REVIEW: The Final Exam

Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff Tradition Online | May 15, 2023

Ari Berman, The Final Exam: Letters to Our Students (Maggid Books & Yeshiva University Press), 168 pages

Yeshiva University has had five presidents since it began teaching formal secular studies in 1916. That year the Talmudical Academy opened and in 1928 Yeshiva College began. The five presidents were Rabbi Bernard Revel, Rabbi Samuel Belkin, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Mr. Richard Joel, and Rabbi Ari Berman. I have had a relationship with all of these imposing individuals. I wrote my doctoral thesis about Revel. (Decades later, I was to ascertain that I was researching the life of my own cousin. We are both descendants of the Kalvarisky family of Kovna.) I was privileged to teach the progeny of the next three presidents. For the first time the contemporary president is my own student; Ari Berman studied with me at the Gruss Kollel, the branch of Yeshiva University in Jerusalem.

Berman is unique in that he is the first president to be a graduate of Talmudical Academy high school (MTA), Yeshiva College, the Revel Graduate School, and YU’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Revel and Belkin received their basic Torah education in Eastern Europe. Lamm was a Yeshiva College graduate while his high school years were spent at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. Joel was an MTA graduate while his college education was at New York University. In contrast, Berman holds quadruple diplomas from YU (his doctorate was completed at the Hebrew University).

At first glance, Berman’s volume The Final Exam: Letters to Our Students may be viewed as a philosophic essay. It is based upon the Talmudic passage that delineated the questions that the departed individual is asked at the heavenly Tribunal:

Rava said: After departing from this world, when a person is brought to judgment for the life he lived in this world, they say to him: (1) Did you conduct business faithfully? (2) Did you designate times for Torah study? (3) Did you engage in procreation? (4) Did you anticipate the redemption? (5) Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom? (6) Did you understand one matter from another? (Shabbat 31a)

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman

The book also elaborates upon the “Core Torah Values” that have been designated by Rabbi Berman as the pillars of his vision of Yeshiva University. These include truth, life, infinite human worth, compassion and redemption, corresponding to emet, chaimadamchesed, and zion, respectively.  However, I would rather view this volume as a song of praise and celebration of the uniqueness of Yeshiva University’s educational thrust. I feel that it is not President Berman who has authored this volume, rather I hear the voice of the young Ari Berman who is still a student in MTA and YC. You can feel his joy as he attains knowledge and the inspiration that is engendered by his mentors and teachers. I can totally identify with his emotions. I have often declared to my students that I still have not graduated MTA, which I entered in 1951. Those were magnificent years of intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth.

Yeshiva is unique as it enables us to chart our lives and endeavors as Torah-observant Jews in the Western world. There is no contradiction and no negation between the Tent of Torah and that which is constructive and contributes to the civilization that envelops us. Unlike some other Torah institutions that stress uniformity in world outlook, dress, and outward religious amenities, Yeshiva stresses individuality.

Berman cites the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) which declared: “therefore [since all humanity descends from one person] each and every person is obligated to say: The world was created for me” (56). Then his teachers are quoted:

One of our Roshei Yeshiva and a cherished personal mentor, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, shared with me the thought that in our yeshiva, we do not believe in a prefabricated, one-size-fits-all notion of Judaism. It’s all too easy when you’re developing yourself in a community to look at what others are saying and doing and to pattern yourself on what you perceive is the norm. But these are only markers of possibility for you. You will have to listen, learn, and craft your own path. You are not here to imitate someone else. You are not a photocopy.

I remember well Rabbi Lichtenstein addressing two arenas of Halacha – what is chova, obligatory, and what is reshut, permissible – as models of self-construction. In Jewish law, as in Jewish life, there are obligations and there are choices. The Talmud describes that there were Sages who chose certain mitzvot in which they “specialized” and with which they were associated. Each of us should also have special mitzvot and areas on which we focus our learning, and favorite tefillot (prayers) that resonate with us more than others. These are hallmarks of the individual stamp and imprint we place on our Jewish lives. This imprint – this signature coin, in the words of the Midrash – is ours to fashion. It is our reshut (57).

Berman reflects on the guidance he received from R. Aharon Lichtenstein regarding the challenges of blending the Torah civilization with the greater culture that surrounds us.

Rabbi Lichtenstein shares the sensibility we should feel in trying to bring together two worlds that do not always meld organically: “Few matters concern us – both disturb and affect us – more than the relationship between our religious and secular studies. As students committed to Torah and the study of Torah, and yet deeply engaged in the pursuit of a general education, we feel – and should feel – a strong need to understand the respective positions of the two areas of our lives.” In his thinking, when these values are in conflict, we should approach the confrontation using three fundamental principles:

  1. Torah is always our primary and supreme value.
  2. The achievement of a life of Torah is dependent on an ongoing commitment to Torah study.
  3. We recognize the value of academic studies, not only as they contribute to the development of professional and vocational training, but also as a “general orientation toward the innumerable pragmatic exigencies of life.”

Rabbi Lichtenstein believed that we need to know the world because sometimes we need to question what we see, hear, and learn: We cannot combat worldliness until we know what it stands for; we cannot refute the secularist unless we have mastered his arguments.” In this, Rabbi Lichtenstein was echoing a well-known teaching from Pirkei Avot (2:19): “Be diligent in the study of the Torah and know how to answer the heretic.” We apply ourselves both to the study of our values and to what contradicts them, in order to protect ourselves. Rabbi Lichtenstein then raises our study of worldly disciplines beyond protection to actual influence: “If we wish not merely to react to our environment, but to act upon it, we must be thoroughly familiar with its mores and values” (34-35).

President Berman’s volume The Final Exam should be presented to all graduating seniors in the numerous Yeshiva high schools which enhance the American Torah scene. It will present the uniqueness and benefits of study at Yeshiva University. To paraphrase Berman’s meritorious predecessor, Richard Joel, Yeshiva University is the only institution that may generate graduates on the level of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk or Albert Einstein of Princeton.

On a personal level, let me conclude with the prayer that Rabbi Ari Berman will lead the Yeshiva to even greater spiritual and temporal achievements. The ultimate success would be to visualize a branch flourishing on the sacred soil of the State of Israel. This would indeed be a fulfillment of the Talmudic vision that “the synagogues and study halls of Babylon are destined to be established in Eretz Yisrael” (Megilla 29a).

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, a writer and scholar, teaches at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.

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