One of the most astonishing passages in the Talmud, a book chock-full of astonishing passages, gingerly asks the question at the core of every single human pursuit: What, precisely, is the meaning of life?
Rava, a wise Babylonian rabbi who was born around 280 CE and became one of the Talmud’s most cited superstars, had an answer. When we die, he taught his disciples, and arrive at the heavenly court for one last judgment, we’re asked just six simple questions: Were we honest in conducting our business? Did we set aside some time every day to study Torah? Did we have children? Were we truly looking forward to being redeemed? Did we exercise our brain in a clever fashion? And could we make proper deductions, understanding one thing when told another?
These questions aren’t meant to be pondered hypothetically, Rabbi Ari Berman argues in his moving new book, The Final Exam. They’re a blueprint for how all of us ought to live, but they’re especially poignant to educators, entrusted with guiding the young through the daunting task of figuring themselves out. And because Berman is the president of Yeshiva University, the only Jewish institution of higher learning in America combining both religious and secular studies, the challenge he’s facing is even grander. How, to paraphrase the university’s famous motto, should we go about teaching young Jews the virtues of both Torah and madda, both Jewish and universal values?
Berman’s answer, written in the form of a series of heartfelt letters to his students, is simple yet profound. Focus, he urges his imagined young readers, on five different Torot, or teachings: Seek truth, discover your potential, live your values, act with compassion, and bring redemption.
When read as a list, the five virtues above may come off as something that belongs more on a Hallmark card than in a serious contemplative book by a thoughtful scholar. But it’s one of Berman’s hallmarks, as a writer as well as a university president, to disarm potentially combustible and complicated conundrums with a deceptively simple statement that, when studied, contains multitudes.
Take, for example, Berman’s discussion of discovering our own potential. You’d expect, particularly in a book directed at younger readers, some version of the ubiquitous graduation speech, complete with perennial crowd-pleasers about seizing the day or chasing your wildest dreams. Berman goes in a very different direction: When he was a congregational rabbi, he tells his readers, he would find prayer particularly challenging. To begin with, praying is difficult, requiring, as it does, to commune with the Creator intimately and sincerely while realizing that no answer—or at least no immediately visible or audible answer—is forthcoming. On top of that, even if he could focus on his own prayer, Berman writes, he would have to lead his congregants in their communal davening, a delicate orchestration of different speeds, sensibilities, and sensitivities.
Without explaining what any of this has to do with self-actualization, Berman delivers another Talmudic tale. This one finds three famous rabbis in conversation, each sharing their own personal prayer preferences. One would put on expensive socks as a sign of respect for God. Another would remove his fineries and prostrate himself, as a slave would before a master—a show of ultimate humility. But the third, Rav Kahanna, added a crucial step: Before he did anything, he stopped and observed how his friends and followers were feeling. When they were happy and at peace, he would follow his first friend’s example and put on fancy clothes. But when they were hurting and distraught, he would follow his second friend in removing all fine garments, clasping his hands, and begging for mercy. In other words, Rav Kahanna, a wise and sensitive soul, wouldn’t begin addressing God before he knew what the human beings he cared for felt, wanted, and needed. Prayer, he realized, was as much about being attuned to other people as it is about tuning into God.
This story, Berman explains, “charges us to develop all our unique skills, talents, and qualities. But this is not simply for the purpose of self-actualization. It is to have a broader notion of self that includes others.”
To do that, however, we must first learn how to resist the culture of solipsism inherent in contemporary American meritocracy and evident everywhere from digital applications that promote isolation and atomization to academic institutions that champion ruthless competition and exclusion. And this is where The Final Exam transcends its disguise as a slim volume of interest primarily to the modern Orthodox community and becomes the sort of book young Jews of all persuasions—and their parents—should pick up right now.
In another subtle but powerful anecdote, Berman tells of the great Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the famed dean of one of Brooklyn’s most celebrated yeshivot. A student once came to Hutner and told him he was feeling conflicted: He wanted to spend all of his time studying Torah, but he also needed to work and make a living. Thinking like that, Hutner replied, was like being married to two women and having a secret family with each, a recipe for eventual emotional catastrophe. The key to a happy life was to erase all artificial barriers, like secular and religious or practical and theoretical, and instead live a life rooted in Jewish values yet mindful of the obstacles and opportunities the modern world throws our way each day.
How? First, the book suggests, we must commit to learning a little bit more, to grappling with Judaism’s teachings not as antiquated abstractions but as urgent instructions. Then, we must contemplate what these instructions mean to us, on a very personal level. And only then may we be mindful enough to start taking others into consideration.
The Final Exam is an excellent primer on all three fronts. The anecdotes it shares, from both the author’s life and from classical Jewish sources, are illuminating and thought-provoking without requiring the in-depth immersion in religiosity many of its non-Orthodox readers lack. It is candid, rich in personal reflections that inspire similar inward-focused explorations in turn. And it is ever so committed to convincing its readers that others aren’t hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously argued; they are, if anything, our key out of the prison of loneliness our minds and hearts build all around us if we’re not careful.
Readers feeling the need for some spiritual guidance yet laden with insecurity about not knowing enough or doing enough will particularly cherish Berman’s book. Here, at last, is a great introduction to Jewish education that is also a sweet and welcoming invitation to think about what truly matters to us and answer the question without pressure, bluster, or guilt. It’s an invitation that even those of us firmly rooted in their faith can’t resist.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.