“Language,” “Literature,” and the Challenge of the University

Dec. 08, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 4, pages 375-387


In this essay, dedicated to Mike’s memory, I propose to bring him just such an issue of current concern in the philosophy of Jewish education and to consider the response that he might offer—or, rather, that he did offer, directly and indirectly, in his book, Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge: Conversations with the Torah (Rosenak, 2001). The question I have pertains to Jewish leaders and teachers (for example, campus Hillel rabbis) who are committed (a) to the strengthening of Jewish life in their communities and beyond, and (b) to the strengthening of the Jewish lives of individual Jews (students, for example) but are committed no less (c) to a vision of Judaism and Jewish life that crosses ideological and denominational boundaries. How can such leaders and teachers, speak cogently and forcefully about Judaism to Jews and in particular to emerging Jewish adults, or varied conviction and direction?...


Rosenak devoted much of his work to helping Jewish educators elucidate and answer questions such as these: What does Judaism command? What truths does it hold? What distinctive wisdom does it offer? How does it want Jews to behave? I would make the case, guided by his insights, that the need for such guidance from Jewish educators in North America is especially urgent on campus, where Jewish commitment of any sort is already at a disadvantage in comparison to the many claims competing for the allegiance of young Jewish minds and souls. Students are exposed with regularity to the overarching claim—all the more powerful because it is usually assumed rather than argued—that universal should trump particular in the university. No branch of knowledge can legitimately claim to be more important in the curriculum than any other. (The course catalog treats all equally.) No culture is intrinsically more worth studying. The demand to adhere to a particular group, hold its sacred texts in unique esteem, place oneself inside the discipline of its practices—even while being part of other groups, valuing other texts, engaging in other practices—is prima facie suspect or seems patently wrong…


What Jewish truth, wisdom, or practice can one offer in reply to the challenge that the university poses daily to Jewish commitment, a challenge conveyed in other ways to all adult participants in contemporary Western society and culture? Can Jewish educators speak a language at once authentic to the Jewish past, resonant with the hyphenated American-Jewish present, and acceptable to a broad swath of Jews, across a wide range of denominational difference?


That is the question I shall pose to Rosenak in this essay. It is one that I believe is both pressing and vexed. The answer provided in Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge calls for a rethinking of what we mean by Jewish education, not only on campus but beyond….


I draw one final lesson from Rosenak’s (2001) book of “Conversations with the Torah” about the curriculum for Jewish education on campus: namely, that the number one item on that curriculum should be conversation with the Torah. The university is a place of study, after all: a precious institution committed—no matter how allegedly “value-free”—to the notion that knowledge can and should be used to make the world better. It implicitly and explicitly favors life over death, blessing over curse, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance. The university may in theory deny the possibility of ever knowing with certainty what is good (as opposed to knowing what an individual or culture believes is good) but its practice belies that theory by choices made every day: in favor of equality and pluralism, for example, and against discrimination on the basis of race or gender; in favor of democracy and against authoritarian tyranny; in favor of rational argument on the basis of evidence, and against arbitrary judgment or the claim that might makes right. Most of all, the university sides with those who want to use knowledge and science for the sake of life, thereby lending credence to the Jewish claim that Torah—if learned and practiced well, if learned in part by means of practice, and practiced by means of learning—is not only tree of knowledge but a tree of life to those who take hold of it.


Rosenak’s focus on Jewish learning, combined with the example of Torah study that he provides, offers the single most important guide of all to the formulation of an authentic, nonpartisan language that can guide contemporary Jewish educators on and off the college campus.

Updated: Dec. 24, 2014