April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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The Jew on the College Campus, a Lesson From Yosef HaTzadik

It’s the season for college acceptances when some of our best and brightest find out if they got into their dream school. Meanwhile, these same students and their parents, together with the rest of us, are wondering how welcoming these top universities will be for our Jewish students. With the pro-Palestinian rallies on many campuses quickly unraveling into anti-semitic rhetoric and the hemming and hawing by the college presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn when asked in front of Congress whether a call for Jewish genocide violates school policy, these colleges have become a scary place for many Jews.

After the infamous congressional testimony, the universities spun into damage control. Most notably, the president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, issued an apology saying that in her testimony she failed to follow her “guiding truth.” “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community—threats to our Jewish students—have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged. Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth,” Gay said.

While this sounds nice, her response represents what is most toxic about academia today. A generation ago during the height of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to our higher principles based on the Declaration of Independence in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.“ He wasn’t talking about his truth. He spoke of OUR truth, our truth as a nation.

Martin Luther King Jr. challenged us to live according to our creed, the western enlightenment ideals codified in the writings of our founding fathers. Our founders supported democratic values and the biblical view of humanity as imbued with a divine spirit.

This is the basis for all universal calls for human rights. All humans are created equal and have the right to live in a world free of violence. If one lives by these ideals, then even when they are challenged by other freedoms like freedom of expression, one intuitively knows their limits. While freedom of speech is to be lauded, it cannot be tolerated when it threatens the life and freedoms of others. Just as one cannot yell fire in a crowded theater, one is not free to call for the genocide of another people. Never. Full stop. This is not hard.

But when instead of inalienable rights for all, everything is relative, everything is about one’s personal truth, then who is to say that your truth is better than that of others? Why should we uphold your truth when others equally believe in theirs? If everyone has their own personal truth then there is no truth. What is genocide for one, is a call for freedom for the other. It all depends on the context.

And in this situation, with the intersectionality frame popular in much of the discourse on college campuses, Jews are portrayed as the white colonialist “oppressors,” ironic considering how complex Jewish ethnicity and history actually is, pitted against the “oppressed minorities.” Calls by these “oppressed peoples” for genocide while not celebrated are tolerated based on the context, hardly a recipe for our Jewish brothers and sisters to feel safe.

This is the danger of the current academic climate and much of intellectual society today which was so readily apparent in the twisted testimony of Claudine Gay and her other Ivy colleagues. The thirst for knowledge is no longer a quest for the truth since in our postmodern world the idea that there is one truth about anything is offensive. It is a search to discover one’s personal truth— no better or worse than the truth of others. And the Jews often come out as the scapegoat in the weighing of these competing truths.

So what are Jewish students to do? I am not talking about those planning to attend Jewish schools like Yeshiva University or Touro or Israeli universities or Brandeis which, while not Orthodox, as a historically Jewish institution has been welcoming to its Jewish students. What about those who wish to pursue their dreams in seeking an education at top secular institutions? I believe the answer can be found in the Yosef story from the Torah reading these past few weeks.

Yosef is thrown into a pit and sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. He resists temptation in the house of Potiphar in Egypt causing him to be banished to the Egyptian dungeon. Then he rises to become the prince of Egypt, second to Pharaoh, and is finally able to confront his brothers and ensure they repent for what they did to him before revealing his identity.

Nechama Leibowitz, the greatest Tanach teacher of the 20th century with whom I had the privilege to learn during the last year of her life, points out something unique about Yosef which perhaps explains why he is the only person referred to by our sages as Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the Righteous. She notes that the מילה המנחה, the leading word that repeats itself over and over again in the words of Yosef is אלוקים, the universal name for God.

When Yosef is being seduced by Potiphar’s wife, he refuses her entreaties saying, “וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה הַזֹּאת וְחָטָאתִי לֵאלֹקים, How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Rashi explains that Yosef is telling Potiphar’s wife that he won’t allow himself to be seduced by her because that would violate the universal laws of Noach. For Yosef, God is not just an abstract concept and not just a God for him and his family but the basis for his moral code and the universal moral code of all peoples.

Later, Yosef continues to invoke the name of God with all he interacts with. When Yosef hears of the dreams of the butler and baker in prison he says, “הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹקים פִּתְרֹנִים סַפְּרוּ־נָא לִי, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you.”

When he is sprung from the dungeon to stand before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, Yosef once again says  “בִּלְעָדָי אֱלֹקים יַעֲנֶה אֶת־שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה it is not me: God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” Yosef when speaking before the leader of Egypt, the greatest empire of the ancient world, the builder of the pyramids and the inventor of innovations like paper and ink, beer and yeast risen bread, is unfazed and unafraid to invoke the name of God, אֱלֹקים, which he uses five times in his opening conversation with Pharaoh. Rather than angering the pagan ruler, this constant repetition of God’s name, influences Pharaoh himself as he exclaims after Yosef interprets his dreams and presents his plan for action, “וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל־עֲבָדָיו הֲנִמְצָא כָזֶה אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱלֹקים בּוֹ׃ And Pharaoh said to his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom is the spirit of God?”

Even at the end of the Yosef story in this week’s Parsha when Yosef finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, he tells them not to worry about what they did to him, “וְעַתָּה  אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹקים לִפְנֵיכֶם׃ Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” In Yosef’s worldview, even his years as a slave and prisoner in Egypt were all part of God’s plan to ultimately preserve the life of the Children of Israel.

The Yosef story with his unabashed moral clarity throughout his sojourn in the pagan Egypt can serve as a model for us today. The recent antisemitic outbursts on university campuses and the lukewarm responses to them by their school administration has made clear to everyone the fundamental difference between those guided by personal truths and those who choose to live according to universal ideals. Jews who pursue their studies on these campuses must never forget this. They should use the example of Yosef as their guide, proudly living by their Jewish ideals and proudly proclaiming the universal values which Judaism has bequeathed to the world.

We have seen many examples of this in the past two months, some written up in these pages. Jewish students who, despite the charged campus climate, have continued to unashamedly wear their kippah in public, have engaged in counter protests and written articles in campus newspapers asserting the rightness of our position, and publicly lit their menorah to spread light in these dark times. Jews might learn in the secular university but we must take care to never adopt the moral relativism that has invaded the intellectual climate of this postmodern institution. We will always be the stranger, the other, living by a God-given religious and moral code as we strive to be a light to others and the world.


Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at The Frisch School.

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