Asking the Big Questions today on a college campus

In the Spring of 2010, I spoke at the Jewish life center at a local College. A guy came in before I started to speak handing out cards. On the cards were pictures of this guy dressed in various shades and hats to portray himself as a cool and normal- as a greaser, hipster, punk, athlete- and not the Yeshivish guy he was. He promising a free trip to Israel and money to take classes. He was obviously affiliated with the network of kiruv yeshivot in Israel. I wondered what the very informed Jewish Life center rabbi thought of this guy; I didn’t ask.

This year the Jewish Life center is offering its own course and paying $300. This time it is being taught by a liberal Orthodox rabbi educator who is presenting Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman as basic Judaism. The ordained Orthodox rabbi does not purport to be teaching orthodoxy and is not interested in carrying a banner of orthodoxy in my educational practice on campus. Moreover, he does not think that orthodoxy is an appropriate educational posture for someone working in my environment.

Unlike the classes by kiruv organizations, these classes differentiate themselves by their pluralism.

Put simply, our goal is to get you to ask “big questions” about being Jewish, not to give you “big answers.” We also have a cooler looking logo.
While JLF is a program rooted in Jewish study and in Jewish community, it is open to all students.. We do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. We also make no claims about the “right” way to practice or not to practice Judaism. Our job is to help you explore the tradition in a safe space, and find your own place, on your terms, in Judaism’s Great Conversation.

They are offering two classes. One on Asking Big Questions and one on Sex, Love, & Intimacy. Any thoughts on the content? People are always looking for another course on being modern and observant, what do people think? How does it compare to the Shalhevet course for HS students, which I posted?

I also wonder about the bigger effect. The course ends with the question, taken from Bellah’s Habits of the Heart (1985) – Is observance just a lifestyle enclave or will it be communities of memory? Twenty five years later many who expected Orthodoxy to be a community of memory found themselves in a lifestyle enclave. Even the established institutions acknowledge this is what they created. Furthermore, I know people older 10-20 years older than I am who studied with Greenberg and Hartman at YU in the 1960’s and accepted their Torah, then found themselves out of step with the lifestyle enclave. (Even the liberals are caught in the lifestyle enclave.) Is this rabbi once again promising a vision that he cannot deliver? What happens when these bright and creative college grads who consider freedom, diversity and reinterpretation to be their Judaism, then find themselves saddled with those who give out funny cards?

The sex ethics course may be breaking new ground in discussing pleasuring, desire and the possibility of more than two sexes and more than two genders. (Is there a rabbinic work by a liberal rabbi that already covers this ground?)

Freshman Seminar

Week 1 – Orientation: The Story of the Jewish Family
Big Questions: Who is a member of the Jewish people? What does it mean to be a Jew? What are some of the major narratives Jews tell about themselves? How do Jews today understand themselves differently or similarly than they did in previous ages? In what way does personal history become collective history? Can history “make a claim” on us? What is your story?

Week 2 – The Challenge of Freedom
Big Questions: What does the Bible conceive of God? Is it different or similar to how we speak of God today in popular culture? Are human beings free, or are our actions controlled by forces greater than ourselves? Does it matter?

Week 3 A Partnership to Transform the World
Big Questions: What is the Jewish Covenant and how does it work? How is a Covenant different from a contract? What relationships in contemporary society might we describe as Covenantal?

Week 4 – Radical Rereading: The Rabbinic Revolution
Big Questions: How do the Rabbis understand and reinterpret the theology of the bible? What kind of a new culture is created? In what ways is the rabbinic understanding of the covenant consistent with the biblical? In which ways is it innovative? Can this serve as a model for today?

Week 5 – The Creative Destruction of Modernity
Big Questions: How did the Jewish self-understanding change in the modern era? How was the covenant reinterpreted by Jewish thinkers in the modern era? Is it possible to be “untouched” by modernity? Can a community return to a pre-modern era? What is lost and what is gained by the rupture of modernity?
November 2011 – Retreat at Camp Isabella Freedman

Week 6 – “Zionism: Challenges and Opportunities”
Big Questions: Does Zionism represent a decisive, revolutionary break from the Jewish history or its ultimate fulfillment?

Week 7 – “God in the Ruins: The Impact of the Holocaust”
Big Questions: How are the horrors of the Holocaust to be interpreted in light of the Covenant? Does the Holocaust represent a unique instance of radical evil, or is the Holocaust but another instance of an older theodicy? How does the covenant account for evil and unwarranted suffering?

Week 8 – “Toward the Other: Negotiating Diversity”
Big Questions: What do you do when the demands of your particular culture violate your own moral intuition?
December –Shabbat Dinner at Rabbi’s House

Week 9 – “Doubt and Disbelief”
Big Questions: Must a Jew believe anything? What do we mean by belief in God? What is the difference between belief in and belief that, or what has been called “pragmatic” and “propositional truth”? What role does faith play in an era of uncertainty?

Week 10 – “Judaism in the 21st Century: Lifestyle Enclaves or Communities of Memory?”
Big Questions: Where do we go from here?
Full Version Here

Sex, Love, & Intimacy

Week 1 – Orientation
Big Questions: How should we think about sex? Is sex a purely biological act? Should it
be treated as such? Is there anything unique about human sexuality? Can we speak of a
function sex should or should not have? What would that be? Should there be such a thing
as sex ethics?

Week 2 – Creating Sex, Engendering Desire
Big Questions: What do the creation stories tell us about sex and sexuality? What does it
mean to be created in the image of the divine?

Week 3 – Pleasure and Frequency: The “Commandment of Onah”
Week 4 – “But I Can’t Do it Alone”: Auto-Eroticism
Week 5 – Tzniut: Modesty and Immodesty
Week 6 – Niddah: Distance and Closeness in Relationships
Week 7 – Extra-Marital Sex: or, How to Grapple with Tradition

Week 8 – Queerness I: Boys who are Girls and Girls who are Boys
Big Questions: So much of modern sexuality is predicated on two sexes. Can we imagine a
world with more than two sexes and two genders? Can the Jewish tradition? What might
that look like? What would it mean?

Week 9 – Queerness II: Non-Heterosexual Relationships in the Jewish Tradition
Week 10 -“IFAQ: Infrequently Asked Questions”
Full Version Here

8 responses to “Asking the Big Questions today on a college campus

  1. Though not often perceived as such, early Jewish sources do seem to acknowledge the existence of genders other than male and female. In the MIshna, you have the tumtum and androgynous. In Navi, you have the saris. Contemporary discussions should probably begin with serious engagement of those constructions.

  2. The questions are excellent, the best. I doubt if the educators- rabbis have worked out a coherent answer. If they have, they should let the rest of us know, since most people find these questions extraordinary difficult. One problem is that giving an answer to one question might be inadequate because it would limit the answers elsewhere. We also lack criteria of
    adequacy, what are the constraints on a possible answer. Must it be acceptable to Orthodox Jews, all Jews, ideal observer Jews? Can it be very different from traditional answers? These days whenever someone tries to put together a big story, they don’t get very far. In contemporary Jewish life, no good intellectual deed goes unpunished. What did Greenberg accomplish other than marginalize his position within Orthodoxy? There are other similar examples. I don’t buy into the idea that the questions even without answers are worthwhile. Questions are easy, answers that allow others to solidify their own intuitions are difficult.
    Here is a four word answer. I received an email today that was signed Rosh Kolel Yeshivat Oheiv Kesef vrodeif Nashim. Cute. If we now parse the first as living the good life, either as satisfying basic needs or utilities, and the second part as loving beauty, we have the outlines of a perfectionist theory of Judaism. Judaism exists to help us achieve the good life and pursue beauty, ( that includes the beauty mathematicians see in certain theorems), and perfection. It’s an answer that satisfies the aristocratic aspect of Judaism, seeing Talmudists and Kabbalists as achieving ever more perfect levels of spiritual and intellectual understanding, etc. Trouble is I have no reason to believe this answer that is a good one for our post holocaust times. What I am trying to say is that I don’t know how to tell what is a good answer and what is an inadequate answer. If that is true, why ask the questions?

  3. Isn’t the disappointment you describe – and which may again be looming over this new program – not inherently the result of the very different things that allow one to engage in intellectual speculation, on the one hand, and building a community, on the other hand? Is it perhaps that the guy with the funny cards has a better grasp of the dynamics of social interactions than the guy who is going to ask a kind of question in a kind of way that may almost by definition make the establishment of a mainstream community (i.e., not an academic institute, a community, where people settle, have jobs in professions and trades, have kids, educate them, car pool, worship, etc.) an insurmountable challenge?

    After all, two major reasons why college students like to engage in these intellectual pursuits is because they have the time and are footloose, not tied long term to any community, yet, don’t you think so?

  4. HUC’s Eugene Borowitz wrote “Choosing a Sex Ethic: A Jewish Inquiry” (Schocken, 1970), covering many of the same topics from an ethical perspective, and he does a fair job looking at traditional halachic sources too.

  5. To Arie Folger –
    You seem to be suggesting that community-building somehow rules out intellectual exploration. There are many communities where intellectual discourse around important questions of meaning are the glue that binds, the stuff that challenges members to engage with one another at a deeper level. Hopefully the students in this program will draw on their experience to build communities that stimulate the intellect and nurture meaning-making as much as they provide for meals, minyanim, and carpools.

  6. Ideally, you are right, but to quote from one of the blog master’s papers, Torah uMadda is a great ideal, but in the suburbs, we really need Torah veBaseball or Torah im Dougies. (citing from memory).

    In college, many people do tend to form communities around intellectual principles or interests, but once people settle down, other things take priority. When you have the luxury of residential college, a minor point in a philosophical exploration can take very large proportions, and to an extent, that’s good, because im ein akhshav, eimatai, that’s the time to explore those issues. But people’s needs are radically different when building a community where to belong to for the long term.

    Think about it, What’s Kierkegaard’s view on car pooling? What does Levinas have to say about parent-teacher meetings? And what can Sartre tell you about the kind of mortgage you should take for that six bedroom home you’ve been dreaming of?

  7. If exploring issues of meaning doesn’t impact one’s life (present and future), then it’s simply a waste of time. The point is to figure out how to live according to what we take away from that exploration, to enable values to drive our actions. You quote im ain akshav, which is about doing, not sitting around thinking.

    I agree that the particular philosophers you mention do not directly address the situations you’ve raised. However, a well-developed personal concept around life’s potential for meaning could inform issues that could arise out of these circumstances, and help one identify possibilities to inject meaning into the mundane.

    Most obvious to me is your example of the parent-teacher meeting. Someone with a deep personal sense of meaning would, I hope, inquire not only about the child’s grades, but also about his moral/character development.

    Also clearly connected to issues of meaning are your dreams of buying the big house. The search for meaning won’t help you decide which mortgage to take out, though it should inform an internal conversation about whether the philosophical “good life” is one in which you buy that house, or one where you consider other alternatives.

    Even the carpool can be connected to issues of meaning. For example, developing one’s own sense around inclusivity might inform the composition of your carpool. As a collective activity, carpooling provides opportunities for values-based interactions with others. And a strong sense of personal meaning could certainly inform what you choose to talk about in the course of the ride.

    The problem is that we’ve divorced study and intellectual inquiry from lived meaning, reducing life to what’s most practical or convenient at the moment. You point out after college “other things take priority,” but we don’t need to let these other things edge out our deepest longings. Why succumb to this emptiness? There’s a hunger for more principles in with the daily practice/observance, and for spiritual leaders who can connect the two. That’s what the rabbi discussed in the post seems to be attempting to do.

    As the next generation graduates to join extant communities and to create new ones, perhaps those who’ve been through programs like this will go on shape communities of meaning consonant with their values, and not simply accept existing “lifestyle enclaves.”

  8. Orthodox life radically narrows the arena within which human choice is permitted to function. The intention is to limit choices to only those options that are compatible with “the good life.” Paradoxically, however, part of living the good life appears to be making meaningful choices about what the life is. Orthodoxy’s slow leak of meaning, and its preference for Torah uBaseball over Torah Umada, is at least in part related to the fact that Orthodoxy won’t allow for the sanctification of new values or ideas that emerge from the interplay of Torah and Mada… so you may as well eat chulent, go to shul, have 4-6 kids, be a doctor/lawyer/banker and watch the Yankees.

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