By Louis Pollack
It seems that eons have passed since I arrived one bright September day to begin my freshman year at Cornell. Self-conscious, timid and somewhat overawed by the rush of new ideas, choices, responsibilities and friends, somehow I managed to mature and survive.
Six years later — turning my head for one last nostalgic look at the beautiful lake and the campus — I reluctantly drove off with two diplomas in one hand and a notice to report for U.S. Army service in the other.
Now it’s my grandson Josh’s turn to begin his own freshman term at another university. I write this piece (trying hard not to sound pedantic) in the hope that my reflections may provide Josh, and perhaps others, with some worthwhile guideposts over the next four years, away from home and on his own.
In times past, the topics stressed to young people about to enter college revolved mainly about such themes as: learning from one’s mistakes while not foregoing independent judgment; developing a keen curiosity; recognizing that no success or failure is necessarily final and maintaining a high respect for learning and scholarship.
To an appreciable extent this advice still remains valid. In today’s turbulent times, however, we are compelled to recognize the emergence on the campus of a new, unsettling concept, one which asserts that truth and morality are merely relative and not to be treated as certainties or absolutes. The underpinnings of this new ethic are that each of us is free to live as we please and that moral law is what man decides for himself, no matter how shockingly it may differ with the moral certitudes of generations past.
As a university insider, the late Professor Allan Bloom, in his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind sets out his description of campus moral relativism (or, as he put it, the new “openness”). Basically, he wrote, it means being “open” to nearly everything — ignoring beliefs, principles and virtues of yesteryear. Openness counsels that one should not claim that anything is “right,” because the claims of being right made by past leaders of society only led to war, social upheaval and inequality.
One of the serious side-effects of this trend appears to be a correlation between the mores of the new “openness” and the sharp increase in divorce, assimilation and intermarriage within Jewish society. There is strong reason to believe that the recently accelerated abandonment by many Jews of our traditions has directly and substantially contributed to the current decline in our numbers.
In 1991, the American Jewish community was shocked by the discovery of how far things have gone. The respected and comprehensive National Jewish Population Survey conducted for the Council of Jewish Federations found that a majority of Jews are now marrying non-Jews. Noting the failure of “causes” such as Soviet Jewry or Israel to ensure Jewish attachment, stunned leaders promptly conferred to devise plans to meet these frightening challenges to Jewish survival.
Clearly, new educational approaches, new strategies are urgently needed. And they are needed especially for students who are soon to go off to college or who are already there, because intermarriage has become more socially acceptable on the campus then elsewhere in America - with the startling result that now, two out of three Jewish students who marry do so with a non-Jewish spouse.
We know that one of the most powerful motivations in life is survival — personal survival and national survival. We also know, however, that one of the major causes of the disappearance of even once-powerful and dominant nations stems from their having taken on the cultural traits and traditions of other societies and cultures.
For example, new archaeological digs indicate that the decline of the mighty Philistine military and economic power most likely resulted from the abandonment of their language, customs, religion and from the adoption of the beliefs and cultural attributes of neighboring civilizations, especially that of the Assyrian Empire and, later, of the Babylonians who forced them into captivity and exile. As a consequence, by approximately 550 BCE the once-formidable Philistine Empire disappeared forever, almost without a whimper.
In marked contrast, our Jewish history stands witness to our resistance to foreign acculturizing during long and oppressive periods of exile and foreign domination, such as during the 210 years of Egyptian bondage.
In modern times, however, we see a decided weakening of Jewish resolve to retain Jewish beliefs and traditions and to fend off acculturization. Today, the drift away from Jewish moorings has received additional impetus on the campuses, for in this home-away-fromhome environment, Jewish students come into close contact with diversified non-Jewish beliefs, values, outlooks and religions. Of additional influence are the new “multicultural” courses being introduced into many curricula. Not to be discounted are a variety of modern literary works, lectures, meetings and the propagation of newly-minted “politically and socially correct” standards — all being pressed upon the student in the name of “human rights” and “social justice.”
Jewish students should be urged to judge these siren voices with special caution and skepticism, particularly in the context of Jewish continuity. The hard lessons of our 3300-year history as a People teach us that we have survived because we have never surrendered our loyalty to the founding principles and character of our nationhood. Without such devotion on our part, our continuation as a People is most seriously threatened.
What can be done, then, to preserve Jewish integrity? Perhaps some workable ideas will present themselves in the unfolding of the following remarkable story of a young friend of mine named David.
“The wheel is come full circle” (King Lear)
In 1856, David’s great-great grandparents founded a yeshivah in Jerusalem, which for decades afterwards fulfilled a notable role of scholarship and community leadership in the Holy City. With the permanent departure of David’s great-grandfather to America at the turn of the century, however, the family’s once steadfast commitment to Judaism became subject to steady erosion in the secular environment of the New World. Three generations later, David found himself enrolled in an Episcopalian high school, selected by his parents for its high scholastic standards. After high school, he attended an excellent liberal arts university which stressed the study of the great literature of Western civilization.
Following his graduation, David became imbued with the need to explore Judaism in depth and visited Israel to see the Jerusalem of his forebears. His “visit” has now stretched beyond 20 years. Initially, he enrolled as a student in the Diaspora Yeshiva, eventfully becoming a senior lecturer and faculty member there. Interestingly, the yeshivah is located but a few minutes walk from the building which almost a century and a half ago housed the prominent institution of his great-greatgrandparents. He has recently co-published two well-received volumes on the art of studying and comprehending the Talmud, Judaism’s great compendium of law, thought and belief.
In the light of his secular Texas upbringing and his subsequent high school and college educational experiences, one may well wonder what induced David to later seek his role in Judaism and his place in Jewish destiny so earnestly.
Like Light From A Distant Star
David is not truly certain why he chose the path he followed. But in my numerous, long conversations with him, he did single out one element which he believes had a marked effect on his decision to become more strongly attached to his Jewish heritage. It was an invitation he received while in college to attend an informal, voluntary Torah study program organized by Jewish faculty members and students. David found these several-times-a-week sessions of 1-2 hours duration fascinating, and he developed an attachment to the subject matter and the multi-faceted wisdom it offered. That small step began his entry into the exciting realm of Jewish study and lifestyle.
Today, scores of volunteers trained in Torah can be found on campuses, conducting workshops that activate one’s pride in Jewish values and offering Torah study sessions to students with little or no background. Even such a small, beginning step can prove surprisingly rewarding. Those who may view such educational efforts as aimed strictly at Orthodox students should update their outlook, for today the emphasis is on outreach.
One might think that a suitable alternative to such private study would be college courses in “Comparative Religion.” Although there may be exceptions, these are objectionable because such courses teach sacred Judaic writings as “literature”, presenting them as one would teach the Iliad or War and Peace. While these courses seem attractive on the surface, they distort the unique message of Judaism and stifle Jewish growth.
David’s father once introduced him to the famous Harvard Professor Harry A. Wolfson, and their encounter was a most interesting one. Wolfson was one of the world’s leading scholars in comparative religion as well as Greek, Christian, Jewish and Moslem philosophy. When Wolfson inquired about David’s educational goals, David replied that he would like to pursue Jewish knowledge through a program of Judaic Studies. Wolfson quietly responded that David would not find what he sought “in a university, but rather in a yeshivah.” Coming from one of America’s most highly regarded authorities on university Judaica programs, this recommendation may seem quite odd. But it becomes less so when one learns that Wolfson in his youth had studied at the Slobodka Yeshiva, one of Europe’s preeminent Torah institutions. It is likely that Wolfson had in mind the special insights into Judaism which can be derived only from the study of original, authentic Torah sources.
This is not a unique view. I recall that when the Harvard Business School introduced one of the very first courses in business ethics, the printing of study materials was seriously behind schedule. Thereupon, the professor giving the course substituted as his interim textbook, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the ethics masterpiece authored by the wisest of men, King Solomon.
This trend of offering “ethics” courses and the seeking of standards returns us to my opening comments on the powerful influence of New Age moral relativism in our society. The emphasis I have placed on Torah study is neither original nor new; for centuries it has provided the Jewish People with its distinction and continuity. But what is new is today’s urgency to study our heritage, an urgency made clear by the widespread erosion of time-honored Jewish values and the loss of Jewish souls from Jewish lifestyle and our common destiny.
Unlike a generation ago, when most entering students sought a liberal arts education, today’s trend is to secure a career in the physical sciences, computers, medicine, law and engineering. All of these fields stress the rational “what is,” not the ethical “what ought to be.”
If separated from the principles of our religion and the teachings of our prophets, one can be left without knowing that there are Jewish voices from other times and places which speak out on the meaning and purpose of our lives.
What type of learning program should be undertaken during the college years? Naturally, one’s level of Torah background must be taken into account. Those with strong background would do well to:
* Recall the Rosh’s guiding principle that “One should establish fixed times for Torah study.” The key word here is fixed.
* Teach others of limited background, in keeping with Sforno’s interpretation that our “chosenness” obligates us to “give understanding and teaching…”
* Maintain relationships with your rabbi, your previous yeshivah rebbe and special friends at home through frequent communications.
Students with little or no Torah education, as well as those with extensive knowledge, should make it a point to:
* Visit one’s family as often as possible. More understanding, belief, self-identification and generational attachment have come from around the family hearth than from any other source.
* Seek out people in your campus and off-campus local communities whose guidance and friendship can help you maintain your Jewish identity and growth: and reciprocate by participating in the affairs and needs of these communities.
* Recognize that your college years and experience present an exceptional opportunity to stretch your mind, to come to know things which we cannot prove.
Above all, strive to acquire and practice beliefs and principles of our Torah, for its teachings can be likened to light travelling to Earth from a distant supernova, illuminating our way in a world often darkened by confusion. It is my hope that, together with all Jewish members of the Class of 1999, Josh will keep his eye on that celestial beacon as he makes his way through college in his forthcoming voyage of discovery.
Louis Pollack holds degrees from Cornell University, the Cornell Law School and Harvard Business School. He is a member of the New York Bar and practiced law in New York City. He is presently the administrator of an adult-education yeshivah of which he is co-founder. He is the author of Fingerprints on the Universe (Shaar Press, 1994).