Becoming a Servant: How James Kugel’s Conception of Avodat Hashem Can Help Us Think About the Dispositional Goals of Jewish Service-Learning

A primary goal of service-learning is to effect some change in the world. A secondary goal of service-learning in Jewish contexts is the strengthening of Jewish community. Yet service-learning is also a kind of learning, designed to bring about certain kinds of growth among the individual participants. This learning ought to be understood in dispositional terms; that is, in terms of the cultivation of aspects of character that are associated with the practice of Jewish service at its best.

What are the dispositions of Jewish service-learning?

To answer this question, we might turn to the concept of avodat Hashem, service of God, as it is developed in the recent scholarship of James Kugel (especially his How to Read the Bible, 2007).

Kugel reminds us of a curious paradox: although the ancient interpreters of the biblical text (and their rabbinic inheritors) believed that the biblical text had sacred authority, at the same time they happily modified or supplemented or even subverted its plain-sense meaning in ways that often seem surprising to us. How could they do this? How did they dare to do this? He writes, “This is the question to ask, since the answer reveals the very idea of Scripture at its essence” (p. 684).

The answer, he explains, is that they believed that there was something even more important than the biblical text, namely, the ideal of serving God. “Scripture was sacred, but more sacred still was the purpose underlying the very idea of Scripture.… It is not the words of Scripture themselves that are ultimately supreme, but the service of God … that they enjoin” (pp. 684–685).

Thus, the most important question for the ancient interpreters (and their rabbinic inheritors) as they considered any particular biblical text is not, “What does this verse mean?” Instead, it is always, “How shall we serve God?” What is avodat Hashem, service of God, in this instance? What does God want us to do?

What Kugel wants us to see is that the call to avodat Hashem provides the fuel for the interpretive engine, the motivation to engage in the endless effort to apply the Torah’s teachings to our contemporary situation as best as we can understand. If we are called to serve God, la’avod et Hashem, we cannot simply follow a manual or a list of rules. “Scripture [is] sacred”—and, we might add in a friendly amendment that Kugel would surely accept, the Mishnah and the Talmud and the rest of the Jewish interpretive tradition are sacred as well—“but more sacred still [is] the purpose underlying the very idea of Scripture,” namely, avodat Hashem.

What are the implications of this argument for Jewish service-learning?

First and foremost, the role of servant—or if “servant” is an uncomfortable term, an ’oved or ’ovedet Hashem—represents a central ethical ideal. The ’oved Hashem is the way to characterize the person we aspire to be, and the person we ought to educate others to be.

The ’oved Hashem may act to repair the world and may be responsive to the needs of others. However, in terms of motivation, the ’oved Hashem—even while repairing the world or responding to the needs of others—is motivated by the ideal of serving God, by striving to do God’s work in the world. Practically, there may be no difference, but dispositionally, the difference is significant. The goal of the ’oved Hashem is primarily to (discern and to) do God’s will, to live a life of avdut, service. The dispositional goal of service-learning, then, is to transform individuals not into problem solvers or world repairers, but, first and foremost, into servants.

This ethical ideal may be inspiring in the way that it provides a powerful and enveloping motivational framework. Yet it also contains an inherent kind of ethical trap as well, because the single-minded focus on the will of God may distract a person from the needs of the person right in front of him or her (and surely sometimes has done so). And Lord save us from the self-righteousness of those who become convinced of their own rectitude in doing the will of God! The way to avoid this trap is not to demean the ethical ideal of avdut, of being a servant, but to insist on its full enactment—which includes the necessary humility to subjugate one’s own will to that of one’s Master. True servants aspire to do the Master’s will as best as they can, but never claim to speak on behalf or with the authority of the Master. There is no foolproof guarantee, of course, but thinking about the ideal of avdut helps us see that the disposition to stand in humble critique of oneself—to ask whom one is truly serving—is a necessary virtue.

Second, the avodat Hashem texts on which Kugel focuses celebrate a particular set of virtues: the virtues of the everyday, of constancy and consistency, of fidelity, of showing up to work and doing one’s job even when the boss is absent, the project unwieldy, and the instructions not altogether clear. We might think about these dispositions as the antitheses of moral heroism. Our service need not be—perhaps should not be—heroic. It should not be extraordinary. It should be steady, consistent, and disciplined. Perhaps, then, the dispositions to be cultivated in Jewish service-learning are, likewise, the dispositions of constancy and fidelity rather than heroism.

Third, the story that Kugel tells emphasizes the inescapable distance between the ideal of avodat Hashem and the inevitably flawed efforts to interpret it. Biblical laws are one approximation, intra-biblical revisions of those laws are a second approximation, the radical revision of the meaning of the texts by early interpreters are a third approximation, and so on. How does one know when to listen to the tradition? How does one know when one is sacrificing the ideal of avodat Hashem to a false god, worshiping the texts of the tradition rather than doing what God really wants? We do not and cannot know in advance, but this way of framing the issue makes clear that avodat Hashem is not mere slavish obedience.

Kugel would say that we must always ask ourselves whether what we are setting out to do is, in fact, what God wants us to do—and no one else can answer this question with certainty. God, in this picture, does not provide us with the manual; we are on our own. I referred above to God as an absent boss, but we might also think about God as present but extremely reticent, the kind of boss who communicates high expectations with a simple look—where the interpretation of that look has to be carried out by the employee. We might say that what God wants us to do is to ask ourselves, as consistently and deliberately as possible, what God wants us to do.

The dispositions to cultivate, then, are not merely service-humility, and not merely service-discipline and service-fidelity, but also the capacity to inquire and discern and interpret and the motivation to do so well and responsibly—what we might call a kind of service-wisdom.

Perhaps paradoxically, avodat Hashem demands independence of mind.

Jon A. Levisohn is an Associate Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. A more complete version of this article appeared in Volume 87, Nos. 1/2, Winter/Spring 2012 issue of The Journal of Jewish Communal Service and is distributed with the permission of the Jewish Communal Service Association, publishers of the journal. Subscriptions are available at WWW.JCSANA.org

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