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.

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.

The concluding words of Parshat Vayechi give me goosebumps every year: “And they put Joseph in a coffin in Egypt.” The Book of Genesis ends with the birth of the Children of Israel as a nation–first called the Tribes of Israel in Gen. 49:28–but it happens not in the Land of Israel, but in Egypt. This not only produces a dramatic sense of foreboding at what is to come, but a powerful statement about the nature of Jewish identity: exile is part of our DNA.

This is of course woven into the covenant with Abraham itself: “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there” (Gen. 15:13). The exile to Egypt, the formation of the people in a strange land, is not an accident of history. It is part of God’s plan all along.

This is by no means to say that we are meant to stay in exile, as is made clear a few verses later: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (15:16). But it means that the people of Israel are shaped by our experience out of our homeland, and it informs our understanding of what it means to be at home. Home in the exile is always provisional, always tentative, always colored by a yearning to be truly at home–in our own language, our own culture, our own place. But home in the homeland is likewise informed by the experience of exile and Exodus: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt”–left Egypt, that is, to go to Sinai and the land of Canaan. Thus being at home in Israel carries with it a similar sense of fragility, a provisional quality, a sense that this is not necessarily permanent, an awareness that we also come from somewhere else.

I have been spending much of my time in recent months reading for my dissertation. My focus has been on the development of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s (and specifically the role of the university in that development). And one of the things that strikes me in my reading is that among the things at stake in the disagreements between people like Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Aharon Lichtenstein, or between Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, is in their understanding of how the wisdom we can learn in exile is to be understood and internalized. While all Modern Orthodox thinkers see some possibility for bringing together Torah and secular learning, it seems to me that the camps in this debate disagree on whether that integration can happen only on the individual level, or on the communal or institutional level as well. The more conservative view in this conversation sees possibilities for individual Jews to bring together yeshiva learning and secular learning; the more ambitious view sees whole institutions–schools, universities, publications, etc.–as potentially embodying the synthesis.

My dissertation will likely pick up on some of these themes. But as I think about the parasha this week, and about the experience of Israel in exile, I have the questions on my mind. No less a figure than Moshe Rabbeinu is reared in the palace of Pharaoh. He carries an Egyptian name all his life. On an individual level, Moses figures out some form of synthesis between Torah and the non-Jewish wisdom around him. But to what extent does the People of Israel carry these influences as well? And at what point do they lose their Egyptianness and become fully integrated into a Torah worldview?

I do not yet have answers to these questions, but as we read Parshat Vayechi, I think it pays to reflect on them.

Shabbat shalom.

Dear Sara,

You wrote to me this morning asking for guidance about how to respond to the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m glad you asked this question, and I’m glad you have the moral sensitivity to engage it.

It’s important to remind ourselves of who Bin Laden was and what he sought to do. Bin Laden was a mass murderer on an enormous scale. He was a man of hate, and he caused untold death and destruction to human beings around the world, let alone to America itself. There is no eulogy for him.

So our first response is that of the Bible’s Book of Proverbs which states, “When the wicked perish there is song” (Prov. 11:10). To see wickedness removed from the earth, to see evil stopped, is a joyous thing. We are thrilled, just as the Jews were thrilled when Haman was stopped, just as Americans were thrilled on V-E and V-J day. Our response is one of thanks and gratitude and joy.

At the same time, as your question itself suggests, something feels weird about celebrating death. It feels somehow unseemly to many people, a violation of the spirit in which we removed the wine from the second cup at the seder just two weeks ago. As the midrash recounts, as the Israelites sang at the sea after the drowning of their Egyptian enemies, the angels were about to start singing when God reproved them saying that God’s own children were dying. This impulse evokes another line in the Book of Proverbs, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Prov. 24:17).

Yet I think here it is important to remember two things. First, as a colleague of mine reminded me, the enemy in question in the verse may not be an Osama bin Laden type of person—it is more likely your neighbor with whom you bicker, or your roommate who you can’t get along with. Butchers of the variety of Bin Laden are in a different category. We can sing at their downfall.

Second, the standard of not singing recorded in the midrash is a standard for the angels, not for us. Neither God nor Moses gets angry with the Israelites for singing. Quite the opposite: Moses’s sister Miriam is the one who gathers the women and exhorts all the children of Israel to sing. The midrash is making a theological statement about a reality that may exist in the mind of God. But as the Rabbis state many times, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings. It responds to human realities and human emotions. God and the angels do not have to deal with death the way that humans do. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the death of those who seek to kill us.

Christianity has given us a radical conception of love, and I would refer you to my Christian colleagues about how their tradition shapes their response to Bin Laden’s death. Jewish tradition acknowledges that evil exists in the world, that evil people exist in the world, and that we must be unflinching in countering them. There is no room for moral paralysis when fighting a man like Bin Laden.

You point out that this news comes on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you ask, rhetorically, what our reaction might have been to the death of Hitler. There is no question there. Bin Laden was not Hitler, but not for lack of ambition. We celebrate his end—not necessarily with parades and balloons, for his demise cannot bring back those whose lives he ended. But we are happy that a man who perpetrated such gruesome crimes against our nation, and sought to do so against our people and all of humanity, is no longer among the living.


Rabbi Josh

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things

(Phillippians 4:8)
To put it mildly, it’s unusual for a rabbi to begin his Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the Christian Bible. The Torah, the High Holiday machzor, the Talmud, even the Big Book of Jewish Humor (which I’ve done). But Saint Paul? Really? Well, as we say at Hillel, we are distinctively Jewish and universally human. Chalk this up to the latter half.

But seriously folks, this is not a gratuitous quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Phillippians. Quaecumque Sunt Vera – Whatsoever things are true. These are the words on the seal of Northwestern University. They are the very motto of this place. And they come from this verse of St. Paul. “Whatsoever things are true: think on these things.”

Northwestern adopted these words as its motto in 1890. Presumably the trustees wanted Northwestern to be dedicated to truth. Harvard’s motto was veritas, truth; Yale’s was lux et veritas, light and truth. Northwestern, like other universities, was and remains about learning truth, searching for truth, knowing truth, and living by truth.

Of course we have a word for this in Hebrew, and it is emet. Emet in Hebrew is as powerful as truth is in English. The book of Deuteronomy refers to judges who “inquire, probe, and investigate thoroughly” (13:15) to arrive at truth. The Talmud goes further and determines that judges must actually perform seven separate inquiries to ascertain the truth in a case. They must check and check and check again. They must interrogate witnesses and check all the facts. They must be absolutely certain in their judgments. They must be true.

So finding the truth can be hard work. Like a science experiment or an archaeological dig, the truth is there to be discovered, and it must be measured and investigated and probed before we can be certain. In this conception, truth stands outside us, and we must use our tools of historical and scientific inquiry to find and verify it.

But there is another kind of truth, one that doesn’t stand outside us, but which emerges from within us. This is the truth of belief. This is the truth that tells us that our family and friends will be there for us when we need them. It is the truth that says we can always come home. It is the truth we experience when we tell the story of the Exodus at Pesach. It is the truth we rely on today, Yom Kippur—the truth that God will always forgive, if only we will return. (more…)