During last Tuesday’s forum at BYU, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, described religious education as a potential antidote to America’s pervasive consumerism.
In the typical consumer model of education, Berman explained, knowledge is valued primarily for how it can advance students’ careers or help them get ahead. But “a values-driven education creates opportunities for one to develop the different aspects of the self — to discover purpose and experience divine pleasure in self-expression.”
Drawing on the Abrahamic covenant between God and the Jewish people, Berman framed religious education as “covenantal,” based on a community of learners who “develop what is holy within them and bring honor to God.”
Consumerist society encourages us to focus on the individual, egocentric “I” and to be perpetually dissatisfied with what we have. By contrast, a covenantal framework focuses on the “we” and a shared sense of purpose.
Berman illustrated this shared purpose by describing how he recently found support in the Jewish community as he grieved his father’s passing.
In Jewish culture during the mourning period, it is traditional to recite a prayer several times each day with a quorum of ten men. Because he was traveling abroad during his mourning period, Berman worried about finding a quorum for his prayers. As he journeyed, however, members of the Jewish community showed up in Rome, Casablanca and London just to pray with him.
“Why were they moved to help someone whom they have never met before? So here is the secret, the secret of the Jewish people, we are all the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We all share the same mothers of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel,” he said. “Our sense of identity is covenantal.”
Additionally, the consumer model is “transactional,” while the covenantal model is “transformational.” Berman recalled his experience as a congregational rabbi, advising people about dating. Some would arrive with extensive checklists of everything they looked for in a potential partner. But relationships aren’t like purchases; they “evolve and deepen” and “are created together.”
To explain how this community-centered, transformational, covenantal model can be applied to education, Berman considered the three core questions of his university’s mission: Who are our students? How do we study? Why do we study?
Who are our students?
In a covenantal model, every individual has a place, and the goal of education is to help individuals realize their unique purposes. Berman referenced Eric Liddel, as portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. An Olympic runner and a person of faith, Liddel believed that his speed was a gift from God, and that running — rather than pursuing only traditional missionary efforts — was the way he fulfilled God’s purpose for him.
“We all have a different way of feeling God’s pleasure. We were each created for a purpose. And we each experience God’s presence in our own unique ways. Our educational goal is to help students discover and develop the capacity to experience God’s pleasure by finding the godliness within themselves.”
How do we study?
In the covenantal model, commitment to God precedes knowledge, and that commitment motivates the passionate pursuit of education. Berman quoted the famous Biblical-era phrase “naaseh v’nishma,” expressed by the Jewish people who accepted the Torah at Sinai, to mean “we will do and then we will listen.”
“God says to Moses and the people, ‘I have a book.’ Jewish people answer, ‘I am in.’ We are driven to explore, study, and grapple with the Torah, Jewish ideas and knowledge as a whole,” he said, explaining that Yeshiva University students spend hours each day studying the Torah in addition to other academic subjects.
With this commitment, education transcends and outlasts the trends of the day. “So long as higher education is exclusively focused on information and research for utility, we will be outpaced by technological change,” Berman said. “Just ask ChatGPT. But the covenantal model of faith will always provide meaning and values for the lives of our students.”
Why do we study?
Covenantal education is rooted in an expansive vision of life’s purpose. Although Yeshiva University was established in 1886, its members see its beginnings in Moses at Sinai and its end at redemption.
“Imagine being in a company that has a thousand-year strategic plan,” Berman said. “When you enter into this conversation, you have moved past the consumer and into the covenant.”
Berman concluded by noting the shared covenantal purposes of Yeshiva University and BYU. He offered his hope that covenantal education can heal the divisiveness in America today. “Perhaps what we need is to establish a covenant across America. One that is built on the recognition of the sanctity of each individual, a quest for truth and an ambition to inspire the next generation to lead lives of service and contribution.”