YU faculty consider Charlottesville

Judaism’s radical innovation


On erev Shabbat following the disturbances in Charlottesville, Yeshiva University distributed reflections on these events written by seven members of its faculty, from RIETS to the undergraduate and graduate schools. The Jewish Star features abridged versions of five of these articles. Link here for full versions of all the articles.

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By Dr. Ari Berman, President, Yeshiva University

Among the signal Jewish contributions to the store of human wisdom, the best known are likely the Ten Commandments, and the concept of monotheism. But as I think about the appalling display of racism and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville, I am reminded of a comment by the great Talmudic sage Ben Azzai.

According to several ancient rabbinic sources, Ben Azzai proclaimed that the most fundamental idea in all of Jewish thought is to be found in the Biblical verse, “in the divine image did G-d create humankind” (Genesis 5:1). For this verse introduced to human civilization the radical notion that each and every human being shares a common sacredness.

In 1966, the legendary scholar of Biblical literature, Moshe Greenberg, explained that this notion — which underlies so much of Jewish law and philosophy, from criminal and civil law, to Biblical narrative — completely upended the values of the other major, ancient Near Eastern societies. For these societies — from the Babylonians to the Assyrians, and beyond — humans could be treated as merely instrumental for the accumulation of power, wealth or honor. But in the Biblical tradition, in which every single human being partakes equally of G-d’s own likeness, such instrumentality is inconceivable and untenable. …

Lest one think that the devaluation of human life died out with the ancient civilizations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the shocking bigotry we witnessed in Charlottesville should disabuse one of that notion. The idea of the “divine image”—that most radical of Biblical propositions—is as necessary as ever.

Certainly all people of conscience unambiguously condemn the racism and hatred on display in Charlottesville. I further hope that you, members of the YU community—from our high schools, to our undergraduate and graduate populations, to our alumni and friends across the world—will use this weekend as an opportunity to think deeply about the terrible events of last week, and consider how to respond moving forward. …

As YU moves into a new era in its history, I am confident that the engaged thinkers within our institution will stand at the center of moral discourse both in this country and throughout the world.