Scripture and Culture-Making: What Christian Colleges could Learn from Rabbinic Higher Education

Part 3 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were. -Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

The object of Jewish higher education was full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it.

N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:

“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”

Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine.  God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).

Faithfulness Before Innovation

This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.”  The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.

Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing.  After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to  Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.

Rabbinic Higher Education

Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi.  Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).

The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.

Rabbi Hillel and his Talmidim (Unattributed)

In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

From Studying Scripture to Making Culture

Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).

When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.

 

From Deuteronomy to the SAT

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500.  Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?

Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”

For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.

Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.

Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

 

Next post in the series: With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God.

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To read series from the beginning go to:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: Two Handed Higher Education.

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Notes

Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).

Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).

Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.

N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

Passover Week: Celebrating Hollywood’s Synagogue for the Performing Arts

In honor of Passover Week I thought I would let you in on one of Hollywood’s most moving connections between faith and culture: The Synagogue for the Performing Arts.

High Holy Day Torah Covers

The Synagogue for the Performing Arts was founded in 1973 by members of the entertainment community–actors, screenwriters and industry professionals who shared a common desire to worship together unencumbered by the pressure and politics associated with most congregations. That purpose has remained a constant for nearly 40 years.

Today, the Synagogue is thriving with a diverse membership that extends beyond its show business roots. It remains “a synagogue without walls,” still meeting once a month for Friday night Shabbat services. It is beautiful way for way for aspiring two handed warriors to experience a contemporary blend of Torah and culture making. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Sue and I have had the honor of attending SFTPA and found it to be a deeply moving experience. The services are often filled to capacity with members and their guests (Gentiles are welcome) exalting in an nearly overwhelming combination of Torah, liturgy, and music. While the services are essentially traditional with a mix of both Hebrew and English, there is explanation and transliteration of the Hebrew liturgy included.

The Synagogue’s spiritual leaders are Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Rabbi David Woznica.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: Named by 'Newsweek' as one of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America.

Rabbi Telushkin is not only a world-renowned scholar and author, but a screenwriter with film and television credits.Newsweek named Rabbi Telushkin one of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America, and his Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History (now in its third editions) is the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past two decades.

Rabbi Telushkin’s most recent book – Hillel: If Not Now, When? – is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand either Judaism, or Christianity and their application to 21st Century culture. (See video introduction to Hillel.)

Rabbi Woznica is a sought-after speaker. He is past Director of the 92nd Street Y and a member of the Rabbinic staff at Stephen S. Wise Temple in West LA, the largest Jewish congregation in the world.

No matter which Rabbi is teaching, wisdom, hope, and humor fill each service. (Be sure to come to the 7:15pm Q&A time with the Rabbi before each 8pm Shabbat service.)

Cantor Judy Fox, who appears often in concerts and on the Jewish Television Network, is the congregation’s musical director. She does an amazing job not only as a Cantor, but also interweaving the preternatural talent of SFTP congregation with the liturgy.

The sounding of the shofar during a Rosh Hashanah service

Monthly services are held at the Moses E. Gindi Auditorium, at the American Jewish University (formerly known as the University of Judaism) located at 15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air, CA 90077, just east of the 405 freeway. Locations for additional High Holy Days Services can vary. Consult SFTPA’s website for details.

The two handed art of culture making and Torah is alive and well in Bel Air, at least at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts. If you live in the Los Angeles don’t miss a chance to experience it first hand.

You won’t regret it.

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Notes

The website of The Synagogue for the Performing Arts

The website of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The website of The Torah Enlightenment Foundation

The website of Newsweek Magazine

The website of B’nai B’rith International

The website of the Judaica Sound Archives, Florida Atlantic University

The website of the Jewish Television Network

The website of the American Jewish University

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when others obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.

-Lao-Tzu, China, c. 550 BC

Lao Tzu first described the Paradox of Power 2500 years before Lady Gaga

“Servant.” “Leader.”  Few words in the English language seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them.  Leaders have followers. Servants have masters.  Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless.  Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.

But are they really so opposite?

In his classic novel, Journey to the East, Herman Hesse tells the story of a band of travelers sojourning across the south of Europe. Their journey is sponsored by a religious order that has provided them with not only all of the necessary equipment but also a rather unobtrusive servant by the name of Leo.  The trip goes well.  They make good progress.  They become good friends.  On the road and around the fire, there seems to be magic about the group.

Then one day Leo disappears. No one is particularly concerned.  After all, he was only a servant.  Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the fragile bond that holds the group together.  Tasks go undone.  Emotions fray.  Soon the music around the campfire is replaced by stony silence.  When no one is able to repair the damage, the group simply breaks up.  Unable to continue the journey for lack of leadership, the narrator of the story, one of the travelers, decides to join the religious order that sponsored the journey.  He returns to the order’s headquarters to begin his initiation.

There he finds Leo and discovers that their servant is actually the leader of the entire order. Upon reflection, the narrator realizes that Leo had really been their leader all along.   He was the source of the magic in their group.   Yet, if he had asserted his position as leader of the order, the group probably would have rejected him outright.  However, by seeking to meet their needs the group had willingly made him their leader without even realizing it.  By becoming their servant he had become their leader, not by position, but by influence.  Character had triumphed over authority:  service over position.[1]

This is the paradox of power that has troubled mankind since the days of Lao-Tzu. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service.  True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers.  As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”[2]

3D films are proof that Hollywood understands the Paradox of Power: meet the customer's need for a unique in-theater experience and they'll vote for your movie with their wallet.

Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. We simply will not follow someone who does not meet our needs.

The American political system bears testimony to this.  We call our elected officials “Public Servants.”  If they serve us well, we re-elect them.  If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.

Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals.  Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.

Hollywood creatives are painfully aware of this process. The best screenplay ever written won’t last a week in theatres if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, or funny bones of a significant audience.

Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met.  They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and (in the burgeoning religious marketplace) their buying.  Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous.  Their pastors become famous.  Their methods and teaching become models for others.

In a celebrity-driven culture, the Tweet is becoming the most powerful voting booth on earth.

But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it.  Just give people what they want and you’re a leader.  But are you?  Really?  Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.

The paradox of power is the exact process that “pseudo celebrities” currently use to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God.) “The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”[3] Rather than serving as heroic celebrities who actually meet the needs of others through self-sacrificing service, pseudo celebrities prey upon the perception that they are meeting the needs of their followers when their real goal is to meet their own needs to sell more product, enhance their fame, etc. As I stated in the Paparazzi post, In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.” Media outlets create the illusion of accessibility and relationship we crave, without actually delivering the goods. With enough Twitter chatter anyone can be a cultural leader.  Why bother to actually accomplish anything for my “followers”?

High-flying Bernie Madoff carefully managed the (false) image that he was serving his clients

Best-selling business author Jim Collins warns that this pseudo celebrity approach to leadership is a cancerous growth on the future of transformative leadership in America, from the pulpit to the boardroom. Pseudo celebrities are not only “famous for being famous,” they are paid for being famous, and revered for being famous regardless of their providing any actual value to the lives of others or the organizations they lead. They score “covers of magazines, bestselling autobiographies, massive compensation packages—despite the fact that their long-term results failed to measure up.”

Collins prophecies: “If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types… These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company. Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions… whether in the corporate or social sectors… to advance their own interests.”[4]

Jim Collins: "If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types."

But are we really so smart? The rampant tragic decline of American business, banking, government, education, church and media enterprises stems largely from the ascendancy of self-centered pseudo celebrity leaders. Like Israel during the reign of Saul, self-centered leadership wears the crown, while Davidic servant leadership is banished from the halls of power.

Can we learn to discern the difference between pseudo celebrity leadership and heroic servant leadership? I believe we can. In fact, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth provides both clear teaching regarding servant leadership and a compelling example of living it out.

Continue reading next post in series: LOST Lessons of Servant Leadership

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Notes


[1] I am deeply indebted to the late Robert Greenleaf for not only helping me reassess my high school hatred of Herman Hesse, but also for providing the foundation of my overall understanding of how servant leadership functions in the business world. See, Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977). See also, Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: a life of servant leadership (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2004); Larry C. Spears, Reflections on leadership: how Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of Servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers (New York: J. Wiley, 1995); Mark A. Wells, Servant leadership: a theological analysis of Robert K. Greenleaf’s concept of human transformation (PhD Thesis: Baylor University, 2004).
[2] James MacGregor Burns,  Leadership (New York:  Harper and Row, 1978), p. 461.
[3] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
[4] Jim Collins, “The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership.” http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/the-misguided-mixup.html