One of the great moral innovations of the Torah comes in the korban hatat, the sin offering. According to the Book of Leviticus that we begin reading this week, the hatat is brought by an individual when he has unwittingly committed an act which would be punishable by death had he actually intended to do it. If one inadvertently caused a fire to be lit on Shabbat, for instance (say by accidentally tipping over an oil lamp), one would not be fully responsible for that action, as one hadn’t intended to do it. But the person still transgressed the law against lighting a fire on Shabbat, and thus bears some culpability, and so he is required to bring a hatat sacrifice. This is the moral space within which the hatat operates.

This is a remarkable idea. In our rational-self-actor-infused economic thought of today, we tend to argue that people are only responsible for that which they intended to do. If I was able to make a free choice about my action, then I am responsible for it. If I wasn’t free, I’m not. But this assumes a faith in our reason and clarity about our choices that, upon further reflection, we often find we don’t really have. The philosopher William James, father of the school of thought known as pragmatism, argued that we can never really know all the impulses, rational and otherwise, that motivate us to make a choice. Often we choose and construct a rationale to support our choice later. What we think is free will may not in fact be so.

This is because we are social creatures, born into networks of mutual acknowledgment and responsibility. We do not exist in isolation. And so others have an influence on, and a degree of responsibility for, our actions, and we for theirs. Kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, All Israel are guarantors for one another, as the Talmud says. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel more powerfully put it, Some are guilty, but all are responsible.

Thus while there are clearly times when we will something to be, and when we are fully responsible for our actions (and would thus be subject to more severe punishment than the hatat), most of the time we are less clear about our wants and wills, and about the forces that bring our actions into being. More often than not, we operate in a moral gray zone. And yet the message of the hatat is that, even when we are in that fuzzy space, we are still responsible. Not to the point of ultimate responsibility, but still to a significant degree.

For me, this forms the backdrop to reflecting on the much-discussed recent incident in a Northwestern human sexuality course. Over 1,000 students have signed a petition in support of the professor, basing their reasoning on the notion that consenting adults—including college students—should be free to engage in pedagogical exercises that promote healthy living, provided they are free to make the choice to do so. What seems missing from the conversation thus far, however, is reflection on not only the rights of human life (the right to sexual pleasure may be one of them—it certainly is one the Torah specifies as a right of marriage), but equally if not more importantly the responsibilities of being human.

What does it mean to watch someone making a live demonstration of sexually pleasuring themselves? Do the audience members, and more so the professor, bear any responsibility for the effects of what went on? Are we absolutely clear that this was a good and just thing to do?

The Torah is not prudish. Holiness is not prudish. As we will read in a few weeks, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” is interpreted not only to mean separate from that which is unholy, but also sanctify yourself within that which is permitted. The Torah, and the tradition that flows from it, sees holiness not in denying that which is good, but discerning what is good and fully enjoying it.

That discernment takes place in the context of a world in which we are mutually dependent and mutually responsible for one another. Living in God’s image is not simply about self-fulfillment, but about recognizing the image of God in all of creation. That recognition should lead to a wider sense of responsibility, a sense that means that, even when I’m not guilty, I’m still responsible.

Shabbat shalom.

There were a number of remarkable things about the town hall forum that occurred tonight at Northwestern. First, it was remarkable that so many people came–the Louis Room was overflowing, suggesting that around 500 people attended. Second, it was remarkable that a real diversity of people showed up, more, sadly, than one finds in an average NU setting. Third, it was remarkable that the discussion was as thoughtful, heartfelt, and uplifting as it was. Finally, it was remarkable that such an event–probably the most meaningful community event I’ve been a part of in five years here–turned a source of potential strife and acrimony into a moment of community-building. Hats off to the organizers, and particularly to President Schapiro for using the power of his office to create such a moment.

I didn’t get a chance to speak at the forum, so here’s what I would have said. One thing that was mentioned but not interrogated was the fact that the incident that sparked the conversation (two students dressed in blackface) happened in the context of Halloween. When it was mentioned, this fact was brought up in the context of intentions: “It was a Halloween costume, not a political statement.” Yet as the normative sentiment at the forum revealed, consequences are at least as, if not more important than intentions. And one can only project the consequences of one’s actions if one is educated. In this case, one has to know the history of blackface to understand that a consequence will be offense on the part of many.

I find a couple of ironies here. First, Halloween itself has a history which is largely unknown, rooted in pagan Celtic traditions and later Catholic observances. Traditional Jewish law actually forbids participating in Halloween observances for this reason. (See this article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on the topic.) So the imposition of Halloween on religious minorities, the pressure to conform to what has become a civil religious observance in America but which poses a serious religious problem for some, could itself be offensive. (I’m frankly more offended by the stupidity of a holiday about commercialism through costumes and candy, with little value added to community–other than seeing your neighbors, which is something we should be doing in more meaningful ways in any event.)

But second, and more to the point, is the observance of dressing up. Think about what people do on Halloween: they dress as someone they’re not. The two students who provoked this discussion dressed as Bob Marley and one of the Williams sisters. Costumes are seen as frivolous and silly, but they evoke much larger questions of identity, the most basic of which are these: Who are you? and How do you want to be known? (See my post from Purim this year.) These questions, so basic and so crucial in identity formation, are precisely the questions we don’t ask at secular universities, or at least we don’t yet ask well.

Several people at the forum tonight spoke about the need to meet people different from oneself in college, to actually experience diversity. But what do we do to not only foster that value, but to educate, to form identities, in it? How does the university use its leverage to teach these lessons? We have academic requirements for languages, distribution requirements; we promote study abroad and interdisciplinary research. But we do not actually use the academic leverage of the university, in the form of curricular requirements, to help students figure out who they are and who they want to be. We do not squarely put the question: What is your story?

I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?

What would it take to get to such a place? President Schapiro, in giving tonight’s event his imprimatur, created a moment of community through the persuasive–and coercive–power of the university. (I was not alone in changing my plans after Morty said, “I’ve rearranged my schedule. I hope you will too.”) What might happen if we went even further, and put force behind the sentiments we espouse?

A nice piece of news from my institution.

Morton O. Schapiro will be inaugurated as the sixteenth president of Northwestern University on Friday. I wrote this note to him this morning.

This weekend we will celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeret – Simchat Torah. And in that time we will experience one of the great moments of the Jewish people, when we conclude the reading of the Torah and immediately begin reading it again.

Moses concludes the Torah with a blessing, from which the final Torah portion of the annual reading is drawn:

“V’zot habracha asher berach Moshe ish ha-Elohim lifnei moto,” “This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death.” (Deut. 33:1)

It is appropriate that Moses’s final words to Israel are a blessing, as God’s original charge to Abraham–and by extension the Jewish people–is itself to be a blessing:

“And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go, go from your homeland, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and bless you, and make your name great. V’heyei bracha: And you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

Humanity itself is blessed as part of creation (Gen. 1:28). But in the bookends of Abraham and Moses, the experience of the Jewish people is particularly framed by the notion of bracha, blessing.

The words v’heyei bracha are ambiguous, and thus provide fertile ground for interpretation and commentary. The great medieval commentator Rashi understands them to mean that God has now given the power of blessing into the hands of human beings: we may choose whom and what to bless. The 13th-century commentator Ramban reads the words differently: “You will be the blessing through whom people make a blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Abraham.’ Or [we can understand the words to mean] that they, the people of the world, will be blessed because of you.”

Professor Schapiro, as you assume this important position of leadership, I want to invoke all three of these interpretations. Following Rashi, we can understand that with your office comes great power and responsibility: Your choices about where you show your blessing, where and with whom you spend your time, energies, and resources, will shape the lives of the members of this community. We pray that you will show wisdom with this power, and that you will use it for a blessing.

Per Ramban’s first interpretation, there are only fourteen others who have held this office (one was president twice). Their names have left an indelible mark on the university. Names like Hinman, Noyes, and Foster; Harris, Miller, Weber and Bienen. We pray that your Torah, your wisdom and teaching, will become a source of blessing that leaves a lasting legacy in your name.

And following Ramban’s final interpetation, we remember that your leadership at Northwestern will affect not only the members of this community, but indeed the entire world: through the students whose lives we shape; through the new discoveries and insights we find; through the good this institution does in the world. We pray that through your guidance, vision, and courage, Northwestern will be a source of blessing for all the people of the earth.

Your inauguration takes place on a Friday afternoon, as the sun is about to set and Shabbat and the holiday are about to enter. This is a special time for Jews, a time of particular blessing, when parents traditionally bless their children with the Priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. In closing we offer you this blessing, in the prayer that you will be a blessing for us all:

“May God, the source of life, the source of mystery, bless you and keep you.
“May the light of God’s face shine upon you and make you glow with grace.
“May God’s face turn toward you, and give you peace.”

Shabbat shalom, chag sameach, and in the words of Moses to Joshua, Chazak v’amatz: Be strong and courageous, and lead us all to be a blessing.


This article was the most-emailed yesterday on the Times website, and essentially asks the question: what has MBA education wrought, and is it time to rethink how it’s done? Specifically, has the focus on bottom-line and profits at many business schools undermined a sense of social responsibility? Put more bluntly: what responsibility do our business schools have for the problems in corporate culture that led to the financial mess?

Now I don’t think it’s fair to blame business schools for the whole financial mess. But at the same time, they were eager to take credit for the success of the economy in good times, and should be willing to shoulder some of the load during the bad.

For me, the question extends further. Ask undergraduates at Northwestern, and they’ll tell you that the Kellogg School of Management–located on prime real estate in the dead center of the Evanston campus–radiates an aura that permeates much of undergraduate life. One in eight NU undergraduates is an economics major, and those students walk the halls of Kellogg for their classes. The sense communicated to undergrads seems to reinforce the notion that college education is meant to be pre-professional, that success involves making money and entering the culture of Wall Street and finance. (One NU staffer I know keeps a collection of letters from students who had been involved in global do-gooding, and who ultimately took jobs in the financial industry.)

One more layer: My employer, Hillel, has emphasized MBAs as the model for Hillel directors. Business principles, including a focus on measurement (how do you quantify a ‘meaningful Jewish experience?’) and an emphasis on the financial bottom-line, have definitely influenced the culture, just as they have at the university.

The questions in all of this are many. But the biggest one is this: Will the university–and by that I mean academe in general–have the courage to seriously evaluate its values, goals, and culture?

Last week the newly-elected president of Northwestern University, Dr. Morton O. Schapiro, was on campus for a visit. Morty is a first-rate scholar and, more important, a mensch. I have a good feeling that he will bring some significant new ideas to the university.

When he took the stage, I was struck by the fact that while the audience clapped, they (we) did not stand. Perhaps it’s just the yeshiva student in me, but I have been disciplined such that when the head of your institution walks in the room, you stand up. There’s a great West Wing episode about this. Watch:

This quarter I’m taking a course on ritual theory, and today we were discussing academic gatherings of this sort and analyzing them as rituals. And I found myself asking, Why did no one stand up? There was frankly a lack of ritual in the introduction of the new president. He didn’t give a prepared address (though is impromptu comments were very good). There was no music or ceremony. And Morty is a simple guy–he goes by Morty, for crying out loud–so I’d imagine he’d say he wouldn’t want any ceremony.

But I think we forget something important about the power of ritual, the necessity for ritual, in moments like this. Ritual has been defined all kinds of ways, but one thing we know about it is that in creating ritual space, we create meaningful space. We create space and time in which we can be intentional, when we can act out our aspirations and sense of purpose. In moments of ritual, we bind together community in a sense of common mission.

That sense has been lacking at Northwestern for a long time, as it has at many other universities. (Though it’s only lacking on the official level. All the major events and activities that claim students’ attention outside the classroom at NU–Greek life, Theater, Dance Marathon–are steeped in ritual.) If we are going to rebuild a sense of community, I believe we have to begin by reclaiming ritual. And here’s a simple way to start: When the president of the university walks in the room, stand up.