Parshat Lekh Lekha
7 Heshvan, 5774
October 11, 2013
In a debate about liberal education, a man once said to me, “what’s the point of getting a PhD in French Literature? How is that useful?” Then he smirked.
I believe my instinct was to strangle him.
Some of you may identify with this – in that moment, I was incoherent. He and I had such divergent definitions of the word “useful,” that I had no means by which to communicate with him. I so strongly felt the importance of pure study, but had no way of communicating, of arguing that fundamental value to the hater standing before me.
I felt the same way when I read Gabriel Roth’s piece in Slate. The article is Roth’s response to the new Pew Center’s “A Portrait of JewishAmericans.” Now, it is true that everybody is in the process of losing their damn mind about this study, due to its indication of high rates of assimilation.
However, Roth, in that lovely rhetorical trope that briskly embraces the bracing truth, argues that, for secular Jews, it’s best to accept the end of American Jewish particularism with a smile. “The loss of Jewishness as a meaningful identity in America is the kind of loss that occurs when individuals are free to engage in the pursuit of happiness.” As to the future, he opines, “The fruits of Jewish culture are the gifts of Jews to the world, freely given. Over the next century, American Jewish culture may come to an end—not in tragedy but in triumph.”
And in this article, I see a question similar to the one above, “What’s the point of remaining Jewish? How is that useful?”
There is a famous story in the Talmud about the Hillel and Shammai – famous rabbis and interlocutors around the turn of the Common Era. A non-Jew comes to Shamai and says, “I’ll convert, as long as you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai, an engineer, known for his brilliance and precision in Torah, takes the ruler in his hand and smacks the guy with it. The Hebrew is particularly poignant – dahafo – Shamai pushed him away. Same guy then goes to Hillel, and makes the same (somewhat mocking) offer. Hillel says to him, “do not do to other people what is hateful to you – that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.” And the guy converts. (Talmud Shabbat 31a)
Some days I feel a lot like Shamai. Anyone who works with the mind or the heart does: teachers, professors, clergy, social advocates – nothing reduces a passionate person to incoherence like hearing, “why does what you care most about matter, again?” I so wish that I were smart enough, pithy enough, thoughtful enough to respond as Hillel, but only a few are granted that gift.
The best I can do is say that we, the Jews, have been a voice that matters in the world’s conscience – and we have remained relevant by remaining particular, both part of and apart from other communities. We have been the moral and spiritual counterpoint. We are the other voice, and often the voice of the Other. It’d be a poorer world if that voice spoke no more.