The Bible and the Core

Editor's Introduction

reb In a piece of proud rhetoric, the bulletin of Columbia College proclaims that the Core Curriculum is the College's "intellectual coat of arms". A coat of arms is a symbol displayed both on one's armor and on one's flag, in the the context of defense and in the context of decoration. More and more, the Core is being forgotten as a personal defense against ignorant participation in society, and is criticized as a decoration, an intellectual ornament whose shine has rusted.

We have seen many people in the universities raise their scholastic goblets to make a cheerful toast, to each his own book. But at Columbia, we continue to respect a collection of Great Books, books that have endured as commentaries on society and on the condition of the individual within society. As Jews, however, we raise our own cup to our own great books, the biblical and rabbinic texts. In doing so, we might fear Isaiah's criticism: that we have mixed our wine with water. In the essays that follow, three students and a professor reflect on this mixture.

Judaism already has its own core curriculum, though it is not an academic curriculum. It is a curriculum of books and of deeds, of study and of action. To this program, nothing is extra-curricular. Every event and every part of the environment is material which our curriculum engages. Our religion directs us to a goal: an attempt to understand that every part of the world carries potential for sanctity. Sanctity is a transformative capability, in that we change the mundane to the holy. This is a dual attempt, in which we try at the same time,to discover an intelligible world around us and to dedicate ourselves to improving that world.

On the first day of my Literature Humanities (Lit Hum) class, my professor, James Mirollo, set a critical formula to use as a tool to start the course. "Ask yourselves", he said, "what is Greek in this book, then ask yourself what is universal in this book." Professor Mirollo wanted us to learn that some ideas and values are local, and that some are universal. For the Jew studying the Torah, the local is the universal.

In the educational process, we can never, like Goethe's Faust in his opening soliloquy, say that we are educated; such a declaration opens us to a destructive influence. Nor can we continue with Faust to say that our study amounts to nothing. Such a declaration denies the human dignity toward which we move as we study. As Maimonides writes, we are not permitted to call ourselves ignorant. We are never finally fixed in any single state of knowledge; we are always moving, attempting to learn more.

The seal of Columbia displays the University's motto in Latin, the words from Psalms, In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen. These words find, in one of our school songs, a beautiful translation: in Thy radiance we see light. Often, we forget in whose radiance we see light. We think, sometimes, that it is our own light, or the light of our professors, which illuminates our world. A more exact translation of the Psalmist's words is, accounting for the Hebrew tenses, "in Thy radiance we will see light". The illumination is a goal and a hope, not necessarily the current reality. We can attempt the goal through fair discussion and honest study, both of which require the exchange of ideas.

In the following discussion, Jonathan Nathan explores his reaction to the differences between two worlds of study. Julie Yufe discusses the clarification of values which is provoked by Contemporary Civilization (CC) and Lit Hum. Jonathan Levin explains that this discussion engages us in a process. And as Joshua Rosenstein finds, the process is a struggle.

Ben Spinner is a Columbia College junior.