Rabbi Jason Rubenstein – June 2019 Message

June 2019


“When I study Jewish texts, I feel like I am writing the parts of my autobiography that happened before I
was born.” – Ross Weissman

Our work is stories.

With each day, each semester, and each year, students are authoring the next chapters of their lives.
Our work is to link these stories – their stories – to one another, and to help students inscribe them
authentically as the next chapter of the Jewish people’s story. The stories of learning, service, and
devotion to causes and communities larger and greater than oneself take on new depth and meaning
when those causes and communities stretch as far back in time – to creation – and reach as high in
aspiration for the future – nothing less than the redemption of our world – as the Jewish people’s story
does. It is not only that Judaism enriches students’ stories: their stories in turn enrich Judaism, adding
new voices and creative possibilities that were unimaginable even just a few short years ago. And there
is more: when students join together to create a community of meaning with and for one another, they
become central actors – at times, even protagonists – in one another’s stories.

On one level, this vision informs our methodologies: we collect stories, we center them. At the main
seder this year, participants entered into our sweeping tradition of narrating our people’s history by
sharing the oldest stories they knew from their families. These stories covered continents and centuries,
quickly and effortlessly taking us to a depth of connection that traditional icebreaker questions never

We approach the tradition as our shared autobiography, and we add the parts that have happened since
our births, the parts we authored not only in word but in deed.

Unsurprisingly, the Jewish tradition offers us a vivacious formulation of this idea.

Professor Michael Wyschogrod of blessed memory put the centrality of stories to Jewishness in a
characteristically sharp and delightful fashion. There is an assumption, often shared by Jews and others
alike, that the Torah is primarily a book of laws, in its essence a practical handbook for how to live – or at
least the building-blocks of one. This idea and its critiques deserve their own treatment – and generate
the following question of the Talmudic Rabbi Yitzhak, rendered immortal by its inclusion in one first
comments to the Torah by Rashi, the greatest of Jewish commentators: If we grant that the Torah’s
purpose is to teach rules of how to live, why does it open with chapter upon chapter of rich, ambiguous

Parenthetically: perhaps the best answer to this question was given by one of 20th century America’s
greatest rabbis, Joseph Dov Soloveitchik of blessed memory. Appealing to the idea that the fundamental
norm of Judaism is walking in God’s ways (imitatio Dei), R’ Soloveitchik suggested that the Torah opens
with the account of God’s creation of the world to teach us that the most basic and transcendent way in
which human beings can imitate God is by creating new worlds: scientific, political, and aesthetic.

Wyschogrod was bolder: he not only rejected the question, he rejected its premise. The fundamental
fact about Jewish life – the framework in which we are to take up our past, present, and future – is,
according to Wyshogrod, that the Jewish people are a family. And it is by telling stories about earlier
generations that families create and sustain their identities. Wyschogrod finishes with a flourish of
counterattack: the question we must ask is not why the Torah needs stories, but why it needs laws. We
are raising the next generation of Jews not only as people with interesting stories, but as people who
understand that their own stories, the stories of their friends and colleagues, and the stories of their asyet unborn children and students – are all vital moments in the story of the Jewish people.

Our tradition offers an inexhaustible richness of stories, a framework that saves us from being orphans
in history. And – it offers us the inestimable gift of adding to that tradition through the work of building
community, friendship, and Jewish life every day at Yale.

Thank you for joining in this work, of helping us to write a future that our ancestors could never have
expected, one that would exceed their wildest dreams.

Rabbi Jason Rubenstein
Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale