'The Final Exam': YU president's 5 principles for Diaspora Jewry - review

Yeshiva University president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman expounds his worldview in the format of preparing an exam. But while the book gets a passing grade, it could have been better.

 YESHIVA UNIVERSITY president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. (photo credit: Courtesy Yeshiva University)
YESHIVA UNIVERSITY president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.
(photo credit: Courtesy Yeshiva University)

What is our purpose in this world, and what should we focus on during our limited time on Earth? Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University (YU), offers his answers to this question, presented in the form of 19 letters written to YU students. 

As Berman acknowledges in the introduction to his book The Final Exam, the use of letters as a way to communicate religious thoughts and ideas is nothing new. Indeed, in the book’s introduction, he mentions Nineteen Letters on Judaism, written by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in 1838.

Beyond providing a framework for answering the question about the purpose of our lives, Berman utilizes the book to promote and praise Yeshiva University, the institution he attended and has headed since 2017.

The book begins with the following Talmudic quotation from Tractate Shabbat, page 31a:

“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: Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom or understand one matter from another?”

 YU’s David H. Zysman Hall. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
YU’s David H. Zysman Hall. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“In the fullness of time,” writes Berman, “We will be asked questions about how we spent our time here in this world. Collectively, the answers to these questions express the way in which we lived, worked, loved, studied and built a better tomorrow. They challenge us and guide us at crossroads in our lives and in our day-to-day decisions. From Rava’s perspective, all of our education and years on earth are a preparation for this final exam.”

A book framed as a final exam

It is clever to couch a book that is intended for college students in the form of a final exam, but Berman’s premise that these questions are a type of test at the end of one’s life is a misnomer because by the time we arrive at the heavenly tribunal and are asked about our deeds on Earth, it will be too late to do anything about them.

Putting that aside for the moment, the author then writes that it is essential to focus on Rava’s questions and “our core values at Yeshiva University today.” Berman introduces the readers to some of the past and present leaders of Yeshiva University and shares his philosophy about the school’s educational framework. He writes about his student days, his encounters with learned and revered rabbis, and what he gained from being in their orbit.

THE AUTHOR identifies five core principles that best enable people to formulate answers to the questions posed by Rava. They are: Torat Emet – seeking truth; Torat Adam – seeking one’s potential; Torat Chaim – Living by one’s values; Torat Chesed – acting with compassion; and Torat Tzion – bringing redemption.

Approaching the idea of seeking truth, the author writes that “belief in truth is deeply countercultural in our current intellectual climate. We live in a time in which truth is under assault.” Berman points out that according to Jewish tradition, God’s very seal is that of truth. “By studying the truth of Torah, we better understand the truth of God,” he writes. 

Next, Berman turns to Torat Adam ­– seeking one’s potential. He explains that it is important for Orthodox Jewish college students to combine fealty with Jewish tradition while retaining their sense of individuality. “We each experience God’s pleasure and presence differently. God takes pleasure in our individuality.” In that spirit, Berman posits “that each of us should have special mitzvot and areas on which we focus our learning and favorite prayers that resonate with us more than others.”

He then outlines YU’s educational philosophy in the section on Torah Chaim. Citing Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, one of his rabbis at the university, he writes that “if one’s actions and standards of behavior are based on one’s learning, then living a life of Torah is also a fulfillment of the blessing, ‘La’asok B’divrei Torah,’ to occupy oneself in the words of Torah. Even when one is not actually studying, one is still considered ‘engaged’ in Torah,” adding that “this approach to life enables us to see every moment of the day as holy and precious.”

Kindness and compassion, or Torah Chesed, in his listing, is an essential part of one’s day-to-day life as an observant Jew. “Every moment and every way we treat, act toward, and recognize others is a religious experience and one potentially filled with great meaning,” writes Berman. He points out that the Divine Presence rested between the faces of the two cherubs that faced each other, covering the Ark in the Temple, expressing the concept that “God is found in between the gaze of two faces looking at each other.”

The final principle, Torat Tzion, says Berman, expresses the ultimate Jewish mission ­– to help bring redemption. How can one work toward redemption? One way, he writes, is to make aliyah, a step that he took a number of years ago, before returning to the US to assume the presidency of his alma mater. Berman suggests that there is a key difference between the Religious Zionist community in Israel and the parallel one in the United States. In the US, the community’s ambitions are cyclical, raising one generation to replace the previous one. 

In Israel, by contrast, he writes, “The primary movement is not circular but forward. They too teach their children to learn Torah, observe the mitzvot and continue the tradition, but they do so within a historical context in which they are actively responsible for the Jewish future.”

Berman acknowledges that it may be difficult for the Religious Zionist community in the Diaspora to live fulfilling Jewish lives by living outside of Israel, but nevertheless, he urges that the concept of Torat Zion provides the spirit of bringing redemption for those who live in Israel and for those who live in the Diaspora. 

“We have one common overarching goal, and that is to redeem the world and transform it for the better, to bring our sacred values out in the world, to birth a world suffused by justice, goodness, prosperity and transcendence. This can and should happen regardless of location,” he writes. 

WHILE THE principles enumerated by Berman in this book are neither novel nor revolutionary, they are articulated clearly and cogently. However, one wonders how well the book succeeds as printed under the school’s imprimatur – indeed, the YU logo appears at the bottom of the book jacket – for current students and those considering the school.

While one would expect that Rabbi Dr. Berman, as the university’s president, would be inclined to praise the school, his comments are a bit fulsome and sometimes read more like a public relations brochure than a serious book. For example: “…a world-renowned Jewish philosopher told me that the most important community in the Jewish world today is the Yeshiva University community” or “We are proud to offer a comprehensive program designed to produce the Jewish leaders of the next generation and beyond, who are firmly committed, forward-focused, engaged in the world, and pillars of society.” 

I think that both YU students and those who did not attend the school who are interested in the subject matter would appreciate the book and its contents if it were a bit less YU-centric. The constant praise becomes a bit tiresome. Despite this criticism, The Final Exam is an interesting book that outlines the concepts of how one can lead a worthwhile Jewish life.

In this writer’s opinion, The Final Exam earns a passing grade, but it could have done better. ■

The Final ExamBy Rabbi Dr. Ari BermanYeshiva University Press/Maggid Books168 pages; $24.95