Throughout “The Jewish Idea: Morality, Politics, and Theology” we will probe the teachings of biblical and rabbinic Judaism, the Jews’ historical experience, modern Jewish philosophers, and illuminating non-Jews on a series of core human subjects: the human person, the family, power, and economics. The Tikvah Fund’s executive director Eric Cohen will lead the entire seminar. This select group of future Jewish leaders will also have opportunities to reflect on the present moment of Jewish life and to ask questions of many towering figures in modern Judaism.
Opening Shabbat: Why We Remain Jews
Our first Shabbat will be spent in residence together, where we will indulge in a series of conversations about why, despite the temptations of assimilated life and the challenges posed by modern ideas and modern persecution, we remain Jews. The weekend will be spent with four thinkers who each have a very different answer to the question.
Week 1. The Jewish Idea of Man and Woman: Eating, Death, Sex, and Work
The modern condition is characterized by a sea change in how we understand ourselves. The modern idea of man is that of a rational actor, a free agent not encumbered by God or nature, a collection of atoms with no soul. These notions stand in sharp contrast to the Jewish idea. To recover the Jewish idea of man and woman, we will begin at the beginning—with the Torah and its account of human origins. Students will explore the mysteries of the human form in its four core concerns: sustaining body and soul, living despite knowledge of mortality, sexual desire and generation, and balancing work and rest. How we understand ourselves—and how we sanctify our hungry, mortal, sexual, and toiling selves—are overarching topics in both biblical and rabbinic texts beyond Torah.
Week 2. The Jewish Idea of the Family: Men, Women, and the Generations
What is the Jewish idea of the family? What do parents owe children? What do children owe parents? What makes family life holy? We will find that the Jewish tradition offers rich and deep perspectives on these questions, perspectives illuminated by studying the bible, rabbinics, and great works of Jewish literature. With the decline of marriage and fertility in the West (including among most American Jews) and the simultaneous durability of the Israeli family, Jewish perspectives are put in focus. Surveying the present ethical and demographic scene, students will debate whether and how to alleviate the practical and moral difficulties facing the family today.
Week 3. The Jewish Idea of Power: The Challenges of Jewish Sovereignty
What is the Jewish idea of power, and how has it been conditioned by the unique history of Jewish exile? With the return of sovereignty in the State of Israel, how should the tradition of Jewish thinking about ethics, security, and defense relate to novel technologies, existential threats, and an unstable geopolitical landscape? A close reading of the Book of Joshua, approaching the text with fundamental questions of God and war, will guide us in the study of the Jews and martial might. We will also deliberate over the hard-headed arguments of the Zionist founders.
Week 4. The Jewish Idea of the Good Society: Capitalism and its Discontents
For centuries, Jews have benefited from a free-market economy that allowed them to prove their worth and to secure wealth. It has enabled them to build and sustain a Jewish state and, at times, vibrant Diaspora life. Yet it would be wrong to assert that Judaism simply endorses capitalism—the ancient Jewish sources have no clear economic worldview. This week will be devoted to understanding the Jewish relationship to wealth and to the plausible economic systems in our world. Does Judaism hold the impoverished acetic in esteem? Does it esteem wealth? Which inequalities does Judaism oppose and which does it tolerate? How can we reconcile Jewish suspicion of utopianism with the prophets’ messianism? How can we reconcile capitalism’s creative destruction with the Jewish tradition and its emphasis on the permanent things? Setting our sights on more concrete ground, which economic reforms will most benefit Israel in her current predicament? To answer these questions, we will turn to biblical and rabbinic precepts and parables, the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish historical experience, and the most valuable secular authors.
Week 5. The Jewish Citizen in Action: Writing, Research, Debate
Week five will be a change of pace, allowing students to research and prepare for presentations and debates on a few core crises facing the Jewish people today. This week will also feature intimate, detailed discussions with Jewish leaders who have actually been in positions of responsibility at moments of crisis, as part of the “Callings and Careers” series.
Week 6. The Jews in America: Extraordinary Blessings and Daunting Challenges
For our final week, we will examine the Jewish condition in the United States of America. On no other shore have the Jews been so blessed with prosperity and security. Likewise, no democratic nation has enjoyed the manifold flourishing of religion like America. We will study the particularities of American liberty and American religion to understand why it has been so hospitable to the Jews and why the Jews have flourished in America. Yet we will also be clear-eyed about the unique challenges of American Jewry: the allure of assimilation, the conflicted relationship between modern liberties and of traditional ways of life, the alliances and estrangements between Jews and their Christian neighbors, and the role of Israel in the American-Jewish imagination.
Callings and Careers Speaker Series
Throughout the six weeks, we will have a chance to sit down for intimate, in-depth, and off-the-record conversations with important Jewish leaders who have managed to live lives at the crossroads of the great ideas and the challenges of self-government. Preeminent rabbis, columnists, scholars, politicians, novelists, and diplomats will tell us what inspired them, how they have succeeded and failed, and what the next generation can do for modern Judaism.