Rabbi Ari Berman, the President of Yeshiva University, in New York, invited students to consider the importance of covenant education during his address on Jan. 31.
“Religious education is still seen with suspicion,” Rabbi Berman said. “Interaction with the larger academic community is often framed as progress vs. tradition, acceleration vs. stagnation, an innovative vision of the future vs. one that is shackled to the ideas of the past.”
He opened his speech by sharing a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a prominent Jewish leader, Mordecai Manual Noah. In the letter, Thomas Jefferson addressed the issue of religious intolerance. Rabbi Berman explained the two factors Jefferson mentioned that “coerce and subjugate religion.” They are the law, which protects religions minorities, and public opinion, which can attack religious minorities.
Thomas Jefferson’s solution to religious intolerance is education, Rabbi Berman said. “For by educating Jews to be experts in the sciences, in the scholastic and professional fields, we will then be thought of as ‘equal objects of respect and favor,'” he said.
Rabbi Berman found the importance of education in religious institutions from his awareness that individuals live in a “consumer society.” This type of society creates an “individualistic” and “egocentric culture,” he said, however a covenant society is one that is based on shared identity and shared history.
“The consumer focuses on the ‘I’ and what is missing from life, creating a mechanism for fundamental unhappiness, while the covenant is focused on the ‘we,’ guiding one to contemplate their lives in a broader sense of memory and purpose in the service of other,” he said.
Rabbi Berman pointed out people find comfort in being the consumer because there is no risk because they rely on are facts. He said, “In the covenantal, however, there is exposure, vulnerability, uncertainty and great risk…The consumer is only transactional, the covenantal is transformational.”
He taught the difference between the consumer perspective and the covenant perspective. The consumer perspective is transactional, data and research-based, and requires little faith, while the covenant perspective “prizes faith, empathy, loyalty, curiosity, and discovery.”
Rabbi Berman addressed how covenant education can help us answer these three questions, which is built on Yeshiva University’s core mission: (1) who are students, (2) how do individuals study and (3) why do they study?
With the world being polarized politically and socially, Rabbi Berman believes the covenant model can be used to unite the country.
“A consumer questions value. A covenant discovers value,” he said, “and a life of covenant brings a life of mystery, meaning, and purpose that we should all be seen as equal objects of favor and respect before God and build lives of intrinsic human dignity and individuality.”