Higher Concerns

By David Hazony

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sraelis are worried about their leadership. The Jewish state’s political life is never without its share of controversy, but the last year has seen a monsoon of scandals and mishandled crises—including the war in Lebanon, in which admirable aims were eviscerated by diplomatic and military failure; the withdrawal from Gaza, in which the uprooting of thousands of families from their Gaza homes emboldened Israel’s enemies on multiple fronts; and the criminal investigation or indictment of the country’s justice minister, president, and two successive prime ministers—a situation so acute as to make many Israelis wonder whether there is not something more profound at play, a kind of deterioration of public life, or perhaps a breakdown in the mechanism that is supposed to produce leaders of integrity and skill who dedicate themselves to public service.
How do great leaders arise? There are, of course, so many intangibles of character that make for the combination of judgment, steadfastness, and courage necessary to lead. But there is one investment a society can make which may contribute directly to the emergence of good leaders: In the area of education, and especially higher education. Great leadership begins with citizens who are deeply familiar with, and committed to, the history, ideas, and values of their people. To produce wise political and cultural figures, a nation’s schools must provide tomorrow’s leaders not only with the proper skills required for political activity, such as public speaking and organization, but also with a serious education in history, literature, philosophy, and other disciplines collectively known as the “humanities.” For this reason, some schools, such as Columbia University and the University of Chicago, require students to study a “core curriculum,” a set of specific courses covering the classic works of Western civilization with which every educated person should be familiar. In this way, the universities have historically seen their role as fostering the next generation of citizens and public servants who would have the perspective, wisdom, and strength of character necessary for exercising sound judgment on behalf of their communities and their nations.
The Jewish state, too, was founded on a vision that included a dream of creating a new generation of Jews capable of leading their people in their new, sovereign life. Theodor Herzl envisioned the establishment of a Jewish university, and even canvassed the Ottoman Sultan for its establishment in Jerusalem. Chaim Weizmann, writing in honor of the founding of the Hebrew University in 1925, argued that the new Jewish institution would “shelter within its walls teacher and disciple animated by the spirit that they are all building a home... for Jewish values which will not only be the soul and the guide of our effort in Palestine, but will radiate out its influence into the world, and make its contribution to humanity.” Albert Einstein, too, believed that the Jewish university had the capacity to “demonstrate with the greatest clearness the achievements of which the Jewish spirit is capable.” The university, he believed, would become “a great spiritual center which will evoke the respect of cultured mankind the world over.”
In a Jewish state, of course, such a vision would not mean simply the re-creation of the same humanities programs taught in non-Jewish settings. Heirs to a tradition which produced the Bible and the Talmud, Jews have always understood that they possessed not only a unique way of life, but also a message for the world grounded in a unique Jewish understanding of life, morality, God, and the ways of the world. It was the supreme dedication to this worldview which led Jews around the world to endure hardship and persecution rather than abandon their identity. Even those Jews who knew little about their own heritage understood that they were protecting something precious—a message of enduring relevance not just for ourselves, but for all mankind. In order to develop a future of thoughtful, historically minded, uniquely Jewish leaders, a new concept of humanities would have to be developed—what we may call a “Jewish humanities.” Such a curriculum would combine the riches of Western civilization, to which both Israel and Diaspora Jewry consider themselves the heir, with those of the Jewish tradition, from the Bible to the Talmud to modern Hebrew literature.

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