It’s a safe bet most people don’t think the fate of Judaism will be decided in the universities. When people are in the mood to talk about “the fate of Judaism,” they are usually thinking about the future of the Israel: Will Israel survive? Or about Jewish education at the elementary or high school level: How can we get more Judaism into our children’s education?
But the universities are more important than we think—so important they may well turn out to be the arena where the fate of Judaism in our time is ultimately decided.
To understand why, consider two facts. First, there’s no institution in the modern world so closely associated with the discovery and dissemination of truth as the university. Most of the time, for most educated people, what counts as the truth—what is considered debatable, what is considered a legitimate opinion, and what is considered just out of bounds for any educated person to think—is worked out at the universities. This is true for natural science: If the physicists decide that 95 percent of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that can’t be detected by any of our instruments, then for most people, that’s just the way it is. And if the paleontologists say the dinosaurs were actually warm-blooded and hopped around like lizards, we toss the old dinosaur books we grew up with (whose illustrations were incomparably better) and read to our kids from the new ones.
But the universities are also the arbiters of legitimate educated opinion in other disciplines, well beyond natural science: What university historians write today in academic journals is what will be in our children’s schoolbooks tomorrow. And what academic philosophers, political theorists, religion scholars and law professors presently see as the range of acceptable opinion on whether its worth reading the Bible; or the legitimacy of the state of Israel; or on whether something is or is not a universal human right; or on whether it is moral or even prudent to observe this or that aspect of Jewish law—all this will be replicated with scary precision by newsmen and novelists, politicians and high school principals within thirty years, sometimes even fifteen.
Please don’t read me as saying that the universities are about brainwashing. I don’t think anything of the kind. Most professors I know try hard to include a range of opinions in their courses, and are personally invested in helping students learn to think independently.
The problem isn’t the professors. It’s human nature: The reason we so value “out of the box” thinking is because we almost always think in the box. This doesn’t mean that if Professor Jones is a Kantian, then all his students will just parrot what he says and come out little chocolate-soldier Kantians. They won’t. But it does mean that if ethics courses are presented as an argument between Kantians and virtue ethicists, then just about every student will place themselves somewhere in the debate between Kantians and virtue ethicists. After years of heatedly taking sides in classroom debates of this kind, writing papers and staying up in dorms defending one view or the other, and even coming up with new variations on these theories, both the students and their professors come out certain they’ve learned to “think independently”.
But just try to telling one of these students a few years later that what they studied in college was a narrow view of the subject, and that there are other, maybe preferable, ways of answering moral questions—and you’ll run into a wall of discomfort and hesitation as this college graduate wrestles with the question of whether there’s any good reason to continue the conversation. Often enough, you get downright contempt, even hostility: After all, who are you to be saying their view of ethics is narrow? They studied the subject at Yale (or wherever) with one of the top ethicists in the world! And the same will be the case for pretty much any subject professors take seriously.
I don’t like any of this, but it’s still a fact: When our children go away to college, they enter an institution whose incomparable prestige is entirely banked on its status as the pretty much unrivaled source for what is true and false, and what is legitimately debatable, in modern society. For most college graduates, finding legitimacy in viewpoints that weren’t legitimate at the university is going to be rough riding, probably for the rest of their lives.
The second fact is this: There’s probably half a million Jewish students in universities at any given moment. Virtually anyone who will go on to be an important Jewish leader—in government, business or the professions, in education or scholarship, art or science, and even in the rabbinate—will spend a number of years in this environment. What happens at university is, in the great majority of cases, what will set their way of thinking about things at least straight through until midlife crisis or the death of one of their parents—and probably, as I say, for the rest of their lives.
This makes the university the single most important arena for educating Jews and acculturating them into adult society. This makes the university the single most important institution in the Jewish educational system—and this is true whether we like it or not.
Of course, some Jewish circles invest a great deal in alternative educational frameworks. There are yeshivas and seminaries, and some still think the community rabbi or the day school can teach them (or at least their children) a thing or two. But we shouldn’t lie to ourselves on this point. On any subject on which the rabbi or the Jewish high school is openly at odds with what is considered acceptable opinion at the universities, the Jews’ views lose. The percentage of college-educated Jewish kids who will ever seriously consider holding an opinion on any subject that is outside the range of what was considered legitimate opinion at university (or at least expressing it beyond a small circle of friends) is approaching zero.
So what we have here is something more than a little surreal. The university is the single most important institution in the Jewish educational system. Almost everywhere, Jews send their children off to university to have what will mostly likely be the defining intellectual experience of their lives. But on the whole, Jews give almost no thought to the question of whether this experience is constructed in a way that’s even remotely appropriate for educating young Jews—or, for that matter, for educating Christians or others who might think the Jewish heritage might once have had something significant to say to mankind.
Now I don’t mean to say that no Jews are thinking about the universities at all. In the last generation, there’s been a dawning awareness of the power and importance of the universities, at least in the American Jewish community. Birthright Israel, the proliferation of kosher kitchens, Hillels, and Chabad houses, and of course the growth of Jewish Studies programs—all of these are indications of a growing concern over “what’s happening on the campuses”. And when done right, they each contribute something significant by opening the university to Jewish experiences of different kinds.
But in an important sense, these efforts are only addressing the periphery of the issue. The Jewish programs we are talking about are first and foremost about cultivating certain feelings: The sense of homecoming that a first trip to Israel can invoke; or that extraordinary moment on Friday night at the kosher kitchen when one of the kids says kiddush and everyone catches a breath of freedom. But the university, remember, operates on a completely different playing field: It’s ability to set the bounds of legitimate opinion on just about any subject grows out of the presumption that what professors know how to do better than anyone else is how get the truth straight.
Neither the Hillel, nor Birthright, nor even the Chabad house, are all that interested in what the professors are researching or even in what they’re teaching their students (so long as it isn’t overt anti-Semitism). That’s just not what these organizations do. Mostly, they’re in the business of inspiring certain feelings. They leave the business of getting at the truth to the professors.
There’s nothing new in this arrangement. The German theologian Schleiermacher, one of the principal figures behind the establishment of the modern research university, was already calling for exactly this division of labor between the professorate and the ministry in 1799. Schleiermacher, who had seen the Bible demolished as legitimate source of ideas by Spinoza and Kant, argued that this was no big deal, because religion had never been about trying to find out the truth about anything anyway. Religion, he said, is about nothing other than cultivating the right kind of feelings. As he put it:
[F]eelings are exclusively the elements of religion…. Wherefore it follows that ideas and principles are all foreign to religion…. If ideas and principles are to be anything, they must belong to knowledge, which is a different compartment of life from religion.
Schleiermacher’s announcement that religion would no longer seek to play any role in mankind’s search for truth was immensely influential in the universities. It guaranteed that the professors could develop the new research university as a kind of shrine to achievements of the Greeks (who were interested in truth), while pretty much anything pointing to the possibility that the Jews had once possessed “ideas and principles” worthy of our attention was quietly elided.
In other words, it’s precisely this division of labor—in which the Jewish organizations concentrate on cultivating Jewish feeling, while leaving the serious pursuit of truth to the professors—that has brought us to where we are today, which is a world in which the Hebrew Bible and Judaism are considered basically irrelevant.
So all these Jewish programs that are today still following Schleiermacher’s lead by trying to cultivate Jewish feeling—well, I know they’re doing a lot of good, and I pray for their success. But in an important sense, all the great work they’re doing is still just skirmishing on the sidelines. They’ve yet to join battle on the central issue, which is what the whole question of the universities is really about: 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”.
This is the issue. And so long as we don’t get serious about this issue, we are going to have next to no impact on the ideas being taught in what is—whether we like it or not—the most important institution in the Jewish educational system.
What would it be like to get serious about the standing of Judaism at the universities? For starters, it would mean asking questions like—
Who created the modern university and why? What are the main academic disciplines that have an impact on the ideas taught at universities? Which academic disciplines most deeply affect the way we think about the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, the Jewish role in the story of the West, and Israel? What’s the range of academically legitimate opinion regarding the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, the Jewish role in the story of the West, and Israel? and does the range of opinion being offered really make sense? And, to cut to the chase: Is a university or college education, as currently constituted, really something that is appropriate for educating Jews? Or, for that matter, for educating non-Jews on subjects touching on Judaism? And if not, what could be done about it?
There’s obviously more to be said here. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: Maybe the time has finally come for Jews to start thinking seriously about the universities. Maybe the time has finally come to end this business of just sending our kids off to college without taking any real interest in what kind of an education they’re getting there, on the assumption that the Hillel and the Jewish Studies program have got the situation under control. They don’t have the situation under control, and they won’t without a lot more help from the rest of us.
But the good news, as I said in my last letter, is that there’s been a pretty dramatic change of atmosphere at the universities, just in the last generation. Never in the last two centuries has there been an openness to what the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish sources have to say such as there is in the universities today.
How are we going to respond to this hour of grace?