b’Av, however, is the day of God’s absence, a day when the problem of Jewish history and its meaning for our individual and collective relationship with God is most forcefully expressed. The observances of Tisha b’Av are made meaningful not through joy, but through feeling the absence of God, longing for God’s return, and committing ourselves to bringing it about.

But then we come out of Tisha b’Av, and we don’t really have to deal with God in history any more–or so we tell ourselves. We can focus on our performance of mitzvot, we can feel God’s presence in other ways. Tisha b’Av can exist on its own, and we can be happy on any day when we don’t have to say Tachanun. We can engage ‘modernity’ through science and philosophy and culture, and we can avoid the challenge of confronting the question of God’s role in history. (I save the question of Israel and history for another time; this blog post is already long enough, and my focus is on American Judaism.)

Yitz Greenberg’s challenge to Orthodoxy, and to American Jewry, was not to put our heads in the sand. The elephant in the room is God’s place in history. Modern historiography had already made this a challenge; the Holocaust made it inescapable. And yet, 40 years after Yitz left Yeshiva University, the challenge is one with which we have yet to fully come to terms.

Shabbat shalom.

In honor of tonight’s Major League All-Star Game (hashtag #ASG), Jonah, Micah and I are proud to present the second-annual Biblical All-Star team (#BAS). Remember, BAS team members have to have a strong rationale for their place in the field and in the lineup. Here goes:

1. Jacob (CF). Yaakov Avinu makes this year’s team once again in the leadoff position, owing mostly to his ability to get on base and steal (Gen. 27). Jacob is also a solid center fielder, with a strong arm that can roll boulders off of wells (Gen. 29:10).

2. Abraham (3B). Avraham gets the nod in the second slot this year because of his uncanny ability to make the sacrifice bunt (Gen. 22). The third baseman needs particularly quick feet in order to handle the hot shots down the line, and Abraham has proven running ability (Gen. 18:2).

3. Aaron (SS). The power of the lineup for this year’s team begins with Aharon, who hit Egypt with his staff (i.e. bat). Aaron starts at short due to his outstanding ability to cover the gap (Num. 17:13).

4. Samson (LF). Cleanup goes to the strongest man in the Bible, whose arm will also serve him well in left. Shimshon is particularly excited to be playing the Philistine All-Stars this year.

5. Moses (2B). Moshe’s strong bat is legendary of course, and hitting behind Samson will keep the Philistines from pitching around him. Why is he at second? He is part of the dynamic duo that made so many dramatic double-plays on the Egyptians in their rookie season (Ex. 6:26-27).

6. David (P). David gets the nod to start for this year’s BAS team, because of his low ERA and outstanding pitch location, as demonstrated against the former Philistine All-Star, Goliath (1 Sam. 17:49).

7. Nachshon (C). Most famous for his bravery in the World Series game at the Red Sea against the Egyptians, Nachshon gets the start at catcher in tonight’s game. He is also a strong leader for the rest of the team (Num. 7:12), and will work well with his great-great-great grandson on the mound (Ruth 4:20).

8. Saul (1B). A tall first-baseman is a big plus, since he can catch balls thrown over his head. Saul fills this position nicely (1 Sam. 9:2).

9. Sara (RF). Sara brings vast experience to her position, based on her 127 years in the Biblical league (and we wanted the team to be co-ed).

Relief pitchers: Aaron and Hur, who were so important in the Biblical team’s victory over the Amalekites (Ex. 17:12).

Closing pitcher: Joshua.

Manager: Judah (Gen. 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.”)

Base coach: Rebecca, who is outstanding at stealing the other team’s signals (Gen. 27:5).

 

Good luck in tonight’s game to all the Major League All-Stars!

 

 

 

Leadership theorists Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have introduced the phrase “looking from the balcony” into a lot of conversations among people I work with. (They have been the go-to leadership thinkers for the Wexner Foundation for many years.) When we step on the balcony and look at our situation, we get a different perspective. We stop the tape and examine what’s going on with a wider view.

One of the marvelous things about Parshat Balak is the way it transports us as readers outside the story of the children of Israel and onto the balcony. “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,” begins the parasha (Num. 22:2). Immediately we are struck by the fact that it is not Moses or God speaking, it is not an event in the life of the people. The whole story is literally told from the balcony—from the high places overlooking the Israelite encampment. And what Balaam sees is ultimately a beautiful thing: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

Yet aside from the recent military victories they have been achieving in the preceding chapters, the narrative of the people has not been exemplary. Immediately after the story of Balak and Balaam, the narrative returns to yet another example of the people sinning, with the story of Zimri, Kozbi, and Pinchas. The parasha seems designed to highlight the gap between the way Balaam sees the people and the way the people see themselves. Balaam sees a people capable of greatness, a blessed people with a noble calling based on God’s taking them out of Egypt. But the people themselves are blind to this, and repeatedly see only what is right in front of them: a lack of food or water, the sexual temptations of Midian. In the case of the spies, they saw themselves as grasshoppers about to take on giants. The gap between what Balaam sees and what the people see is striking.

According to the plain text, Balaam is not the nefarious character that later Rabbinic interpretation will make him out to be. Balaam’s repeated insistence that he can only do the word of God seems intended to remind later readers, the descendents of the Israelites, that they too must seek to discern and live God’s word. The haftarah for Parshat Balak makes this point, drawing a parallel between the words of Balaam’s donkey and the words of God to the Jewish people: “My people, what wrong have I done you?” (Micah 6:3)  parallels the donkey’s plaintive cry, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28). Balaam cannot see, just as the Israelites cannot see.

On Sunday we observe the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, ushering in a period of intensifying mourning that concludes with Tisha b’Av in three weeks. This is meant to be a period of introspection, of standing on the balcony and looking at ourselves as individuals and as a people, seeing that which is right in front of us from a larger perspective. As the concluding lines of the haftarah remind us: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you; To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Such words are  not meant to exempt us from performing mitzvot; rather they are meant to help us remember that the details of our lives answers to larger questions. Balaam, along with Micah, helps us remember what those larger questions are.

Shabbat shalom.

Kayam Farm, at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, near Baltimore, MD.

I recently attended a retreat at the Pearlstone retreat center outside of Baltimore. Among the many things that make Pearlstone a lovely place, and a model for something that should exist in many more communities, is the Kayam Farm. Kayam is a working farm that produces vegetables, eggs, and goat milk and cheese—some of which is served at Pearlstone itself, and much of which goes to a community supported agriculture (CSA) initiative.

But what really distinguishes Kayam is the fact that it is rooted in serious Jewish learning. This is more than saying, ‘We are practicing tikkun olam with our farming.’ No—the folks who work at Kayam study the laws of Shabbat and more fully appreciate the meaning of resting from labor (it’s about a lot more than turning off your iphone). They study the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing suffering to animals, which applies not only to how we treat our pets, but to verses in the Torah that mostly have meaning in the context of farming: not yoking different species of animals together (Deut. 22:10), not muzzling an ox when it is threshing (Deut. 25:4), sending away the mother bird when fetching the eggs from a nest (Deut. 22:6-7), and many more.

But most striking, the Kayamers study the agricultural laws of the Torah related to planting. These laws form an entire order of the Mishnah (Zeraim) which has typically not been studied in depth by most Jews, even those who study in yeshivot. Why? Because the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud understood that most of these laws apply only in the land of Israel. With the advent of religious Zionism, these laws became a major area of study and application once again.

The association of Torah-informed farming with the land of Israel is thus one deeply etched into my mind. It’s the idea of the kibbutz hadati, the religious kibbutz. It’s the image of the farmer who rises early to put on tefillin, and then goes out to milk the goats, feed the chickens, and work in the fields. It’s the thought of all of that taking place in Hebrew.

So it was a jarring experience to see it all happening—in Maryland, not the Galil. What does it mean to imagine applying the Torah to agricultural settings outside the land of Israel? On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about it: Jews learning Torah, developing a language of Torah and farming that enables a richer, healthier, more sustainable life. Wonderful! But on the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling about it, as though these good things were happening, but in precisely the wrong place. Most Rabbinic literature deals with the notion of mitzvot teluyot ba-aretz, the commandments that are dependent on the land of Israel, as a question of whether a mitzvah applies outside the land of Israel, not whether one could voluntarily observe it. The very notion of observing the Sabbatical year outside of Israel, for instance, is a non-sequitur both because of the extra stringency inherent in the idea, and because, traditionally, observing Israel-dependent mitzvot has been viewed as a privilege of living in the land of Israel. To a traditional mind, the mitzvah simply doesn’t make sense outside of it.

All of this happened this week, in the days leading up to Shavuot. Shavuot, of course, has a double-identity. In its identity as z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—outside the land of Israel—it is a holiday accessible and meaningful to all Jews in all places. Jews around the world can study Torah on the night of Shavuot and know that they are part of a people doing the same thing across the globe. But in its identity as chag habikkurim, the festival of first fruits, its significance is talui ba’aretz, dependent on the land of Israel. Outside of Israel, this notion doesn’t make sense, because the first fruits mentioned in the Torah are those of the land of Israel: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits…” (Deut. 26:1-2).

We take as a given that Israel is interwoven into the fabric of Jewish life. Yet it is an old trope in American Jewish life that America itself could represent an Israel of its own, that not only can’t we make aliyah because of economic or family ties, but that we actively want to build a Jewish life here in this place. The Reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries took this as an article of faith. The Kayamers of the 21st century are experimenting with a fascinating take on the same theme. Personally, I disagree with the impulse to observe Israel-specific mitzvot outside of Israel. I view the mitzvot of the land of Israel as only fulfillable there, whether they are understood as a legal obligation or a special spiritual privilege. But I can’t help but admire the dedication and creativity of people who are seriously engaging with the questions, who are farming and learning and bringing Israel into a larger contemporary conversation.

Among the mitzvot enumerated in parshat Emor is this one, familiar to us from the Torah reading from many of our holidays: “Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day” (Lev. 22:28). Maimonides and Nachmanides famously disagree on how to understand this commandment. In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam includes this verse along with the commandment (Deut. 22:6) to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs from the nest. “There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes. The purpose of both commandments is to alleviate the suffering of the animals.

Ramban disagrees. “The real reason” for both mitzvot “is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy, that we may not become cruel, for cruelty envelops the entire personality of man, as is well known from the example of professional animal killers who often become hardened to human suffering” (Ramban on Deut. 22:6). Where Maimonides sees the purpose of the mitzvot here as focused on the suffering of the animals, Nachmanides sees them as addressing human moral development. Ramban cites the teaching of Abba Gurya in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:14), who evaluates a number of unfavorable occupations and concludes by saying “even the best of slaughterers is a companion of Amalek.” Which is to say, killing for a living ultimately leads to cruelty in human relations. (Nechama Leibowitz’s second essay on this parasha develops these positions further.)

Neither Rambam nor Ramban could have imagined a world in which meat came to the mouths of people without some exposure to the process of killing. While death was a more regular feature of pre-modern, and certainly pre-industrial life, its ubiquity also had the effect of humanizing it. It was normal to kill an animal for food, and it was known by sages throughout the ages that too much killing would make a person cruel. Today, however, most of us who eat meat never interact with the animals we’re eating. Indeed, the thought that the beef or chicken on our plate was once an actual living creature grosses us out. We are not used to animal life, and we’re not used to animal death either.

Thus animal-welfare conversations today tend to focus more on the Rambam’s line of thinking: it’s about animal welfare, or animal rights. If we’re vegetarians, or if we simply advocate for greater sensitivity in ritual slaughter or the raising of livestock, we make our arguments in terms of the welfare of the animal. We don’t tend to adopt the Ramban’s line of thinking, because we’ve industrialized the process of slaughter to the point that, like the gas in our cars that we never actually see, the meat that arrives on our supermarket shelves wrapped in plastic is divorced in our imagination from any human process other than stocking it on the counter.

But what if we did? What if the question in our consumption of meat, and food in general, was more about what kind of moral and ethical development it entails and leads to? This, after all, is the Rambam’s ultimate point: the purpose of showing compassion for animals is to cultivate our sense of compassion for all of God’s creation, including human beings. It is to fulfill the Rambam’s understanding of the ultimate imperative of the mitzvot, v’halachta bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways.

That is the greater challenge of kashrut (a challenge which my colleagues at Uri l’Tzedek tirelessly address). God is not mechanized. Our relationship with God, and with one another, shouldn’t be either.

Shabbat shalom.

I have a few one-liners that have stuck with me through the years. They were single sentences uttered in a conversation, or sometimes a public talk, that entered my ears and locked in my memory. Years later, I can still recall both the words and the moment of delivery. (And if you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve come across them before.) Here are my top three:

  • During a class in Jerusalem years ago, Levi Lauer remarked, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.”
  • In my junior year of college, my friend Josh Cahan, sitting on my dorm room couch, told me, “Feigelson, you could make a really great leader, if you just stopped seeing what’s wrong with people and started seeing what’s right with them.”
  • In my first year working at Hillel, Michael Brooks, the longtime director at the University of Michigan Hillel, was giving a talk in which he observed, “Most questions that matter are about membership.”

This observation of Michael’s has resonated with me ever since, and experience confirms it. On an emotional level, to be included or excluded in a group, to feel inside or outside, is a powerful experience from childhood through the rest of our lives. None of us wants to be left out, but we also don’t want to include everyone in everything. We want to be loved, but we also want to know that the love we give and receive is special.

On a cognitive level, we are constantly grouping together–creating in and out–all the time. As infants we begin to label people and things as in or out, this or that, same or different. As we get older, we get more sophisticated, but the move is the same: we group like with like, or we creatively mix like with not-like, or find ways that things that seemed to be different actually have a lot in common. A computer, at its core, comes down to 1 versus 0.

Rashi and Ramban famously diverge in their interpretation of the words kedoshim tih’yu, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Rashi interprets kedusha as separation from other things, while Ramban emphasizes the likeness that results from this move: kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach, sanctify yourself within that which is permitted to you. Both begin with the act of separation. But where Rashi sees the thrust of the command on separating not-holy from holy, Ramban puts more weight on unifying the holy with the holy. One emphasizes the power of difference, the other emphasizes the power of similarity.

We can’t escape the divisions that make up our lives. We are physical creatures, limited in space and time. We can’t be in two places, or two times, at once. We are always outside something. And yet we have moments when we can transcend reality, and imagine ourselves as occupying more than one space and more than one time, when we can be inside everything. Throughout his drashot, the Sefas Emes draws on Shabbat as the embodiment of this kind of transcendent consciousness: a day of unification, when we step outside the time and space that define the regular material world. Shabbos enables us, for a moment, to go beyond the question of membership, to go beyond the inside-outside dichotomy. It is the full expression of kedusha according to both Rashi and Ramban: a day apart that is actually a day when we come together, when we sense that we are part of an exclusive club, of which everyone is a member.

Shabbat shalom.

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.