Professional Attack

Jeff is a bright, sophisticated intellectual.

Jeff wants to go into marketing, or PR or maybe get a law degree.  Or maybe Jeff will go to Wall Street? If none of that works out Jeff has his sights set on occupational therapy.

If school is the plank you walk before plunging into the unknown, I’m at the end of it, teetering.  I graduated from one of those elite East Coast universities in the summer of 2010 with a liberal-arts education to boot.  I can analyze a Titian, explain Kant’s categorical imperative and recite the tenets of nuclear-deterrence theory.  The only problem is, nobody seems to give a shit but me.

I remember a career fair where I was browsing for jobs a couple months before I would need one.  It was like getting a tour of hell right after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  The gym was filled with row upon row of display tables, a swarming hive of hawkers who couldn’t wait to get you out of the library and into a cubicle.  I’d go down the row: administrative, marketing, engineering, administrative, economics, administrative.  Of the two hundred or so, there were two that had something to offer someone with an interest in things like art or history.  One of them was Princeton Review; the other was Teach for America.

My parents’ friends had been pompously predicting this for years: “what are you going to do with that?”  In other words, how will you commodify the knowledge you’ve acquired?  But they were wrong; they had to be.  I was poring over the foundations of Western culture and getting rewarded with top grades.  Somebody somewhere had to think that was of some value, somebody outside academia.  I saw a friend of mine on my way out of the fair, a bright, dedicated student of history.  She was looking at me with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust: “They don’t want us here.”   They didn’t.  They wanted the engineers, preferably the ones who were good with Excel.

Without a job lined up, I moved back in with my parents.  The high point was setting up my bookshelf; finally everything was in one place.  All the canonical works I had conquered were admiring me from their perch.  Would this be their last resting place, I wondered?  After I finally did take one of those administrative positions, would I have time to slug it out with Heidegger on my lunch break?  And even if I did, would there be any chance in hell I could make headway without an expert in my corner telling me what to focus on?  If academia was the life of the mind, it seemed like my life was over.

There’s a deplorable dearth of opportunities out there for people looking to cultivate the faculties to which college has introduced them.  You can get a job at a think tank, you can go into writing or you can do what your professors did– stay in education.  But the Ivory Tower isn’t for everyone and neither is policing adolescents.  Think tanks are an outlet, but they are more job opportunities than they are career choices.  As for a writing job, well that’s damn hard to get.

Poking around online for one never amounted to much.  Networking, it seemed, was the thing.  The trick was finding someone who would offer you a job instead of offering you advice on how to get one.  So far I had only come up with the latter.  I was trying to break into screenwriting, an industry that prides itself on not having to advertise for employees.

Without a full-length script I felt comfortable shopping around, I was looking to be a reader, the guy who doles out the rejections I was afraid to receive.  I got myself set up with a writer from LA.  He graduated from an Ivy League school and had gone on to NYU, the pinnacle of screenwriting pedigree.  His actual work made him out to be more of a mutt.  He had written a couple of made-for-T.V. movies, paltry stuff.  But after all, it couldn’t hurt to find out who he knew.  That’s all you’re ever really after in what’s known as the informational interview, the guy your guy might know.

My guy was a slick son of a bitch, the kind of Hollywood caricature I didn’t believe existed.  He started off by specifying what time it would be on the East Coast when he called since, as he pointed out, there was a three-hour time difference.  I suppose it hadn’t occurred to him that this was something I was aware of, something he had already emphasized by affixing PST to the appointed hour.  Never mind, I thought, at least he’s fastidious.  But he was not.  I waited by the phone for an hour with heart pounding (he was an honest-to-god screenwriter after all).

When he finally did call he blustered on about the importance of a spec script until I was able to inform him that it was a reading job I was after.  “Oh you don’t need a script for that.  All you have to do is brag about where you went to college,” This was nearly fifteen minutes into what was a thirty-minute conversation, with or without the time difference.

Then he spouted off a lot of portentous platitudes: to thine own self be true; don’t trust anybody (I’m not sure whether he meant to include himself in that latter one, but I figured I would, just to be safe).  When we got to the meat of the conversation, the contact that could get me the job, he said, “Now I am finally ready to answer your question: the great, elusive, gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow position, the screenwriting job.  You can listen to me or you can blow me off, but it will save you years of misery and pain to start where everyone starts: in the mailroom.”  And that was it.  I thanked him for his time (profusely), and hung up the phone.

There’s a deplorable dearth of opportunities out there for people looking to cultivate the faculties to which college has introduced them.

It’s not that I think my parents’ friends were right; it’s that I haven’t yet been able to prove them wrong.  College should be about bildung, not apprenticeship.  Learning all there is to know about the self and its environment equips young people better than any trade could.  But when you do go on to the latter, where do you turn?

There are opportunities I haven’t mentioned, ones that may not dead-end in administrative hell (working in something like an art gallery often does).  But when you step back and survey the landscape, your prospects can look pretty bleak, even if you’ve been smart and dedicated your whole life.

It’s night now, as I’m writing this.  Going to sleep was easier in college, where I was lucky if I was on more than six hours.  Now I get eight, day in day out.  I have nowhere to go and no one to see.  Except a reflection of myself staring into that empty screen I’m writing on, desperately trying to fill it with some last shreds of what I think was once my dignity.

I want to end this piece with some hopeful valediction about dusting myself off and getting down to business.  Instead, what comes to mind is “Almost Famous’” Stillwater, a band “struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”  Substitute adulthood for stardom and you have a pithy encapsulation of what so many hyper-educated college grads face after over twenty years of coddling.  The bar for dean’s list is high; the bar for intellectually fulfilling employment is higher.

– D. Schwartz

Beren Attack

Jeff is that guy who misses opportunities to impart important religious values.

On March 3, 2012, the Robert M. Beren Academy Stars, an Orthodox Jewish high school basketball team, lost to Abilene Christian 46-42 in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) Class 2A state championship, an upsetting anticlimax to a sensational basketball season in which the Stars posted a 23-5 record.

But the excitement of their unlikely championship aspirations paled in comparison to the extra-athletic drama surrounding their participation in the league’s playoff series. As one of only a handful of Saturday Sabbath-observing schools in the league, the Beren Academy team found itself in conflict with the preordained playoff schedule, which held its semifinal match-ups on Friday night after sunset. Two appeals to reschedule the contest were denied by the TAPPS board, inviting a flurry of petitions and phone calls to TAPPS and its director, Edd Burleson. The conflict garnered national attention, and both ESPN SportsCenter and the New York Times covered the story. At the 25th hour, three of Beren’s star players and their parents filed a law suit against TAPPS and the Mansfield Independent School District (MISD) – host of the state championship – in U.S. District Court, claiming that the organizations had violated religious freedoms. Burleson opted to change the schedule to accommodate Beren’s Jewish Sabbath observances instead of fighting the matter in court. The Beren Stars played and won their semifinal game at 2:00pm that Friday (a few hours before the start of the Sabbath) before losing the championship game the next day.

The details of this crucible are crucial and complex, and the broad philosophical considerations concerning religious freedom and nondiscrimination tangle with the specific circumstances of the case to create a truly difficult legal and philosophical problem. The saga really began last year, when Beren joined TAPPS, an overwhelmingly Christian organization that does not hold games on Sundays (in accordance with the observance of the Christian holy day), with the understanding and agreement that irresolvable scheduling conflicts might ensue. When the Beren Stars unexpectedly made it to this year’s playoff bracket, they immediately had to deal with these conflicts. For the earlier rounds of the playoffs, Beren had worked with their opponents to find a mutually agreeable playing time that would not interfere with the Sabbath. This arrangement accorded with TAPPS bylaws, which allowed for flexible scheduling as long as all parties involved were on the same page. When it came time for the semifinal match-up, however, scheduling was such that time changes could not easily be made at the home venue to accommodate Beren, as TAPPS had only booked court time during and shortly before the Sabbath. TAPPS denied both of Beren’s appeals to find some way of rescheduling the game even though Beren’s semifinal opponent, Dallas Covenant, was willing to switch venues to accommodate Beren.

Complicating matters, TAPPS had, in a previous year, allowed a Seventh Day Adventist school soccer team (which also observes the Sabbath on Saturday) to book a different playing time and field on their own dime when a playoff game was scheduled for the Sabbath. This provided a very similar precedent to the Beren case, yet TAAPS did not consider this to be an option. TAPPS decided that adhering to rules and bylaws, avoiding complications and confusions, and setting a precedent for future years superceded other considerations in this case, and they denied Beren’s appeals. In the end, the three students and their parents filed their lawsuit, which claimed that the TAPPS bylaws were religiously discriminatory, and got their way. The Beren Stars played their championship game, and they lost a hard-fought battle by four measly points, putting an end to a storybook season.

But I don’t believe the ending for the Beren Stars was storybook at all. In fact, I find the whole ordeal to be extremely disappointing. Though the Stars won their battles both in and on the court, opportunities to learn lessons and impart crucial values were lost on both sides of the ball. TAPPS and its headstrong director, Edd Burleson, should have found some way to accommodate the Stars. More importantly, however, the Stars’ players and parents should not have filed a lawsuit to twist TAPPS’ arm.

On a philosophical level, the accusation of religious discrimination in the lawsuit reflects a greater issue with antidiscrimination laws in general.  TAPPS, as a private organization, should have the right to establish bylaws in accordance with its statement of purpose. Additionally, it should have the right to exclude members on any basis whatsoever. Of course, TAPPS is not officially a Christian organization, and its purpose is to create a venue for private and parochial schools to engage in athletic and other competition. But that does not negate the fact that it is privately and voluntarily run and financed, giving it prerogative to exclude and discriminate (“discrimination” is really a neutral term, though it clearly has pejorative connotations). Additionally (and this is really the clincher), Beren joined TAPPS with the full understanding that important games might be scheduled for the Sabbath and that there could be irreconcilable scheduling conflicts. Groucho Marx famously stated, “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” Well I would never join a club that would treat me as a second-class member. But Beren joined the club, and they should have followed its rules. There was, of course, room for negotiation and deliberation once Beren became part of the organization, which did occur, but to file a lawsuit seems like a cover for an irresponsible decision made by the students and their parents – to join a league that didn’t really want them in the first place.

The most disappointing aspect of the lawsuit, however, is that it marked a fundamental failure on the part of the parents complicit in the suit to impart important religious values to their children. The language in the injunction reads:

The Parent Plaintiffs have had their rights to the free exercise of their religious beliefs burdened by the foregoing actions of Defendants by virtue of the fact that their children, the Student Plaintiffs, are being put to the choice of violating their own religious beliefs and the beliefs imparted by the Parent Plaintiffs to their children, or forfeiting the opportunity to participate in the State basketball championship tournament. As such, the Parent Plaintiffs have had their free exercise rights burdened by Defendants’ actions as described above.

The claim of the parent plaintiffs is that their right to the “free exercise of their religious beliefs” is being “burdened” by their children’s facing a difficult “choice.” But this argument hardly holds up for two reasons:

  1. The “choice” here is really non-existent. Jewish law would have expressly prohibited the Beren Stars from playing on the Sabbath for various reasons, and the choice of “violating their own religious beliefs” is one that should never have been presented as valid from the standpoint of the parents filing the suit, even as a legal technicality. In my mind, this statement equates the importance of basketball with that of religious observance, and that is simply unacceptable. Elsewhere in the injunction, the parents attempt to elevate the importance of the game by stating that its deprivation would cause “irreparable harm” to the team. If this were truly so, a case could perhaps be made that the choice of whether or not to play was indeed an impossible choice, one that burdened the players’ “free exercise of religious beliefs.” Statements made by the players themselves, however, revealed that the players were prepared to give up basketball for the sake of their religious beliefs and that they were confident in their decision to do so. They didn’t seem to be irreparably damaged by the disappointment of forfeiting their game.  The parents that filed the lawsuit should have shared and nurtured this confidence.
  2. Even if the choice presented in the lawsuit had been a valid one, it still would not have constituted a burden to the “free exercise of their religious beliefs.” The right to practice one’s religion does not constitute a right to live a life free of conflict, and it certainly does not enjoin others to cater to the demands of one’s religion. Sure, the Beren players may have faced a difficult decision, but the choice to exercise one’s religious beliefs necessarily entails sacrifice. It certainly does not create entitlements. The TAPPS board did not state that the Beren players could not observe the Sabbath, which would have been a direct violation of their right to exercise religious beliefs. And while their refusal to move the game time did generate an unfortunate inconvenience for the players, such conflicts are commonplace in religious life. In fact, such conflicts are commonplace in life.

By filing a lawsuit, the parents of the Beren basketball players communicated the wrong message about what it means to be a religious Jew. They missed the chance to teach their kids about the sanctity of Jewish law and custom, and they failed to impart a lesson about religious sacrifice. Instead, the parents conveyed the message that religion entitles its adherents to special favors. Apparently, all it takes is a good lawyer.

 

– Winch

Yeshiva Attack

Jeff’s reaction to Orthodox Paradox? Noah Feldman had been too easy on the yeshivas of his youth.

I can’t help but look back on the bulk of my yeshiva education with bitterness. My teachers smoothed over all the tensions that animate contemporary Judaism, petrifying the faith they were trying to preserve. I’m not sure why they did this, why they hid away so much of Judaism’s complexity. Perhaps they weren’t attuned to this complexity themselves. Perhaps they thought we couldn’t handle the doubt complexity entails.

In college doubt set in any way. I ran away from Judaism then because, among other things, it seemed provincial compared to the high points of Western culture. There was nothing in yiddishkeit that could inspire me to the extent the classics did, nothing intellectually transcendent about the culture I had been told to worship. Nevertheless, I had been raised in this culture, so I figured I owed it another chance. When I attended The Pardes Institute I realized that it was my yeshiva education that had been provincial. The Pardes education was about exploring the nuances and contradictions my yeshivas had disavowed.

Examples of this abound. In the earlier grades Chumash was seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Rashi. The great biblical narratives were reduced to morality plays. Jacob was all good; Esau was all bad. By the time we got around to taking the text more seriously these sorts of assumptions were ingrained. In yeshiva, the Binding of Isaac was a test Abraham passed, one that only confirmed his unwavering commitment to God.

Pardes is an institute of Jewish learning open to post-college men and women. It was founded in 1972 and is located in Talpiot, Jerusalem.

In Pardes, it wasn’t so clear. Abraham responds to both the call of his son and the call of his God with the same word: “hineini”— dramatizing the extent to which he is torn between two imperatives (JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, Gen. 22.7-11). [1] He cannot, in this moment, fulfill both the moral obligation he has to his son and the religious obligation he has to his Creator. He must choose. But does he choose rightly?

Isaac’s sudden disappearance from the story leaves room for doubt. Having sacrificed a ram in his son’s place, Abraham descends Mount Moriah and travels to Be’er Sheva. But what has become of Isaac? On this the text is silent. It’s as if Isaac remains on the mountain, forever abandoned. And indeed there is no record of any subsequent interaction between Abraham and his son. Nor is there any record of interaction between Abraham and his wife. In fact, Sarah dies in the very next chapter.

The Binding of Isaac need not be read as Abraham’s downfall, but ignoring the extent to which it can be deprives the text of much of its power. In Pardes we embraced those aspects of the story that complicate one’s esteem for Abraham, confronting the moral ambiguity that any suspension of the ethical entails.

My yeshivas also taught Bible without any mention of biblical criticism. Issues like how Moses recorded the passage that describes his death were waved away with a handy reference to the Midrash. The important discussion of revelation that should have then ensued was sidestepped.

In Pardes, when we came across challenges to Mosaic authorship we welcomed the opportunity to consider the origins of the text before us. Encountering the phrase “and the Canaanites were then in the land” made us wonder whether this was a post-Mosaic insertion, and whether the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra can be considered a Biblical critic for suggesting as much (Gen. 12.6). [2] We devoted an entire unit to biblical criticism in the aftermath.

We also read the work of several Jewish thinkers responding to the discipline and its challenge to revelation. Norman Lamm regarded biblical criticism as “a nuisance but not a threat to the enlightened believer,” while Ira Eisenstein was convinced it had laid revelation to rest. [3]  For Mordechai Breuer, the contradiction and incongruity critics pointed to in the Bible could be ascribed to its divine author, He whose “unity is disclosed through the encompassing of opposing aspects.” [4]

All this reading increased our appreciation for an issue over which so many great minds had evidently disagreed. The wealth of thought and scholarship generated by this one issue—whether God had ever made himself known to man—dazzled me. The depth and difficulty of the question was more inspiring than the pat, yeshivish answer had ever been.

The attempts my day schools did make to tackle the burning biblical issues of the day were always apologetic. If Genesis said the world was created in a week it must have meant a week for God, which was of course equivalent to whatever age science had ascribed to the universe. Again an opportunity lost, not to undermine students’ faith, but to generate a serious discussion about how modern Jews ought to regard their tradition in light of the difficulties it now posed.

In Pardes, our reading of Genesis’ first chapter provoked just this sort of discussion. If we couldn’t, in good faith, read contemporary cosmology into the story of Creation, was it no longer a story worth telling? Maimonides saw many episodes in the Bible as allegories for metaphysical truth. And as unlikely as his theory seemed to many of us, methodologically it resonated. Whether or not the world had come to be in a week’s time was perhaps less important than whether the Torah had something profound to say about the nature of existence.

Traditional Jewish theology, though it informed everything we were taught in yeshiva, was seldom treated as a subject in its own right. Thus, without any extensive examination of Jewish beliefs and their ramifications, we were only dimly aware of the difficulties they posed. In Pardes, when I was given the time to reflect on the tenets of classical Judaism, these difficulties rushed to the fore. What did Jewish Chosenness, for instance, mean for the status of all other nations? Was Kaplan right in thinking it entailed something of a racial hierarchy? It was only in Pardes that I began to realize how difficult it was to develop a compelling, cohesive theology of one’s own.

Yeshiva taught me a lot about the hows of Halacha but very little about the whys. Like the Bible, we were expected to believe God had handed over a final draft at Sinai. And since God was the sole author of, and ultimate ground for, all Jewish laws, explaining them to the satisfaction of obstinate adolescents seemed somewhat beside the point. God could vouch for his laws; all we had to do was commit them to memory. Thus, the explanations that were offered were only ever offered in passing, an indulgence for the apikorsim among us.

It was only in Pardes that I began to appreciate how well Halacha holds up on its own—without God’s help. Shabbat can be viewed as the day man rests in imitation of his Creator. But it can also be viewed as the day man gives off to his servant. Halacha can be viewed as a numinous system handed down from on high. But it can also be viewed as a pragmatic one in which man concretizes ethical values through law. The latter perspective, the one to which Pardes introduced me, did not disguise the human element in Halacha. Instead it demanded of Halacha a human intelligibility, one that oriented Jewish law toward the intellectual impulses I had been encouraged to suppress.

Pardes was not about received wisdom; it was about evaluating the claim this wisdom still had upon us. It was about the “emergence from…self-imposed immaturity,” where “immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”  The phrase is Kant’s, from his essay “What is Enlightenment?”—but the sentiment, as I discovered, applied to Judaism when one bothered to take it seriously. Pardes accomplished in one year what my yeshivas failed to accomplish in over a decade. It introduced me to a culture of depth, one that didn’t demand a medieval sort of obscurantism or the suspension of one’s critical faculties. It taught me to do what my yeshivas made me think was impossible but what Pardes made me realize was imperative. It taught me to love Judaism with the mind.

– D. Schwartz


[1] “Hineini” is translated as “here I am” and usually indicates a character’s readiness to do his bidder’s bidding.

Sulomm Stein, David E., and Adrianne O. Dudden, eds. [Tanakh] = JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh : The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation–second Edition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999. Print.

[2] Then as opposed to the author’s now. But of course, Moses the author died before such a statement could have been made.

[3] Lamm, Norman. “The Condition of Jewish Belief.” Commentary 42.2 (1966): 124+. Print.

[4] Breuer, Mordechai. “The Study of Bible and the Primacy of the Fear of Heaven; Compatibility or Contradiction.” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations. By Shalom Carmy. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1996. 159+. Print.