As I think I’ve written before, one of the books I want to write is called “Letters to a Jewish Twenty-something.” A recent conversation with a former student now studying in Jerusalem for the year prompted me to write the next entry.

Dear Alex,

You asked me for guidance about your desire to write on Shabbat. While writing on Shabbat is formally prohibited as one of the 39 acts of labor forbidden by Jewish law, you brought up a few very important rationales for wanting to write:

1. You want to write in order to capture and reflect on some of the very meaningful, thought- and feeling-provoking experiences you have on Shabbat, particularly this year as you study in Jerusalem;
2. While you appreciate living a halakhic lifestyle as a way of engaging with the rich tradition of the Jewish people, you don’t believe that halakha is actually the word of God as expressed through the Rabbis;
3. Given both of the previous points, it would seem to make a lot of sense to allow yourself to write on Shabbat as a means of deepening your spiritual experience–or, in a formulation I would prefer, deepen your dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people.

I responded in our conversation that you are asking a very powerful question, one that goes to the heart of the predicament of Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy today: Do you follow the formal letter of the law, even at the expense of deeper spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization? Or do you massage the contours of the law, in order to enable a more profound spirituality? Do you see the law as absolutely binding, even when it comes at the expense of a higher good? (Philosophers would call this a deontological position.) Or is the law only good when it fulfills the higher purpose in which you understand it is rooted, in which case your behavior should follow the purpose, and not the law? (A consequentialist approach.)

As I told you, my own feeling is that, though I have a great deal of sympathy for the consequentialist impulse–that is, to adjust our practice according to the purposes we understand it should be aligned with–and while I have a big problem the idea of deontological ethics–that is, behavior dicated solely by duty, and not by conscience–I still wouldn’t write on Shabbat, even if it was for your noble purpose of a greater sense of communion with the Holy One and Am Yisrael.

I can identify two main reasons for this. First, as I told you, one of the great advantages of halakha is that you don’t have to constantly evaluate your practice against your own subjective impulses. Halakha gives you a strong frame in which to live your life, and in giving over some of the decision-making to halakha, I think you ultimately create space in your life to be a better oved Hashem, a servant of God. The minute you start to cross that line, however well-intentioned the crossing, the frame ceases to be solid. Granted, one can reasonably argue that in our world of choice, every time one acts according to halakha, one is making an active choice. But in my experience, that’s not the case within a shomer mitzvot community. Yes, people frequently negotiate their observance, but there still remains an identifiable communal norm of behavior. Jews who keep halakha simply don’t write on Shabbos. When you begin to write, you may well be a very good Jew, but you have entered a space where you assume all responsibility for your halakhic decision-making, and I think that will lead to greater anxiety and difficulty down the road.

Second, and related to the first point, I don’t think one has to believe that halakha as codified in the Shulchan Arukh is dvar Hashem in order to be a God-fearing Orthodox Jew. One can approach halakha as what political philsophers might call a weak ontology–in the words of Stephen White, “Strong beliefs, weakly held.” The idea here is that halakha can be something we feel quite committed to, while still having a modern’s awareness that it may well not be the word of God, that it is the work of human beings. The community of people who live their lives in deep dialogue with halakha–the community of shomrei mitzvot throughout time–evolves and grows as an organism. We can argue about the pace of that change and whether the organism is healthy (I think it generally is), but the key point is that our relationship with the organism is paramount, not whether we believe that halakha comes from the mouth of God. In this respect, my approach has resonance with the idea of second naivete found in writers like Paul Ricouer–that is, we can approach our lives with a modern, self-critical, modest point of view, and yet still have deep commitments and a deep relationship with the Creator, which comes about through the awe and wonder we experience as briot, creations in the world, and in Torah, the ritual and ethical discipline we practice that connects us with God and one another in past, present and future.

What I am describing is essentially the project of modern or open Orthodoxy today, in my view. It is the attempt to live a life fully in dialogue with the enduring story of the people of Israel–Torah in its fullest understanding–in a post-modern age. It is a big project, and one that I myself am not sure I’m up to. I do not always rise to the level of these aspirations. But I try.

So finally, in answer to your question about writing on Shabbat, I would say that I think–I know–that God wants you to be struck with awe and wonder and gratitude at the world, and your life in it. I know God wants you to express that. And I also know that not writing on Shabbat is a discipline with ancient roots, that there have been spiritual seekers in every generation who have wrestled with how best to elaborate the memories of a Shabbat afternoon. My strong guess is that there are some deep spritual souls in the Holy City who can help you to find ways of remembering, rearticulating, and recreating your spiritual journey, and that those methods will be even more lasting and significant than writing. Before you take on the yoke of making your own halakha, I think you should explore all of the wisdom within it.



So the United Jewish Communities “Jewish Hero Awards Contest” has announced its 20 semifinalists. Conspicuously, nearly half of the names are Chabad shlichim (emissaries).
Granted that this is a popularity contest and therefore of no empirical value, it’s still worth asking the question: What does this suggest? There are a lot of possible ways to read these tea leaves:
From a game theory (sort of) angle:
– Chabad shlichim disproportionately inspire a deep connection with their communities, resulting in greater motivation on the part of those communities to nominate them for something like this.
– Chabad shlichim inspire deeper connections with a small number of people who themselves feel inspired to make a significant effort to get the shlichim nominated.
From a PR angle:
– Chabad as an organization was smarter about leveraging this PR opportunity than other organizations (Hillel did nothing to my knowledge, for instance, while Uri l’Tzedek did a great job, and therefore got Shmuly Yanklowitz on the list).
Do we want to go further? There’s lots to be said, but I feel like most of it has said before, and frankly these results don’t surprise many of us. I guess the real question–as usual–is what might the rest of us learn from these events?

I’m spending the week at Camp Ramah Darom for the fourth annual Hillel Engagement Institute. Good stuff being discussed, and I’ll try to write one or two more dispatches before I’m done.

I actually managed to have a late-night discussion with my roommate for the week, Dan Libenson. (I say this because usually at these conferences I just wind up falling asleep, and the much-anticipated late night discussion doesn’t actually materialize. Not so in this case.) Among the things we talked about was a mutual friend’s idea for creating a building–a space–in an urban center to enable post-college Jews to do what they did in Hillel, namely show up and create Jewish life in the way they want to.

My response to this was that I think our friend was asking the wrong question. The question to start with, it seems to me, isn’t, “What does Hillel do?” but “What does college do?” Yes, Hillel is particularly special in the Jewish world, but that’s only because college is special within the larger structure of life. “Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life,” as my alma mater goes. College is the time and place when we show up and feel like we can do anything; Hillel is simply the Jewish manifestation of it. And since college is never re-created later in life (I could be wrong there, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that), Hillel is also never re-created.

So the question to ask then is, “What do people take with them from college? And what would this teach us about what they can and should take with them from Hillel?” (This article from today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a nice insight.) In our conversation last night, Dan and I identified a few things that people carry away from college: Knowledge and skills, values, habits, relationships, and memories. No doubt there are others. The combination of these things may well result in the kind of nostalgia (love?) people tend to have for college (see the alma mater song quoted above), because college is associated with these very formative elements of our identities.

By implication, Hillel should be providing Jewish knowledge and skills, Jewish values, Jewish habits, Jewish relationships, and Jewish memories. And that’s largely what we do. But now try to define all those things–and you have what I spend most of my working life trying to figure out.

I spent yesterday in downtown Chicago at a Federation-sponsored training seminar on professional-volunteer relations (morning) and e-philanthropy (afternoon). I was one of the only people there who does not have a “standard” Federation job (and I don’t technically work for Federation, either–my paycheck comes from Hillel–but since Hillel in Illinois is an agency of Federation, I was eligible to attend). So I was a bit unprepared for what set off the chain of thoughts that led to this post.

The presenting issue was a discussion in the lay-pro session on “how much you script your volunteers.” In the Federation world, and I’m sure in other volunteer organizations, the professional staff writes the scripts for big speeches by volunteer leaders. The staff in the room yesterday were talking about how they will often script even the running of meetings (not all staff do this, by any means; it depends on the federation’s culture and the people involved).

To me, this was a pretty foreign concept. I don’t staff our “grownup” board, so I’m not intimately involved in the preparation for board meetings. My experience is with students, who would chafe at the idea of being scripted–and who I wouldn’t want to script. Unless, of course, it were something really important. So, for instance, we script student callers during phonathons (“Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling from Fiedler Hillel…”).

The basic theory here is that you script someone when you want to have complete alignment with the organization’s language. This leads to efficiency (meetings don’t go off on useless tangents) and common words and ideas (everyone is talking about the same stuff in the same language).

Okay, so that was round 1. Round 2 came from the afternoon presentation on e-philanthropy, courtesy of BlueState Digital, the people who brought you Barack Obama’s web presence last year. The conversation was about how to raise supporters and money online, as the Obama team did so well last year ($550 million). The major ideas: Invite your supporters to contribute their stories, their words, their pictures–more than just their money. And segment, segment, segment: Make sure you speak to your supporters the way they want to be spoken to. (The Obama campaign had 300 different market segments that they sent different emails to. Unbelievable.)

The message here: Communication has to be two-way, not one-way. Sound a little different than the morning session?

So all this is swimming in my head as I listen to a story on NPR this morning about a guy making a video game about the battle of Falluja. (more…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a very smart column in this morning’s Daily Northwestern, Jake Wertz calls into question the phenomenon of “Engagement” at Northwestern and other college campuses. In recent years, the word engagement has been used to underpin everything from study abroad to community service to Hillel. In a sense it has become a placeholder and shorthand mission statement for the extra-curriculum. Thus Jake’s argument:

I have no beef with community. But the Northwestern community is in no need of redefinition. We have for more than 150 years been a community united solely in a common pursuit of knowledge. We are not, as oNe Northwestern has it, a community united in reminiscing about the stir fry in Hinman or kvetching about Henry Bienen not showing up to your improv show. Nor are we, as NUEC has it, a community defined by our service to others. Community service is certainly honorable, but the purpose of college it is not.

Before I comment on Jake’s point, I first want to emphasize how thrilling it is to see the words “the purpose of college” printed on the pages of the campus paper. It’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough, and so first and foremost I’m thankful that Jake, a thoughtful student and excellent writer, has raised the issue.

I agree with Jake, but I also agree with the “engagement people” (and many on this campus would probably count me as one of them). And I don’t think these are mutually exclusive views. In The Emergence of the American University, an outstanding piece of intellectual scholarship, Lawrence Veysey contends that the post-Civil War era saw three major models of universities promulgated in the United States. One was the “traditional” liberal arts college (i.e. Yale); one was the research university (Johns Hopkins); and one was a college to train public servants (Cornell). Each of these models had some overlap, but in the late nineteenth century they were able to maintain relatively distinct identities. Within a generation, of course, the models often collapsed on each other–thus Yale maintained (and maintains) both an undergraduate liberal arts college, and the apparatus of a major research university. Johns Hopkins, which had been focused on graduate students and “pure research”, opened an undergraduate program. Columbia, which had once been on the bucolic outskirts of the island of Manhattan, gradually became an urban university, enabling the kind of “engagement” or “public service” mentality that Jake takes to task to blossom in what was once–and in many senses still is–a liberal arts college.

Northwestern, like all of these examples, contains all three elements: a huge research piece, a liberal arts college, and a public service orientation. There are convergences and divergences, and the tensions between the various missions are what make life at the university both interesting and frustrating.

That’s all well and good, and Jake would likely say, “Very useful, RJ. But my point still stands.” Indeed, Jake is asking an important question: What place should each of these various agendas hold at the university? Is one of them primary? Does everyone need to be engaged in community work, and have a research experience, and study all the classics of the Western tradition? And if not, are there particular elements of these various agendas we would insist are minimally required? Should there be a community service requirement? A research project requirement? A core curriculum?

I don’t yet want to advocate a particular agenda, because I think this conversation is so rich. So I’ll give it a few days, maybe a week, and see what responses come along. But in the meantime, many thanks to Jake for starting an essential conversation.