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.

I watch ESPN while I’m at the gym. Not having cable at home, it’s my chance a few times a week to stay up to date on the world of sports (and keep up with my sons, who manage to find out sports information more quickly than I can).

As I stood on the elliptical machine and turned on SportsCenter this morning, the show was featuring clips of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has achieved notoriety for his very open expressions of Christian faith on and off the football field. And in the clips that they showed on ESPN, Tebow was wearing a microphone during the game. Here was Tim Tebow sitting on the sidelines, humming a hymn to himself. And here was Tebow exhorting his teammates to play hard and win. And here was Tebow “Tebowing,” kneeling and praying after his team’s overtime victory against the Chicago Bears.

Segue to my son Jonah’s basketball camp this week, which is organized and run by Tamir Goodman. Goodman, you may recall, was the subject of a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated and dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” as an Orthodox high school phenom in the late 1990s. Tamir was signed by the University of Maryland and ultimately played at Towson University, which changed their schedule to enable him to avoid playing on Shabbat. He went on to a pro career in Israel, and retired a couple years ago after injuries.

Now Tamir is running basketball camps (Natalie’s project, the iChallenge Ideas Incubator, is sponsoring this community-wide one in Chicago). He is shameless in teaching Judaism and Jewish values through basketball. He wears his kippah on the court. He gets a minyan together to daven mincha (he’s saying kaddish for his father). He highlights how Jewish ideas are mirrored in the ethics of team play, discipline, communication, respect, and all the other middot that it takes to be both a good person and a good player.

Tamir tells lots of stories about how his insistence on keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, and unabashedly being a traditional Jew, became a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name in public. His teammates, opponents, fans, and the general public encountered a very public Jew, and learned about traditional Jewish life, as a result of his remaining true to his commitments. Most dramatically, his willingness to give back a full-ride scholarship to Maryland, after the school’s failure to alter its schedule in order to be Shabbat-friendly, made a dramatic statement: Shabbat is fundamental, and no career move is worth sacrificing it.

I see a lot of similarities between Tim Tebow and Tamir Goodman. The NCAA created a “Tebow Rule,” banning writing on eye paint, after Tebow wore “John 3:16” under his eyes in the 2009 national championship game and 92 million people Googled the verse (a silly rule, in my opinion; how many people would have Googled yarmulke if Tamir Goodman had made it to the Final Four? What’s wrong with trying to do a kiddush Hashem?). With his unashamed commitment to his faith, Tebow is creating a kiddush Hashem in his own religious community, and, like Goodman, showing that religious faith can be deeply woven into a modern life.

Parshat Miketz marks the low-point of Joseph’s running away from his own culture. The parsha opens with the dramatic transformation of Joseph from a prisoner to the second-ranking figure in Egypt. Pharaoh gives Joseph clothes, his ring, his chariot, and a wife of high social station–all the trappings of “making it.” Joseph names his first-born Menashe, because “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen. 41:51). Though Pharaoh’s steward remembers Joseph as an Ivri, a Hebrew–one who is “across,” or over or against–Joseph is ultimately unrecognizable to his brothers when they arrive, and he speaks through an interpreter. To his brothers, Joseph is an Egyptian.

What would have happened if Joseph had insisted on maintaining his identity as an Ivri a little more than he did? What if he had said no to Pharaoh? Presumably no one says no to Pharaoh. But presumably no one says no to the University of Maryland basketball program, and four free years of college, either. Joseph was actually in a strong negotiating position, but he didn’t use it. He simply accepted what was offered to him. While he maintained a strong inner sense of faith (as exemplified in the naming of his second son, Ephraim: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering,” Gen. 41:52), he made his identity a private affair. This put him in a position to help his brothers in the end, but also potentially contributed to the simmering negative feelings among the Egyptians towards the Hebrews.

Chabad has embraced this message as the message of Hannukah: Maintain particularity. Don’t assimilate. Be proud to be Jewish. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life was the inverse of Joseph’s: The Rebbe was the only one of his siblings to remain religiously observant. (His daughter was his only blood relative to attend his funeral. N.B. Stan Mazo reminds me of the obvious: the seventh Rebbe had no children. I had heard this story in a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, and will check on which Rebbe he was referring to.) Chabad has taken up his message, and it is their greatest contribution to the Jewish people. Hannuukah is indeed a time to be proud, to be out, to be open about our particularities. As Tamir Goodman reminds us, and as Tim Tebow shows too, we have nothing to hide and a great deal to gain in living an undivided life.

Shabbat Shalom and Hannukah Sameach.

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

Years ago I spent Shabbat at an orthodox yeshiva near Ashkelon, along the southern coast of Israel. The yeshiva was affiliated with Kibbutz Hadati, the religious kibbutz movement (a bit unusual, as most kibbutzim had their roots in labor Zionism, a distinctly secular movement). The singing at the yeshiva was wonderful throughout Shabbat—serious and rich, beautiful and harmonious. It was what I had come to know and expect from the musical ouvre of religious Zionism.

When it came time for havdalah on Saturday night, the students at the yeshiva (all young men) gathered in a circle to sing songs of farewell to Shabbat. And then they did the havdalah ceremony itself. And up rose the familiar tunes of, of all people, Debbie Friedman (sing along if you know it): “Yai dai, dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai daidai , dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai.” The melody soared, the bachurim (yeshiva students) embraced and swayed, and havdalah went on for a good long time, a last, longing embrace of Shabbat.

Later that night I was talking with one of the students. I asked him (in Hebrew) if he knew that the melody was written by an American Reform woman song leader. “No,” he said. “But what does that matter? It’s beautiful.”

I have found myself going back to this story over the weekend, as news spread on Friday of Debbie Friedman’s critical illness and then her death. I didn’t know Debbie, and as I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I haven’t been as inside her music as many of my friends and colleagues who did. But, remarkably, Debbie’s music has transcended denominational lines. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Orthodox synagogue where I interned during rabbinical school, Rabbi Avi Weiss leads the kahal (congregation) in singing Debbie’s Mi she-Berach as they pray for healing. At the Jewish Baccalaurate Ceremony we have held for years at Northwestern, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House and I join everyone in singing Debbie’s Lechi-Lach. And as my story from Israel demonstrates, Debbie’s havdalah tune is universal.

Debbie Friedman’s music brought people together. It opened a whole new world of liturgical possibilities for a generation. The Reform movement, and American Judaism, are richer for it. May her memory be for a blessing.

As all this was unfolding, of course, I was trying to digest the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The first word I got of the Tuscon shooting was from, of all places, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which sent out an email bulletin just after Shabbat, saying that Giffords, the first Jewish representative from Arizona, had been shot. We still have many questions: Was this solely the work of a very sick soul, or did the political climate have something to do with it? How did such a mentally unstable person acquire a semi-automatic weapon? And many others.

But for the moment, I find myself sitting with the contrast: On the one hand, a woman whose music transcends lines of division and denomination, whose byword is blessing and whose songs sing of healing; on the other, a crazy man’s hate-filled violence, whose acts have robbed families of loved ones and the public of courageous servants.

At school on Friday my son Jonah’s teachers said that Debbie was sick. Over Shabbat he couldn’t stop singing “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie’s composition about the singing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). It seems that Debbie held on long enough that the Torah portion we read during the week of her death is that very portion, Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites’ journey through the sea.

The Israelites’ task on the other side of the sea, which will become their eternal mission, is to weave together a sacred community in which God can live. The exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, all the lofty narratives and events of Jewish history, ultimately find their expression in the building of the Tabernacle: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The shooting in Tucson is a reminder to us of how far we can stray from that vision, and a calling to do teshuva, to return to care, concern, empathy and civil disagreement. The life and music of Debbie Friedman show us what it can be to weave together such a community, to sing together, to pray together, to find healing and renewal.

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…)

We got a thoroughly amazing piece of news yesterday at Northwestern Hillel: A hate group that has previously picketed us plans to do so again as Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday night. This is part of a tour of theirs around the Chicago area today and tomorrow, visiting synagogues, the Israeli Consulate, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. (I am not identifying them by name—not only because doing so would generate automatic internet spam from their supporters, but also because it would give them exactly the attention they don’t wish to have. But their name rhymes with Shmestboro Shmaptist Church.)

Yes, this news was amazing because it complicated an already very busy day in our office. But what’s even more impeccable about the timing of this incident is how it coincides with the mainstreaming of hateful religious rhetoric in American public conversation. The New York Times this morning reports on an emergency interfaith summit of religious leaders to respond to the rise in hate speech. The epidemic is epitomized in the planned burning of the Koran by a church in Florida this weekend. As Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism put it, As Jews we know religious persecution. We know book burnings. Now is a time to speak up.

Rosh Hashanah is our most universal holiday. Unlike Yom Kippur, which emphasizes the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah focuses on God’s general covenant with humanity. The liturgy implores God to remember Noah—the father of all of humanity that remains after the flood. It refers to today as the birthday of the world. It is the anniversary of Adam’s creation, the creation of all humankind. The themes of Rosh Hashanah are general, and focus on what it means to be human, and only secondarily on what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently over the last decade about what he terms the ‘dignity of difference,’ the capacity to hold, acknowledge, and celebrate our deepest differences. In one of my favorite passages from his book of the same name, Sacks asks, what would the experience of faith be like in a world in which the dignity of difference was truly enacted? ““It would be like being secure in one’s home,” he writes, “yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours.” Emphatically, Sacks rejects the notion that pluralism involves surrendering our uniqueness. Adaraba—just the opposite: in order to live together, we need to do with and through what makes us different, not by erasing it. We need to be secure in our own homes—our familial homes, our communal homes, our national homes and simultaneously concerned for and engaged with the homes of others.

That is the challenge of brotherhood, which forms one of the themes of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah. The question asked by the story of Ishmael and Isaac, of Hagar and Sarah, is this: how can brothers get along? It is the question of Genesis, and the question of the Bible more generally: how can we recognize that we share a common ancestor while simultaneously acknowledging and accommodating each individual’s uniqueness? How can we reconcile the tension implicit in the idea that human beings are created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image: one the one hand we are all equal, on the other we are each unique?

In the title of another of his books, Sacks puts forward his answer: The Home We Build Together. When we build a home together—not simply live next to one another as guests in someone else’s home, nor rent a home that belongs to a common landlord, but actually build a shared home—we forge a covenant. His model is the mishkan, the Tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites. Every member of the community contributed to its construction. Everyone had a stake in it. And thus it created a physical, psychological, and spiritual center for a people. And today it continues to provide a model for what a society can be. “Society is made out of the contributions of many individuals,” Sacks writes. “What they give is unimportant. That they give is essential.” The home we build together is society.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy famously refers to three essential acts of the High Holiday season: teshuva, tefilla, u-tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity. Central to each of these acts is a spirit of openness. Teshuva is not possible unless we are open to critique of ourselves. We can only engage in tefilla if we are open to the presence of God in our lives. And tzedakah requires an openness, awareness, and concern for lives beyond our own, and an actual, tangible act of giving and generosity.

These are the acts of restoring and renewing our covenant—between God and Jewish people, but, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, between God and the world. Today is the birthday of the world—the whole world, and all its inhabitants. Today, and every day, our spirit of generosity begins with ourselves, our families and our communities, but ultimately extends to all of God’s creation.

It’s hard to write these words without sounding almost a little trite. But let me be clear: the challenge here is to both liberals and conservatives, to those who would reject religion altogether and those who would retreat into narrow and exclusionary religious perspectives. As Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (and a friend and colleague) has powerfully argued, this is the moment for a new approach to interfaith understanding and cooperation to emerge. We have a choice between producing a generation of religious extremists rooted in hatred, or a generation of religious peace-makers, rooted in the dignity of difference.

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this Shabbat Shuva, our choice is clear: u’vacharta ba-chayim, Let us choose good. Let us choose life. Let us drown out the hatred of the few with the openness and brotherhood of the many.

There’s a compelling piece in this morning’s eJewishPhilanthropy about the sad reality of how little Jews think of their rabbis. The writer, Adir Glick, refers to a survey by the Elijah Interfaith Institute (no link provided, unfortunately) that shows that Jews have the lowest opinion of their religious leadership among all world religions. Glick links this to Jews’ rejection of their own religious life and embrace of others, such as Buddhism.

What struck me the most in reading the article, however, was the way in which Glick contrasted rabbinic or religious leadership with secular leadership within the Jewish community: “Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds,” he writes. He relates that at a conference in Israel he once saw “how a Burmese Buddhist monk stayed up late every night to teach Burmese foreign workers, who came from across Israel to sit on the grass and listen. I call this selflessness and dedication religious leadership.”

A little further on in the article, Glick asks, “where can we turn for spiritual and moral leadership, if not to our rabbis? Religious education is more than an academic pursuit.” [Emphasis added.]

Jews, according to Glick, have too-easily embraced the notion that our leaders are simply human. When we allow ourselves to have loftier conceptions of our leadership, we inevitably wind up being disappointed. For Glick, the recent story of Rabbi Mordechai Elon is proof of this. But the list could include any number of rabbis who have committed criminal acts, or, on a much lesser scale, simply let down their flocks by failing to be everything they wanted them to be. (more…)

This week at Northwestern has been filled with conversation–in person and on email–about the secular humanist student group’s decision to draw stick figures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on the walkways of the university. They did this in the name of free speech. The discussions I have been a part of have been heartening, in that they have focused much more on the question of the responsibilities of speech than on the question of rights (which are assumed by all parties to be absolute).

While I will give a fuller treatment to the question of Jewish approaches to the duties and responsibilities of speech, both in public and private, in a public class on Wednesday evening (stay tuned for details), I can’t help but read this week’s Torah portion with these questions in the back of my mind.

To me, the question is ultimately tied up with a question of intimacy and anonymity. If I know, or think I know, my neighbor, then I will want what is good for him. I will not go out of my way to cause him pain or humiliation, and he will do the same for me. But if I do not know my neighbor, if I don’t have a bond with him, then I don’t necessarily feel this same sense of responsibility towards him. He is anonymous–another resident at the inn to be tolerated, at best; a competitor for scarce resources to be eliminated, at worst.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:10) teaches as much:

There are four types of people in the world:
He who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” This is an average person…”
He who says “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is a fool.
He who says “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is a righteous person.
He who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” This is a wicked person.

The first type, which can be summarized as “live and let live,” is a relationship of anonymity–one which can at best achieve tolerance, but will never rise to the level of altruism (type 3). Fair enough. But what the ellipses leaves out are the rest of the words the Mishnah uses to describe this philosophy of living: “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. And there are those who say is the type of the people of Sodom.” That is, Sodom–the most wicked of places, the place in which dehumanization became the norm–was based simply on a live and let live philosophy. The message is clear: that isn’t enough.

Parshat Bamidbar begins with a count. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families,” God instructs, “listing every man by name, one by one.” (Num. 1:2) The purpose of this exercise is to organize the people into the army they will need to be in order to conquer the land. But the count is not to be anonymous: Moses and Aaron are to count not just the number of the people, but count them “b’mispar shemot,” every one by name. The fifteenth century Italian commentator Sforno writes that “every member of that generation was considered according to the name that revealed his true essence… in the way that God tells Moses (Ex. 33:17), ‘I know you by name.'” This is not a count that reduces people to numbers; it is a count that includes the fulness of individual stories in the numbering.

Sforno continues that this was a unique type of counting, one which is not repeated after this generation loses faith in God and is condemned to spend forty years dying out in the wildnerness to make room for a new generation. But it was the ideal type of counting, and it reflected an ideal of community: not a community of anonymity, suspicion, distrust, but a community of intimacy, care, trust, and love. That was what we were meant to be, and what we failed to be in the wilderness.

It may be true that we live in a society of live and let live, a society of anonymity. But as the Mishnah tells us and the Torah reminds us, that is not what we should aspire to. We should aspire to fulfill the instruction of Hillel the Elder: “That which is hateful do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” We do not need to be intimate with everyone–that isn’t possible. But we do need to see them, to recognize them, and to love them in the ways that we can.

Shabbat shalom.

In the opening verses of the Torah portion of Vayikra, we find this line (verse 3), translated in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition as:

If his offering be a burnt-offering of the herd, he shall offer it a male without blemish; he shall bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.
The JPS here translates the phrase lirtzono, which literally means “according to his will,” to refer to the will of God: In presenting this offering, it is important to follow the instructions so that God will accept it.

This one word, lirtzono, has been the subject of debate among the commentators, and others offer a strikingly different interpretation. Rashi, following the Sifra, tells us that the verse comes to teach as follows:

“He shall bring it” teaches that we force him [to bring an offering]. You might have thought that this means even when it’s against his will. Therefore the Torah states: “Lirtzono,” “According to his will.” How so? We force him until he says, ‘I will it.’
Here the subject of lirtzono is the bringer of the sacrifice, not God. Fair enough. But what Rashi points us to is a more profound issue involved in the act of divine service: If we are to serve God with our own wills, what do we do when our will is not aligned with God’s?

For Rashi, the options–or perhaps the solution–includes forcing ourselves, or others, to want to serve God. This may sound extreme, and no doubt it can be taken in that direction. But it can also be taken in directions that more palatable to our sensibilities, such as in the case of a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get, or religious bill of divorce. According to Jewish law, a get must also be given freely. So Maimonides states that a Jewish court can force a man who refuses to give his wife a get, and he quotes precisely this teaching: “We force him until he says, ‘I will it.'”

How does Maimonides justify this? “We do not say someone’s will is violated unless it is for something which one is not obligated to do by the Torah… But one whose evil inclination has overtaken him so that he has transgressed a commandment, and who is compelled by others to do that the Torah obligates him to do… this is not the violation of his will. Rather, he violated himself with evil thoughts.” (Laws of Divorce 2:20)

In the world and society in which we live, nothing is more sacrosanct than the notion of individual will. That is one of the fundamental contributions of modernity, particularly as it has been elaborated in the American context. The result is what the Jewish scholars Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen described as “the sovereign self,” in their 2000 book The Jew Within. We do what we do because we want to do it, because “it works for us,” in the words of Rabbi Brad Hisrchfield of CLAL. We are the arbiters of our own truths, religious and otherwise.

The problem comes, however, in the fact that we cannot always trust ourselves to know or do what is right–whether the yardstick we use is our own health and satisfaction, or whether it is the service of God. In fact, as Rashi and Maimonides remind us, sometimes we need others–our friends, our community, the law–to force us to do what is right. More frequently, it is not a question of force. It is more subtle, a question of influence and education, both conscious and unconscious. The Torah, as Rashi and Rambam both remind us, is built on a vision of individuals living in community, and living with a greater sense of context, purpose, and service than their own fulfillment. That is the basic idea of korban, sacrifice, that forms the substance of Parshat Vayikra.

Shabbat Shalom.

A friend, familiar with my interests in higher education, religion, secularism, and Jews, sent me this piece by Yoram Hazony this morning. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, mostly because Hazony is elaborating some points that I have made on this blog and in my other writing and speaking over the last several years. His central thesis and mine are the same: Jews need to think much more critically about the university as a whole, because it is the institution of the university–the modern, secular, elite research university that we send most of our kids to–that shapes the identity of so many Jews.

Hazony puts it very well: universities determine what is acceptable, what is respectable, what are the bounds of knowledge and opinion. They may not make everyone share the same ideology, but they create the parameters of what we like to tell ourselves is “critical thinking.” But what Hazony and I both ask is: Is that really true? Given that the modern secular university writes off whole areas of knowledge–particularly knowledge that comes from religious traditions, and certainly knowledge that claims to be revealed–how wide are the goal posts of critical thinking? (See this article in Newsweek for an example.)

At this point, Hazony’s project and mine diverge slightly. At least as it’s presented in his piece, his primary interest in raising these questions is on behalf of the Jewish people. The central question, in Hazony’s mind, is this: “Whether the universities, which are modern society’s engines for the discovery of truth, can be changed so as to accommodate the ideas and texts of Judaism as a legitimate source for potentially true ‘ideas and principles.'” I definitely share this question and concern. But my question–perhaps because I’m sitting in America and not in Israel–is whether our universities can be changed so as to accommodate and promote knowledge in all the dimensions of human life–including the religio-spiritual, as well as the ethical-moral, and not only the empirical-historicist that we seem to dwell in right now.

I ask this question on behalf of my people, the Jews, but also on behalf of American society and the world, because I think that the hegemony of rigid secularism on university campuses has contributed to the erosion of our public life, the fragmentation of our commons, and the lack of resilience that it takes for good people to stay in the game. (See this morning’s NYT article about Evan Bayh for a good example of how hard it is for good people to stick it out.) One of the driving forces behind our starting was the belief that our mission in Hillel will only be successful if we can change the nature of the university itself, and make it a more hospitable place for people of all backgrounds to engage the most profound questions of human life in dialogue with all of the world’s sources of knowledge and wisdom.

A final note: On Tuesday night I facilitated a conversation at Hillel on these topics with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL. In preparing for the session, I recalled a talk I gave a couple of years ago (print version here, audio here) contextualizing Jews and the university. A lot of Hazony’s points are made in that talk. And while I doubt very much that Yoram Hazony and Brad Hirschfield are mentioned all that frequently in the same sentence, on this score I think we are all in agreement: We think it is both highly desirable, and eminently possible, for our universities to recover their souls, and to do so in a way that not only preserves, but expands the meaning of “critical thinking.”