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Jewish Ideas

How do logic and faith, or science and faith, interact with each other? What is chosenness? What is a covenant? What does it mean to be bound by tradition, but also to be a free individual?

In the first week of the program, students will choose an elective in Jewish Thought where they will go in-depth into a question or topic in an elective course that they choose. These courses reveal and explore the way Judaism shapes our identity, our notions of justice, and our view of the communal good.  Previous classes include: The Nature of Reason, the meaning of Chosenness, Marriage and Family, Judaism and Bioethics, and Friendship in Judaism.

Students will be expected to be active participants, not passive observers, in a serious inquiry into the big ideas and profound debates that have shaped the Jewish tradition throughout the generations.

The aim of these discussions is to enrich students’ awareness of the complexity and significance of their chosen topic. The classes are designed to allow students to engage in thoughtful debate with their teachers and their peers, while also pressing them to interrogate their own assumptions. In other words, students engage in true dialectic and develop a richer set of tools for addressing the philosophic, moral, and existential questions they will confront.

A Sample of Courses From Previous Years Include:

The Nature of Jewish Chosenness

In this class we will explore the theological and social implications of the Jewish doctrine of election in the modern Western context. We will engage the subject using a variety of lenses, including the propositions of divine free love (“Grace”), inherent superiority, Abraham’s initiative, and pluralism. We will study the writings of several modern Jewish theologians—including Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Michael Wyschogrod, Jon D. Levenson, and Jonathan Sacks—and the pre-modern sources that animate their thought as we consider the origins, development, and limits of Jewish “chosenness.”

Judaism, Technology, and Bioethics

There is no doubt that technological advances of the last century have changed the world in important ways. From man’s ability to play God by creating life in a laboratory to man’s ability to play God by destroying the human race with nuclear weapons, technological advance requires careful attention to mankind’s relationship to science and power.

This course begins with a brief exploration of a Jewish approach to ethics in comparison with the ethical approaches of other major religions. The course then examines contemporary Jewish approaches with respect to the ethics of technology in particular, both their promise and their possible limits, in theory or in practice. Finally, the course turns to the issues of artificial reproductive technology and weapons of mass destruction to test the application of Judaism to these highly vexed ethical issues.

The Religious Life: Tradition, Virtue, and Culture

This course will examine the question of what it means to be religious and cultured in the West. It will consider how Western Civilization created unique poetic and philosophical approaches to these concepts, as well as how their development created serious crises for religious and traditional individuals. It will examine how great minds have grappled with these crises, and how we might chart a new way forward by reexamining the origins of religion and culture and their relevance to our rapidly changing world.

Marriage and Family

It’s hard not to take for granted our culture’s most basic assumptions about sexuality, marriage, and family—to think of them as being obvious and undeniable. Most people assume that marriage and family are whatever we make of them, that seeing deeper meaning in sex, or unchosen duties in family life, would be superstitious, and maybe devastating in its effects. But these assumptions are questionable and, in historical terms, quite novel. How we think about sex and family shapes our lives in immense ways.  This seminar will step back from default ideas about sex, marriage, and family, and try to imagine the alternatives.

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