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Two Texts, Three Questions

The Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought

Over the course of their studies at the Straus Center, Straus Scholars are encouraged to pursue their own intellectual interests and explore new connections between Torah and Western thought. The Straus Center's initiative "Two Texts, Three Questions," led by our Rabbinic Intern Yehuda Goldberg, is designed to promote this type of intellectual exploration. Each Straus Scholar selects two texts, one each related to Torah and Western thought, and asks three questions about those sources.


Ezra Seplowitz (YC '25) provides an excerpt from Shakespeare's Hamlet and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a renowned authority in Jewish law and thought, raising questions about vengeance, human nature, and our divinely ordained responsibilities.


William Shakespeare, Hamlet (4.4.34-69)

How all occasions do inform against me And spur my dull revenge. What is a man If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure He that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike reason To fust in us unused. Now whether it be Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on th’ event (A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom And ever three parts coward), I do not know Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,” Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means To do ’t... How stand I, then, That have a father killer, a mother stained, Excitements of my reason and my blood, And let all sleep, while to my shame I see The imminent death of twenty thousand men That for a fantasy and trick of fame Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain? O, from this time forth My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Role of Jewish Communal Service”

The universal values themselves break down into two categories, the moral and the religious. Bestriding both is the primal concept of zelem E-lohim, "the human face divine" (in Milton's phrase) - faith in the dignity and sanctity of man in both moral and metaphysical terms; and, concomitantly, in the worth and meaning of life. This faith finds normative expression in God's mandate to Adam, who is put "into the Garden of Eden to develop it and to keep it," i.e., Adam is charged with enhancing and preserving the world he inhabits. This dual call to creative endeavor and sociohistorical responsibility translates, practically, into a clear work ethic; and work, in one form or another, is a cardinal Jewish value

1. How does Hamlet’s understanding of what makes humans unique from beasts lead to his decision to take revenge for his father’s murder? Additionally, what role do memory and planning play according to Shakespeare?

2. According to Rabbi Lichtenstein, how do Avodah/development and Shemirah/protection function as the “normative expression” of “faith in the dignity and sanctity of man”?

3. In light of the egregious acts of terror committed on October 7th, how can these different perspectives about the uniqueness and/or transcendental nature of mankind inform one another? What is the role of vengeance within the framework of the loftier goal of enabling the peaceful development of and providing protection for all of humanity?

Tziporah Pinczower (SCW '26) shares two classic texts: Derashot HaRan, a collection of homilies by a famous fourteenth-century talmudist, and the Federalist Papers. She raises important questions about halachic punishment, judicial activism, and the role courts play in securing public welfare.

Federalist Papers

Derashot HaRan (Derasha 11):

But they also need judges for an additional reason — to enforce the laws of the Torah and to punish those liable to stripes or to judicial death penalties, whether or not their transgression is detrimental to society. And, certainly, these two considerations entail two functions, respectively: one, punishing a man in accordance with true justice; the other (though he not be liable to punishment in terms of true justice), punishing him for the benefit of society and the exigencies of the hour. The Blessed One assigned each of these functions to distinct functionaries. He commanded that judges be appointed to administer true, righteous judgment. This is the intent of "and let them judge the people a righteous judgment." That is, the verse indicates the function and jurisdiction of these judges, saying that the purpose of their appointment is to judge the people with a judgment that is true and righteous in itself, and that their jurisdiction does not extend beyond this function. And because the needs of society are not completely served with this alone, G-d provides for the appointment of a king.

Federalist No. 78:

The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.

1. According to the Ran, what is the purpose of punishment in Halacha?

2. According to the Ran, does “judicial activism” have a place in Halacha?

3. To what extent does Halachic analysis and/or American jurisprudence, take public welfare into account? What role do Halachic/American courts play in securing the welfare of society?

Aharon Soloveichik (YC '25) shares an idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks paired with a classic passage from Plato. He raises some interesting questions about education and freedom.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, Ki Tissa:

Hence the brilliant new concept that emerged in rabbinic Judaism: cherut, the freedom that comes to a society – of which Jews were called on to be pioneers – where people not only know the law but study it constantly until it is engraved on their hearts as the commandments were once engraved on stone. That is what the Sages meant when they said, “Read not charut, engraved, but cherut, freedom, for the only person who is truly free is one who occupies himself with Torah study.” In such a society you keep the law because you want to, because having studied the law you understand why it is there. In such a society there is no conflict between law and freedom…. Freedom is born in the school and the house of study. That is the freedom still pioneered by the people who, more than any other, have devoted their time to studying, understanding and internalizing the law. What is the Jewish people? A nation of constitutional lawyers. Why? Because only when the law is engraved on our souls can we achieve collective freedom without sacrificing individual freedom. That is cherut - Judaism’s great contribution to the idea and practice of liberty.

Plato, Republic, Book VII 515c-d:

Consider, then, what would be the manner of the release and healing from these bonds and this folly if in the course of nature something of this sort should happen to them. When one was freed from his fetters and compelled to stand up suddenly and turn his head around and walk and to lift up his eyes to the light, and in doing all this felt pain and, because of the dazzle and glitter of the light, was unable to discern the objects whose shadows he formerly saw, what do you suppose would be his answer if someone told him that what he a had seen before was all a cheat and an illusion, but that now, being nearer to reality and turned toward more real things, he saw more truly? Far more real, he said.

1. What, for Plato, is the value of understanding reality? How does one accomplish this ideal?

2. Is the freedom referred to by Rabbi Sacks the same as that found in Plato?

3. What are the underlying differences between the value of education found within Greco-Roman culture and that of Judaism?

Tamara Yeshurun (SCW '26) uses Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield alongside Eishet Chayil, a famous biblical poem, to consider the topic of women's virtue.

David Copperfield

Proverbs 31:

(10) A woman of valor who can find? For her worth is far above rubies. (11) She is trusted in the heart of her husband, and he has no lack of gain. (13) She seeks wool and flax, and works willingly with her hands. (15) She rises while it is still night and gives food to her household, and a portion to her maidens. (17) She girds her loins with strength, and makes her arms strong. (18) She perceives that her merchandise is good; her lamp is not extinguished at night. (20) She extends her hands to the poor; and her hand reaches out to the needy. (22) She makes for herself coverlets; her clothing is fine linen and purple. (23) Her husband is known in the gates, as he sits among the elders of the land. (25) Strength and dignity are her clothing; and she laughs until the last day. (26) She opens her mouth with wisdom; and teachings of kindness are upon her tongue. (30) Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, chaps. 60-64:

She was so true, she was so beautiful, she was so good,—I owed her so much gratitude, she was so dear to me, that I could find no utterance for what I felt. I tried to bless her, tried to thank her, tried to tell her (as I had often done in letters) what an influence she had upon me; but all my efforts were in vain. My love and joy were dumb. With the unerring instinct of her noble heart, she touched the chords of my memory so softly and harmoniously, that not one jarred within me; I could listen to the sorrowful, distant music, and desire to shrink from nothing it awoke. How could I, when, blended with it all, was her dear self, the better angel of my life?… I want you to know, yet don't know how to tell you, that all my life long I shall look up to you, and be guided by you, as I have been through the darkness that is past. Whatever betides, whatever new ties you may form, whatever changes may come between us, I shall always look to you, and love you, as I do now, and have always done… I shall see you always before me, pointing upward!'

1. How is the virtuous woman described in each selection?

2. To what extent are the praises of Woman dependent on her relationship with Man?

3. What is the significance of beauty, and how is it related to virtue?

Gavriel Buchwald (YC '26) uses famed twentieth-century Jewish theologian Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik alongside Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer to discuss the unity and bonds that emerge from suffering.

The Rav

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek:

With respect to the unity of the nation as well, one must firmly establish that so long as there is shared suffering, in the sense of “I am with him in his distress” (Psalms 91:15), there is unity. If the Jew, on whom Providence has shined Its countenance, and who believes that with respect to himself the sharpness of hatred has been removed, and estrangement from his surroundings has passed, nevertheless still feels the distress of the nation and the burden of its fate/existence, then his bond to the nation has not been severed. If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris or London must scream, and by feeling the pain, shows himself loyal to the nation. The breakup of the people and the constriction of its self-image are the result of a lack of empathy

Albert Schweitzer, “Reverence for Life”:

All through the world, there is a special league of those who have known anxiety and physical suffering. A mysterious bond connects those marked by pain. They know the terrible things man can undergo; they know the longing to be free of pain. Those who have been liberated from pain must not think they are now completely free again and can calmly return to life as it was before. With their experience of pain and anxiety, they must help alleviate the pain and anxiety of others, insofar as that lies within human powers. They must bring release to others as they received release.

1. How does each author see bonding as a consequence of suffering?

2. How do the authors differ in their formulation of what this bonding looks like?

3. After the appalling October 7th attacks, how have we seen bonding as a result of suffering manifest in the Jewish community at large? What can Schweitzer and the Rav’s insights add to our understanding of this unity?

Rebecca Guzman (SCW ‘26) uses Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina alongside The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Adin Steinstaltz, a prolific Israeli Torah scholar, to reflect on fundamental questions of humanity's purpose and responsibility.


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 110-111:

When a man learns that just as he broods over himself so does G-d yearn for him and look for him, he is at the beginning of a higher level of consciousness. From this moment he can begin to follow the guiding strings that are leading him, usually with enormous toil and labor, toward the focal point of himself. For in truth it is not one question with two sides but a meeting of two questions, that of man seeking himself and of G-d seeking man. Together they can approach a solution of the problem of man’s existence. And in the search for this solution, within this desperate exploration, this going after G-d, a man will rediscover himself as well as the definition of his own particular being.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 788-789:

‘Without knowing what I am and why I’m here, it is impossible for me to live. And I cannot know that, therefore I cannot live,’ Levin would say to himself. ‘In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is — me.’ This was a tormenting untruth, but it was the sole, the latest result of age-long labours of human thought in that direction. This was the latest belief on which all researches of the human mind in almost all fields were built. This was the reigning conviction, and out of all other explanations, it was precisely this one that Levin, himself not knowing when or how, had involuntarily adopted as being at any rate the most clear. But it was not only untrue, it was the cruel mockery of some evil power, evil and offensive, which it was impossible to submit to.

1. What is the fundamental difference between the way Levin seeks to solve the problem of man’s existence and the approach put forth by Rabbi Steinsaltz?

2. Is this difference an extension of the contrast between antitheism and Judaism regarding the purpose of man?

3. How can these two approaches to the problem of man’s existence serve to influence our perceptions, as Orthodox Jews, of the relationship between religion, responsibility, and personal improvement?

Yinon Gurvich (YC ‘25) shares a Chanukah reflection based on Maharal, an important Talmudic scholar and leading rabbi in the sixteenth century, and Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian from the first century.


Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, ch. 7.7:

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honoured God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. Nay they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival on account of the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.

Maharal, Ner Mitzvah:

The Empire of Greece is prepared to oppose Israel because they have divine Torah and mitzvot. For this empire relates only to “wisdom” which is man’s intellect alone, and not the spiritual divine intellect, which is the Torah. And so too towards the Beit Hamikdash, which had divine spirituality, did this empire oppose. And therefore it was fit for the miracle to happen by means of the candles of Beit Hamikdash, “for a candle is a mitzvah and Torah is light”. And that is why it was taught that when King Hordus extinguished the light of the world by murdering Torah scholars, he was instructed to involve himself in rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash, which is the light of the world. And this is why Chazal teaches that light was created from the place of the Mikdash.

1. According to Maharal and Josephus, what is light a metaphor for? Do they offer mutually exclusive explanations?

2. According to Maharal and Josephus, what is the focal point of the celebration of Chanukah? Why is Chanukah called the festival of lights?

3. Why does Maharal omit the miracle of the war, and why does Josephus omit the miracle of the oil?

Shana Schwartz (SCW ‘26) invites us to think about the relationship between Torah and Science through the writings of Rabbi Norman Lamm (former president of YU) and scientist Albert Einstein.


Rabbi Norman Lamm, "Religion-breakers and Religion-makers":

Allow me to conclude with a Jewish vision of evolution that preceded Darwin, the prophet of Huxley's new religion, by several thousand years. It was our Father Jacob who had an immortal vision of "a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven, and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it." The spiritual life of man is such a ladder. Man begins his pilgrimage through the world as an earth-bound creature…when he finally reaches the top, the climax of his evolutionary ascent, what does he find? - "and behold, the Lord was on it'." The apex of man's spiritual evolution is not the discovery of a meaningless mechanistic world in which all that remains to be worshiped is his own "higher nature." It is a vision of God in all His glory… the ladder of spiritual evolution leads us back to the God many of us had abandoned a long time ago. We who are committed to the sacred Jewish Tradition will not be shaken by every shift in the wind of doctrine. "Science" is not a label which automatically guarantees the intellectual "kashrut" of an idea. We must at all times be willing to listen and to learn, but strength of faith and courage of conviction are old Jewish traits which we cannot and must not abandon. Our Torah is such a ladder keeping us on the ground of fact, implanted in the world of reality and science. But it leads, slowly and gradually, to the loftiest heights and most sublime vision possible for mortal man: "and behold the Lord was upon it."

Einstein's Letter to Mrs. Martha Munk:

As long as the stories in the Bible had been taken literally, it was obvious what kind of faith was expected from the readers. If you are however to interpret the Bible symbolically (metaphorically), it is not clear anymore whether God is in fact to be thought of as a person [and therefore not a monotheistic deity], which is somehow analogous to humans. In that case it is difficult to assess what remains of the faith in its original sense. I think, however, that the person who is more or less trained in scientific thinking is alien to the religious creation (in the original sense) of the cosmos, because he applies the standard of causal conditionality to everything. This does not refute the religious attitude but, in a certain sense, replaces and supersedes it.

1. Einstein claims that science does not contradict religion but instead supersedes and replaces it. Does Rabbi Lamm argue the opposite, or does he offer a different view altogether?

2. When God is perceived as “analogous to humans,” what becomes the foundation of ethics in science? How does this impact ethical decisions?

3. According to Rabbi Lamm, the Torah keeps us “implanted in the world of reality and science” but leads to “a vision of God in all His glory.” How is this duality achieved and why is it crucial to Torah study and Jewish life?

Matthew Minsk (YC ‘26) uses an excerpt from the Talmudic tractate Bava Kama, which deals with torts in Jewish law, alongside famed seventeenth-century philospher John Locke to explore interesting questions about rights.

John Locke

Mishnah, Bava Kama 8:7:

If a person tells [his friend]: Blind me, cut off my arm, or break my leg, he is liable. [Even if he said,] “On the condition that you are not liable,” he is [still] liable. If a person tells [his friend]: Tear my garment or break my vessel, he is liable. [If he said,] “On the condition that you are not liable,” then he is not liable.

Maimonides’s Commentary to the Mishnah, ad loc.

There is a “yes” that is like a “no,” which is if [the damaged party] told [the damager] to injure his body on the condition that he would not be liable; since it is known that nobody forgives [monetarily] in that type of situation, he [remains] liable.

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Ch. 2, Sec. 6:

“Though man in that state [of freedom] have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it… for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker… Every one [is] bound to preserve himself and not to quit his station wilfully.”

1. According to the Mishnah (as explained by Maimonides) is there any inherent reason why a person couldn’t forgive damage to his person?

2. How does the Mishnah’s understanding compare to Locke’s statement that an individual “has not liberty to destroy himself?”

3. Locke asserts in Ch. 5 of Second Treatise of Government that allowing property to go to waste also violates the Law of Nature. Although Jewish sources forbid needless waste (for example, Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative Commandment 57), the Mishnah allows an individual to immunize damage done to his possessions (in contrast to damage done to his person). How might these different approaches to dealing with property destruction stem from the different reasons the Mishnah and Locke don’t accept preemptive forgiveness for bodily harm?

Sruli Friedman (YC '26) explores the love of God using seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza and twentieth century theologian Michael Wyschogrod.


Spinoza, Ethics, Book V Prop. 32 Corollary:

“From the third kind of knowledge necessarily springs the intellectual love of God. For from this kind of knowledge arises joy attended with the idea of God as its cause, that is to say, the love of God, not in so far as we imagine Him as present, but in so far as we understand that He is eternal; and that is what I call the intellectual love of God.”

Book III - Definition of the Emotions:

“2. Joy is man's passage from a less to a greater perfection. 6. Love is joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause.”

1. How do Spinoza and Wyschogrod’s conception of love differ?

2. Does Spinoza’s notion of love of God have any parallels in Jewish tradition?

3. Does the anthropomorphism inherent in Wyschogrod’s theological perspective present any challenge to the idea of divine perfection?

1. How do Spinoza and Wyschogrod’s conception of love differ?

2. Does Spinoza’s notion of love of God have any parallels in Jewish tradition?

3. Does the anthropomorphism inherent in Wyschogrod’s theological perspective present any challenge to the idea of divine perfection?

Adina Feldman (SCW '26) provides an interesting reflection on intellectual and spiritual maturity based on eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a famous twentieth-century Talmudic scholar.


Immanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment"?

"Immaturity is the inability to make use of one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Self-incurred is this inability if its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but rather in the lack of the resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of enlightenment. 2 Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a great part of mankind will remain immature for life… It is so easy to be immature… It is thus difficult for any individual man to work himself out of an immaturity that has become almost natural to him. He has become fond of it and, for the present, is truly incapable of making use of his own reason, because he has never been permitted to make the attempt. Rules and formulas, these mechanical instruments of a rational use (or rather misuse) of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting immaturity. Whoever casts them off would still take but an uncertain leap over the smallest ditch, because he is not accustomed to such free movement. Hence there are only a few who have managed to free themselves from immaturity through the exercise of their own minds, and yet proceed confidently.”

R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’Eliyahu

"Man is able to distract himself from a truth that is clear to him, and grab hold of an illusion.. What causes this? It’s not the inherent weakness or strength of the two claims, rather it is man himself who is the decisive factor. He can easily tell himself “what do I benefit from lies? Reality will ultimately not measure up to any falsehood I wish to sell myself and I will suffer the consequences.”.. Man can choose truth and feel his former propensity for the wrong choice release its grasp on him, or he can distract himself from truth and accept these illusions and hallucinations in its place. He stands equidistant from both options. This choice is called bechira...This can be testified by any man who has overcome a desire even once in his life, as he felt clearly as he moved himself farther away from falsehood and emptiness and succeeded in grabbing onto truth with all his might. But someone who has never been able to supersede a desire that overcame him ever in his life, will never understand this concept of bechira since all he can see in his own motivations are that they are dependent on external happenstance. And this is the answer to those who deny the idea of bechira: they cannot see bechira as a reality since they are enslaved by their own base inclinations.”

1. How do R. Dessler and Immanuel Kant’s definitions of “immaturity” differ?

2. Would their definitions of “freedom” from this immaturity look different?

3. Kant and R. Dessler seem to agree that “laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a great part of mankind will remain immature for life.” How do their different approaches to how to tackle this laziness compare?

Joshua Shapiro (YC '25) shares two thought-provoking passages from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky that force us to ask important questions about "extraordinary men."


Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, Part 3, Chapter V:

I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable sub- divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood—that depends on the idea and its dimensions, note that.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, p. 127-128:

Man, at times, exists solely by virtue of the species, by virtue of the fact that he was born a member of that species, and its general form is engraved upon him. He exists solely on account of his participation in the idea of the universal…His roots lie deep in the soil of faceless mediocrity… He has no stature of his own, no original, individual, personal profile. He has never created anything, never brought into being anything new, never accomplished anything. He is receptive, passive, a spiritual parasite… But there is another man…[who] is no longer a prisoner of time but is his own master. He exists not by virtue of the species but solely on account of his own individual worth. His life is replete with creation and renewal, cognition and profound understanding… [Since divine providence is proportional to whether man transcends his existence by virtue of the species, the] fundamental of providence is here transformed into a concrete commandment, an obligation incumbent upon man. Man is obliged to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of the individual Providence that watches over him.

1. How are Dostoevsky’s character and R. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man similar and different in their categorizations of types of people?

2. Once one finds himself in a certain category, how fixed is this? Does either thinker acknowledge a possibility/duty to transcend the static existence to the dynamic and creative one?

3. What are some possible critiques of the theory depicted by Dostoevsky? Is the exemption granted to extraordinary people too permissive?

Liev Markovich (YC '26) shares two thought-provoking passages from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Plato about natural communities and the differences between Greek and Jewish political theory.


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, pp. 28-29:

Adam the first is challenged by a hostile environment and hence summoned to perform many tasks which he alone cannot master. Consequently, he is impelled to take joint action. Helpless individuals, cognizant of the difficulties they encounter when they act separately, congregate, make arrangements, enter into treaties of mutual assistance, sign contracts, form partnerships, etc. The natural community is born of a feeling of individual helplessness. Whenever Adam the first wants to work, to produce, and to succeed in his undertakings, he must unite with others. The whole theory of the social contract, brought to perfection by the philosophers of the Age of Reason, reflects the thinking of Adam the first, identifying man with his intellectual nature and creative technological will and finding in human existence coherence, legitimacy, and reasonableness exclusively.

Plato, The Republic, Book II, lines 369b-c, 372b-c:

“Well then,” I said, “a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much… So, then, when one man takes on another for one need and another for another need, and, since many things are needed, many men gather in one settlement as partners and helpers, to this common settlement we give the name city, don’t we?... So they will have sweet intercourse with one another, and not produce children beyond their means, keeping an eye out for poverty or war… And so they will live out their lives in peace with health, as is likely, and at last, dying as old men, they will hand down their similar lives to their offspring.”

1. What are the similarities between the communities presented in The Lonely Man of Faith and Plato’s Republic? What are the differences?

2. Rabbi Soloveitchik seems to think that Adam I’s utilitarian mindset leads to intellectual flourishing and human dignity, while Plato views the utilitarian mindset as leading to a simple, natural life. What does this contrast say about their respective perspectives on human nature?

3. In The Republic, Plato’s “healthy” city progresses into the “feverish,” ambitious city, which eventually leads to the ideal city, which must be heavily regulated and ruled by a “philosopher king” to succeed. Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts Adam I’s utilitarian community with Adam II’s “covenantal” community. How do these understandings of the different types of body politics reflect the differences between the Platonic and Jewish worldviews?

Noam Mayerfeld (YC '25) reads the Talmudic aphorism "make for yourself a mentor" and its explication by medieval Jewish commentator Rabbeinu Yonah, alongside the famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.


Commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah to Pirkei Avot 1:16:

Rabban Gamliel says, "Make for yourself a mentor, remove yourself from doubt": He means to say that he should take his colleague as his mentor - even though he is not more wise than he, and even if he has not even reached [the first one's] wisdom - in order that he remove himself from doubt. And in Talmud Yerushalmi Moed Katan 1:10, it states, "Go and bring me an elder from the marketplace and I will rely upon him and permit [it] to you." As there are times when a sage will be in doubt about a ruling and he will not know what to say: If he permits, maybe it is forbidden and a mishap will occur through him; and if he forbids what is permitted, it will come out that he will cause a loss of money to Israel, whereas the Torah is concerned about it. Therefore, he should make his colleague a mentor and ask him about his questions. And he will make the ruling upon his mouth, even if the matter is simple to him and even if it is a permissive ruling, even when he is not as great as he in wisdom. And thus did the Geonim say, "In anything where it is a doubt to one and clear to the other, the law is like the one to whom it is clear, even [if it is] a student before his mentor."

Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Charge of the Light Brigade":

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” / Was there a man dismayed? / Not though the soldier knew / Someone had blundered. / Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred / … When can their glory fade? / O the wild charge they made! / All the world wondered. / Honour the charge they made! / Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!”

1. According to Rabbeinu Yonah what is the role of a rav?

2. Why does Tennyson believe there is honor and nobility in blind obedience?

3. Is this a value that Rabbeinu Yonah would agree with, or, is the role of the Rav limited to when you, yourself, have doubt?

Allie Orgen (SCW '24) provides a reflection on the Passover Haggada, connecting it to a quote from Nelson Mandela.


Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom:

I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

Ha Lachma Anya (Passover Haggada):

This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

1. How do Mandela and Ha Lachma Anya suggest that individuals or nations can maintain a sense of freedom even in challenging circumstances? What does it mean to celebrate freedom in a time when one isn’t fully free?

2. The symbolism of matza in Ha Lachma Anya shifts from representing slavery to representing freedom. How does Mandela's concept of freedom evolve throughout his journey?

3. How does Ha Lachma Anya's emphasis on the importance of recognizing shared identity and supporting one another relate to Mandela's vision of a society built on equality and justice for all?


Dassi Mayerfeld (SCW '25) shares a reflection based on medieval Jewish scholar Rambam and eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the nature of science.


Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2:

What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God's] great name, as David stated: "My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God" [Psalms 42:3].When he [continues] to reflect on these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge, as David stated: "When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers... [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him" [Psalms 8:4-5]. Based on these concepts, I will explain important principles regarding the deeds of the Master of the worlds to provide a foothold for a person of understanding to [develop] love for God, as our Sages said regarding love: "In this manner, you will recognize He who spoke and [thus,] brought the world into being."

Rousseau, Discourse On the Arts and Sciences:

Where there is no effect, it is pointless to look for a cause: but here the effect is certain and the depravity real, and our souls have been corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced toward perfection. Will it be said that this is a misfortune peculiar to the present age? No, Gentlemen; the evils caused by our vain curiosity are as old as the world. The daily ebb and flow of the tides are not more regularly influenced by the moon that lights the nighttime sky than the fate of our morality and integrity by the advancement of the sciences and the arts. We have seen virtue gradually flee as their light dawned above the horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed in all times and in all places.

1. Does the pursuit of scientific knowledge lead to virtue and integrity or depravity? Does it lead to the recognition and service of God or self-worship?

2. Is contemplation of God’s creations one and the same with scientific research and inquiry, or do the intense and specialized methods of scientific inquiry extend beyond mere contemplation?

3. Discourse on the Sciences and Arts emphasizes the pursuit of arts and sciences “toward perfection.” Would the Rambam think that scientific research aimed at such a goal can lead to fear and awe of God? In what way does the goal of the investigation of Hashem’s creations impact the spiritual outcome of the investigation itself?

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