When academia loses its mind

Who sat next to you at the Pesach Seder? Was it your fidgety nephew, cantankerous uncle or the new guy with too many questions? When you read the Haggadah, you discover that where you sit at the Seder might say a lot about you. Remember the Four Sons of the Seder? Well, the troubled son is right next to the intelligent son. Even the questions they pose sound remarkably similar. The wise son wants to know why G-d gave us a range of commandments, while the wicked son challenges why we serve G-d. We embrace the genius of the former and condemn the latter as a heretic. We accuse him of removing himself from his heritage and warn him that he would never have made it out of Egypt. In fairness, the sophisticated query of the wise son sounds similar to the impious son’s challenge. He also asks why G-d commanded you”. He also seems to exclude himself from the narrative. Maybe he is not altogether different from his edgy counterpart.

Seder night is a microcosm of the Jewish experience and a scale model of global events. At the Seder, the disgruntled Jew sulks next to his bright-eyed brother. Each represents a segment of society: those dedicated to heritage and ancient values and those who try to rewrite history to suit their need for relevance.

Our sages dedicated pages to exploring which of the four sons is most at-risk. A superficial reading identifies the rebel who scoffs at our traditions. He must be the kid on the edge, right?

Or, maybe the child who could not be bothered to ask is most vulnerable. He has never explored Judaism beyond the Tikkun Olam soundbites of his childhood. He has not paused long enough to peek under the hood of his heritage.

Some suggest that the wise son sits next to the wicked one to remind us that intelligent people are just one step away from going rogue. Jews pride themselves in Einstein and Freud, but our heritage stretches back to Moses. Before we became the Nation of the Nobel Prize, we declared absolute commitment to G-d at Sinai. Humility, dedication to a Higher Authority and a sense of moral responsibility are more important than smarts.

This year, as Jews broke matzah together, vaunted academic institutions exploded in antisemitic protests. As we celebrated our Festival of Freedom, self-proclaimed intellectuals hysterically yelled Jew-hatred in the name of progressive values. Sadly, some misguided Jewish kids swapped the Seder for faux Jewish celebrations with backward Hebrew slogans. At Columbia, Jewish students left Egypt for the 3336th time behind locked doors. Only meters away, misguided academics surrendered the wise son’s seat to lock themselves in a tented mind prison.

Pesach 2024 drove home the relevance of Vehi Sheamda. On college campuses, it replayed the devolution of the wise-to-wicked son. It showed how vulnerable the bright son can be. It is a short ride from the pursuit of wisdom to the dangerous rhetoric of the provocateur. A slight nuance changes the love of knowledge into the destructive sloganism of pseudo-liberalism. They say that the peril of academia lies not in what we know but in our hubris to believe that we know it all.

Watching the collapse of the ivory towers of academia, hearing the inability of its leadership to denounce the hatred on their campuses reminds us of the Talmud’s promise that without Torah, there cannot be Derech Eretz. As Jewish students are harassed at Yale, we remember that academia is not the pinnacle of humanity. Our enemies have included the students of Plato and Nietzche. Our heroes are Rabbi Akiva and Moshe, who taught us to prioritise Purpose over Ph.D.s.

Academia is losing its way. Professors of ethics are enabling the world’s oldest bigotry. At the same time, the Jewish world is counting the days to the anniversary of our commitment to a Divine Code of ethics and morality and making our world a better place. On Pesach 2024, faux intellectuals traded acumen for acrimony while we reconnected with faith. Echoing the Biblical description of Pharaoh’s failure to suppress the Israelites, we showed that the more they oppress us, the stronger Jews we become.

This Pesach, we realised that the wisest children live- not at Yale or Harvard- but in the warm glow of a Seder table. Faith outlives fads. Judaism outlasts gerrymandering. And we will still be debating the hierarchy of the Four Sons long after Columbia closes its doors for good.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
Related Topics
Related Posts