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A Profound and Necessary Counter-Culture

Below is a transcription of New York Times columnist David Brooks’s keynote address at the YU  Annual Hannukah Dinner and Convocation:

It is a great honor to be here with the other honorees who have had lifetimes of impressive service. Let’s face it, I wrote one column about a supermarket called Pomegranate which got me here.

One of the reasons that I’m pleased to be here is that being Jewish connects you to the past, it connects you to values, it connects you to the people of Israel, and it connects you to so many things outside of yourself.

I was driving once in Tel Aviv and a bus wanted to turn a corner. He honked at me to back up, so I backed up right into the Israeli guy behind me. The young Israeli guy got out of the car, dashed out in the middle of the street and began to scream at the bus driver. He came to me and hugged me, because we were brothers in the war against bus drivers. He was super nice to me. Then another bus came by, and he interrupted our conversation, and he screamed at that bus driver. Every time a bus drove by he ran away screaming at bus drivers, every few minutes.

And so that is the connection we have with the people of Israel – instant intimacy. And so I told this story to someone who told me another story of a friend who was in Israel calling directory assistance to get the number for a restaurant. Of course the operator said, “nah, you don’t want to eat there.”

And so we do have connections outside of ourselves to our Jewish heritage. We connect with the New York Times – I think that’s part of the Jewish heritage. I joke that being a conservative columnist at the New York Times is like being the Chief Rabbi in Mecca – not a lot of company there. I should confess that I got a lot of my training at the University of Chicago – it’s a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students Thomas Aquinas.

But I want to celebrate Yeshiva today, because it is a contrast – a contrast to the world.

If you’re a privileged, educated, affluent young person, you’re growing up in a world of intense meritocratic pressure. Go outside the elementary school, third grade classrooms, three in the afternoon, you see the kids coming out of the elementary schools with their eighty pound backpacks; if the wind blows them over, they’re like beetles, sort of stuck there on the ground. If you’re in the suburbs this line of cars drive up to pick them up – usually, Saabs, Audis, Volvos – in the suburbs it’s socially acceptable to have a luxury car from a country that’s hostile to our own. And there’s this creature – whom I’ve written about – who comes out to pick them up.  The uber-mom, these highly successful career moms who have taken time off to make sure all their kids get into Harvard. You can usually tell the uber-moms because they actually weigh less than their own children. At the moment of conception, they’re doing little butt exercises to stay fit and trim, taking so many soy-based nutritional formulas during pregnancy that the babies come out these thirteen pound monsters, these toothless defensive linemen plopping out in the delivery room. The uber-mom is cutting the umbilical cord herself, flashing flash cards at the little thing to get it ready for Harvard.

By the time they’ve completed high school they’ve cured four formerly fatal diseases, started three companies – worked to create environmental awareness in Tibet. I teach at Yale – I only teach at schools I couldn’t have gotten into - and I ask my kids what they’re doing in the spring. They tell me they’re going on vacation – “I’m going uni-cycling across Thailand while reading to lepers.” Fabulous skills – they have the ability to dominate classroom discussion without ever having done the reading. Looking at you with rapt attention even though they’re sound asleep. And so they have a certain sort of material intelligence, and that is the competitive pressure that they are pressured into being in this kind of world.

But, the highest praise you can give to Yeshiva is that it is a counter-culture. And Yeshiva makes this kind of success more difficult, and it makes a two-sided success – the goal of a real education – more likely. When I think of this two-sided success, I think of a hero of mine, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, who described this dichotomy in the two Adams. Just as a quick reminder, Adam I is the one who wants to build, create, win victories, have a great career. Adam II is the humble Adam, the internal Adam who wants to embody moral qualities – not only to do good, but to be good. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist. Adam I wants to go venture forth, Adam II wants to return to roots. Adam I’s motto is success. Adam II’s motto is renunciation and redemption.

So, Soloveichik’s point is that the good life involves a permanent confrontation between these two sides of our nature within ourselves. But we happen to live in a society that nurtures and encourages and bloats Adam I while neglecting and leading to the atrophy of Adam II – the internal Adam. And that leaves many of my students and many privileged students inarticulate about morality and what really matters in life. And so it’s necessary to be a counter-culture, to actually have a theory of how to build Adam II.

I’ve been thinking of the pedagogy of Adam II. And I think there are a couple of elements to how you build a good internal life, exemplified by the curriculum at Yeshiva. One – a new logic. Adam I’s logic is direct, it’s sort of like an economic logic – input leads to output, effort leads to reward, skill begets skill. Adam II’s logic is inverse – it’s a moral logic, not an economic logic. You must surrender to something outside of yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you want, success leads to the greatest failure which is pride, failure leads to the greatest success which is humility and learning. To fulfill yourself you have to forget yourself – to find yourself you have to lose yourself.

The second thing you need is a new metaphor. We tend to have a meritocratic metaphor for life – it’s a journey. Like the Dr. Seuss book “Oh the Places You’ll Go” – we tend to think of life is a journey. But Adam II asks us not to see our life as a journey but as a confrontation against our own sin and weakness – a battle against ourselves and our own weaknesses in our nature. It asks us to make this battle against ourselves and against weakness and sin – the central battle of our life, not the outward journey. It asks us to make the condition of our soul the central preoccupation of our life. And it asks us to do it with order, with obedience to God’s law, without which no good life is possible.

The third element of this pedagogy of the internal life – of Adam II – is a certain sort of knowledge and a certain sort of learning. The knowledge of Adam I is the knowledge of skills, and you get that at any professional school and it’s important. Skills are taught by words and textbooks. But the knowledge of internal goodness – it’s hard to lecture people into being good. It’s imparted, not lectured.

I recently had a veterinarian write me an e-mail from Oregon, and he mentioned to me how hard it was to tell people to be good. He wrote that what a wise person teaches is the least part of what he gives. He wrote the message is the person – it’s a thousand small gestures from a teacher or a colleague or a friend or a mentor that actually teach someone else how to live because they want to imitate those gestures. It’s small acts of consideration or devotion that were in turn imparted by a wise man or woman now lost in the mists of time. And it’s simply by imitation that we become better, not so much by learning.

And the fourth pedagogy of Adam II – of internal Adam – I’d say is a new form of motivation. Adam I, the career Adam, is motivated by self-interest, the joy of a job well done, the desire for recognition, the desire for status, the desire for worldly pleasure. Adam II is motivated primarily by a different motivation – love. When you’re in love with a person, you naturally want to do things for them – you want to bring coffee in bed, you want to give them presents on a special day, when you’re in love with an institution like Yeshiva you naturally want to give some money, some support (there’s a little plug). And this can be a ferociously strong desire.

The love for God can be the same ferocious desire. When you feel God’s love descending upon you, you naturally want to hollow out your heart to receive it in its fullness. You naturally want to practice self-effacement and self-forgetting, so you can orient your life toward God, not yourself. You want God to display himself as the center of your life. And having raised the flag of surrender to God’s love, you naturally want to rise up and meet up – naturally rise up and do things that will delight God, follow his commandments, laws and rituals. You want to follow his happiness, his spirit, his examples. The examples of the patriarchs and matriarchs. You want to bend your soul heavenward and toward the wisest examples of our tradition. And all this is done in great gushes of love and praise. And this is part of the pedagogy of Adam II – it’s just an awesome motivational tool that has driven people throughout the centuries to release energy in nuclear proportions.

I would end with one question and one statement – how often in our Jewish tradition do we go to services and display great gushes of love and praise for God? Do we sometimes do the ritual, debate the law, but neglect the love? And the visible gushing of love that is the prime motivator?

My own personal view is that one of the reasons parts of our tradition are under threat and are shrinking, is because we’ve neglected this motivation, which draws people in and fulfills people. We’re good at talking about ritual, we’re good at debating law, we’re not great at talking about the love of God. And so that is, I think, a task for all of us. But I will say – to be here – is such an honor, because it is one of the rare institutions in this country that is consciously, intentionally, and intelligently not only training Adam I – but is training the two sides of life, both the Adams. And it’s impressive to be here, in the middle of a profound and necessary counter-culture.

Thank you.