Think Again: Come and partake

The Tikvah Fund is eager to penetrate every demographic where bright and open-minded Jews, with leadership potential, are found.

By
November 13, 2014 17:13
Jewish youths study religious texts

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths study religious texts at a synagogue in Jerusalem April 7, 2011.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The Tikvah Fund stands for the somewhat quaint and very Jewish view that ideas alone can have a powerful impact on the world. It publishes at least three journals of ideas – The Jewish Review of Books, Mosaic (online), and Mida (Hebrew) – and runs a constant series of advanced institutes from four days to two weeks organized around a single theme.

Tikvah seeks quite self-consciously to create a cadre of leaders for the Jewish people both in Israel and the Diaspora who will be imbued with certain core ideas and deeply committed to carrying Jewish tradition forward into the modern age. Those core ideas tend towards classic liberalism in both economics and politics, with a bias towards free markets and free men.

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I have twice been the beneficiary of the largesse of the Tikvah Fund over the past four months – as an instructor at the first ever Tikvah Institute for yeshiva students held last summer on Long Island and as a participant this past week at an institute on Freedom of Religion in America in Manhattan. Readings in John Locke, one of the most influential political philosophers on America’s founding fathers, and James Madison, the father of the US constitution, were the connecting strand between the two institutes.

For anyone who enjoys wrestling with classic texts produced by some of the great minds in history, the Tikvah Institutes are a sort of secular (though by no means an - ti-religious) beit midrash, or house of study. Participants have to sign a commitment to have read all the texts in advance, and there is an explicit (though hardly strict) dress code as befits people engaged in serious intellectual work. Given the importance attached to the subjects at hand, participants are expected to be on time, and they are.

Though the funders and heads of the Tikvah Fund tend toward the conservative in politics and economics and share a reverence for the classical texts both religious and secular, the seminars are anything but efforts at indoctrination or preaching to a carefully selected choir. Perhaps the highlight of last week’s institute was a debate between Prof. Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and a leading authority on the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amend - ment, and Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School, on whether courts should carve out religious exemptions to neutral statutes of general applicability, which were not intentionally designed to burden any religious practice. The debate on both constitutional and policy grounds went to the heart of all the week’s readings.

ONE OF the most valuable aspects of last week’s seminar was that it gathered together in one room a diverse group of people, who would, in the normal course of events, have been unlikely to meet one another. Participants from America were outnumbered by those from Israel (though four of the latter were native English speakers), two-thirds were men and one-third women, and there was a slight preponderance of religiously observant, among whom the most hotly contested arguments often developed.

The 18 participants could have broken up into sub-groups, but instead people from very different backgrounds seemed genuinely curious about one another.

Before the morning session and between them, there was a lot of discussion, and not between the same people every day. In the days following the institute, there has been steady back and forth of emails between participants urging one another to keep in touch.

By any measure, it was a highly accomplished group.

The Israelis included the first national commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission; the dean of one of the private law schools; the former director of social media for the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry; a law professor and secretary of the public committee for Israel’s defense budget; the head of the Movement for Governability and Democracy, who represents the NGO before the Supreme Court; a former Supreme Court clerk; a former legislative aid to MK Ruth Calderon, who drafted bills on civil union and the shmita sabbatical year; a former adviser to the CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel; the creator of the Makor Rishon ’s literary supplement; and a doctoral candidate in Jewish history.

The Americans were no slouches either. They included a managing director at JP Morgan and Co.; a rabbi and doctoral candidate in Islamic law; a former professor of computer science and lawyer, with a bibliography of 40 articles and three books; and a prominent Orthodox rabbi and Columbia law graduate.

The Jerusalem Post was represented by frequent contributor Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, who recently gained international fame when she filed for amnesty from her native Sweden on grounds of religious persecution.

The Tikvah Fund makes no bones about the fact that it is a leadership training institute for the Jewish people. Yet the discussion was greatly enhanced by the presence of one gentile in our group – a young law clerk for a federal judge – though his politeness did occasionally put him at a disadvantage. He was among the most theologically informed members of the group, and he brought a unique perspective. As an investment in the Jewish people, I would bet he was a good one, as he obviously has a bright future in American public life ahead of him.

WHILE THE participants in the Tikvah Institutes are all – or nearly all – Jewish, no such restriction applies to the teachers. Their only requirement seems to be that they be superb classroom instructors, able to both generate and control animated discussion, as well as eminent in their fields. All three of the main teachers at the yeshiva pro - gram last summer were religious Catholics of one sort or another, which came as something of a culture shock to the yeshiva participants: They were surprised to meet for the first time highly intelligent and articulate Christians of deep religious faith.

Dr. James Otteson, the executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and an expert on the thought of Adam Smith, demonstrated as great a command of his subject as any professor I ever had at the University of Chicago or Yale Law School. Thanks to him I no longer need fear dying without having read Friedrich Hayek or knowing Frédéric Bastiat’s Parable of the Broken Window .

Dr. Ryan Anderson, a young scholar at the Heritage Foundation and coauthor, with Robert George and Sherif Girgis of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, introduced us to natural law theory and the arguments for concern with the moral character of the citizenry, which put him somewhat at odds with Otteson’s more libertarian bent.

If there is a conservative public intellectual whom you would like to learn with and from – e.g., Yuval Levin, Peter Berkowitz, Ruth Wisse, Elliott Abrams, William Kristol – a Tikvah Institute is likely your best bet. Just this November and December alone, all the above-mentioned are leading different institutes in Manhattan and Jerusalem. Given worlds enough and time, I would have loved nothing more than to participate in an entire cornucopia of offerings including Israeli National Defense: Security Doctrine and the Balance of Forces, led by former national security adviser Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror; Capitalism and the Future of Democracy (the final triumph of which Francis Fukuyama prematurely proclaimed two decades ago); The Western Tradition of Liberty; Jews and Power: Literature, Philosophy, and Politics; and The Case for Nationalism.

But I did well to attend Religious Freedom in America.

The soft-spoken, shortish McConnell and the tall, peripatetic Hamburger, were a fascinating study in contrasts on many levels. And it was a treat to hear from Robert George, one of the few conservative thinkers with a secure bastion in the Ivy League as director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. David Schizer, dean emeritus at Columbia Law School and an exemplary mensch, and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, developed the curriculum and were present all week long. The latter offered a nuanced reading of the argument of his great-uncle Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation,” in which “the Rav” delineates the proper place for and limits on interfaith dialogue. In addition, he kept up a running commentary based on his encyclopedic knowledge of The Simpsons .

THE TIKVAH FUND is eager to penetrate every demographic where bright and open-minded Jews, with leadership potential, are found. This summer it will run a two-week institute for high school students at Yale and a six-week program for college students in Manhattan covering the Jewish Idea of the Family; the Jewish Idea of Power: Jewish Sovereignty; the Jewish Idea of the Good Society; Capitalism and Its Discontents; and the Jew in America.

Of late it has identified the yeshiva world as the great untapped resource of Jewish intellectual fire power and as of crucial importance for the future of the Jewish people. The program for yeshiva students last summer was the first expression of that insight. And in the coming months, the organization will be sponsoring in Jerusalem a three-month long (meeting on Fridays) symposium for Torah scholars in their 30s led by a brilliant young religious judge and former Tikvah Fellow, inquiring into such questions as: How does a society build a just economic system? Is there an ideal form of government? What are the effects of the joinder of state and religion? And what does the Torah have to say about all these issues? I have dwelled at such length on the Tikvah Fund in the hope that more of my fellow Jews will learn of its existence and partake of the bounteous offerings it has placed before us.

■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.


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