Service Learning Builds Character

Service learning is more than an academic exercise designed to link experience and education. It is an ethical exercise intended to build character. Service learning assumes a sacred dimension when doing good work is also understood as doing God’s work, when the moral and the spiritual domains converge. In order to assess the impact of a service learning project for rabbinical students now in its fourth year, we need a model for understanding what it means to shape a person’s character, resulting in a change of not only attitude or behavior, but also identity.

The most significant, and perhaps the best, book I read this past year was The Road to Character by the journalist David Brooks. I decided to give a copy to each of the rabbinical students who were ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where I am honored and humbled to serve as a teacher of Torah. The Road to Character chronicles the lives of people who managed to overcome their moral flaws by realizing the potential of their moral virtues. I was struck by its similarity to the Bible, whose tragically flawed characters punctuate its narrative. Perhaps as a way to make sure that its readers would not idolize any of the people portrayed in the Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve, we are given insight into the bad and the good, the ugly and the beautiful. The Bible’s insights into human character alone make it a worthy and holy book.

The Road to Character begins at the beginning with Adam, who is created twice—first as a powerful partner of God who names all of the other creatures and then as an afterthought who is created out of the dust of the earth and becomes the passive recipient of God’s breath of life. Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, known simply and affectionately as the Rav, was arguably the preeminent Orthodox Jewish thinker in the twentieth century. He wrote a sublime essay entitled “The Lonely Man of Faith” about the Adams that God created: The first Adam is in control, ready to lead and to win, independent and proud, comfortable with power, focusing on money, glory, credentials, degrees, status, titles. The second Adam is tentative, caring, interdependent and humble, ready to serve and to learn. Brooks claims that, in our culture, Adam the powerful has eclipsed Adam the moral. In an effort to hold up a mirror to our society, Brooks makes his case for recalibrating the balance between the first Adam, who is currently way out in front, and the second Adam, who lags behind in our culture that values and even valorizes material accomplishment.

The Adams are us. We walk along two roads during the course of our lives: the road to success traversed by the first Adam, and the road to character pursued by the second. The road to character is the road less traveled. Adam 1 builds a resume. Adam 2 builds character. Brooks draws a clear, compelling distinction between them. “Resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” Most of the time, we are occupied and perhaps even preoccupied with polishing our resumes throughout our lives, listing our material accomplishments in order to measure our success; in extreme cases, this is how we arrive at our self-worth, which we fail to distinguish from our net worth. Brooks proposes a qualitatively different approach to determining our ultimate value as human beings. In line with Rav Soloveitchik’s portrait of Adam 2, Brooks claims that, instead of devoting our lives to resume building, each one of us should pursue a path that leads to our eulogy. Eulogy virtues should take precedence over resume virtues.

What is praiseworthy about each one of us? For many years I had the honor and privilege of serving as an alumni interviewer for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where I studied as an undergraduate. One of the questions I posed to each candidate was the following: “If I were to walk into the faculty lounge and mention your name, what do you think I would learn about you?”

If God were to walk into each of our lives and mention our names to members of our family, our colleagues, our supervisors, the people we supervise, our friends, our former friends, our teachers and mentors, our proteges and our disciples, our opponents and critics, what would God hear about us? For those of us who are most comfortable being in control, the idea of asking other people who know us to paint a word portrait of us is uncomfortable and perhaps even painful, because we cannot predict, dictate, or prescribe the responses. We are seated in the defendant’s chair and called upon to listen to the testimony of others. We can, of course, speculate what they might say and wonder whether the image of our selves that we project corresponds to the image that others have of us.

Having delivered scores of eulogies in my life, I can tell you I was surprised to learn how easy it is to write one. Mourners want and need to be comforted by words of praise for the deceased and words of love for the mourners. A eulogy is often like an ethical will, since it describes the ideas and ideals by which the person lived and died. Rarely have I been asked to mention degrees, titles, and material wealth in a eulogy since, as the maxim goes, they died along with the person. It is the stories, the memories, and the values others associate with us that continue to live on after we die.

The sages teach that a righteous person is alive even in death, whereas an evil person is dead even in life. A Talmudic passage that is included in our daily liturgy provides a commentary on this wise teaching. “These are the deeds which yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the time to come: honoring parents, doing deeds of loving-kindness; attending the house of study punctually, morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between loving partners, and the study of Torah complements them all” (Shabbat 127a). Notice that there is no mention of winning the Nobel Prize or the World Series, nothing about the Forbes 400 or the Fortune 100, the Academy Awards, or a seat on the Supreme Court. Just acts that are within everyone’s capacity. One does not have to be great in order to be good; our success is determined not by our ability to achieve greatness but by our ability to realize our potential for goodness.

Oliver Sacks died on Sunday, August 30, 2015. He achieved enough fame to merit an extended obituary in the form of an essay by Erica Goode in the New York Times. She wrote: “Dr. Sacks, who died of cancer, was renowned for his literary explorations of the extremes of human behavior, writings that became best-sellers and were adapted for the stage and screen. Trained as a neurologist, he ventured widely in his clinical case histories, drawing on philosophy, biology, chemistry, psychiatry, neuroscience and other disciplines with a virtuosity that was always accompanied by hundreds of footnotes. His personal biography was similarly broad-ranging; he was not just a doctor or an author, but a biker, a swimmer, a scuba diver, a weight lifter who could dead-lift 600 pounds. He had spent some time addicted to amphetamines. He had taken a motorcycle trip to the Grand Canyon with the Hell Angels.”

Yet, as Sacks contemplated his death, he did not write about any of his prodigious achievements. In a stirring, beautiful and memorable series of articles, he reflected on the meaning of his life in particular and on the meaning of life in general. Dr. Sacks was gay. When he was 18 years old, his mother said to him, “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born,” a reference to a verse from the book of Leviticus. That sentiment reverberated within him for the rest of his life. He stayed away from Israel, although many members of his family lived there because he did not want to feel alien in a place suffused with Judaism as a religion, until one day his then 98-year-old cousin called him and invited him to come to Israel to celebrate her 100th birthday. He said “yes” before he realized its profound implications. In an instant he reversed a position he had held for decades.

His experience in Israel proved to be life affirming and life changing. “I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy—my mother’s words still echoed in my mind—but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear Billy and I were invited to join family members at their opening Sabbath meal.” Late in his life, Oliver Sacks learned that his mother did not speak for his family. They accepted him, as it turned out, just in time.

A couple of weeks ago, knowing that his death was on the horizon, he spoke timeless truth: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” We honor the memory of Oliver Sacks by following his example and focusing on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life and achieving a sense of peace within oneself.

The road to character is paved with the singular virtue that is ascribed to Moses: humility, which David Brooks defines as having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. Service-learning is a strategy intended to nurture servant-leaders, people who possess a healthy balance of humility and hutzpah, an awareness of limits coupled with a determination to test them. Service-learning may seem like an attempt to build a resume. But at its best, service-learning is building a eulogy, one stop on the road to character.

Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D. is the director of The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellows Program, an advanced sacred service-learning curriculum hosted at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus of which this journal is a product.

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