Seeking to revolutionize the way university students approach Jewish texts and teachings, the Sinai Scholars Society hosted its second-annual academic symposium at Dartmouth College.

The two-day conference, titled “Ancient Ethics in a Postmodern World,” showcased the work of 14 budding researchers who discussed and debated their analyses with five scholars from around the world. They tackled such issues as faith and modernity, and the interplay between art and liturgy at the symposium, which supplemented survey courses at a network of campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch centers that take part in the Sinai Scholars Society.

A joint project of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the society allows students to explore their religious heritage as part of a rigorous curriculum. Many choose to take part in independent research projects during the course, competing for the chance to address the symposium.

In New Hampshire this past Sunday and Monday, Dartmouth junior Brandon Floch sparked a heated discussion with the question of how integral a belief in the divine authorship of Torah was to Jewish observance. During the debate, Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, professor emeritus of philosophy at Toronto’s Humber College, asserted that observance without faith in the Torah’s divine transmission was an inconsistent approach.

Floch, speaking from his own experience in grappling with the demands of a religious life, said that he hoped to one day “answer this question … seriously,” but that his struggle didn’t lead him to question the particulars of Torah observance. The Connecticut native said afterward that the entire experience was different from any other research assignment he’s completed.

“I chose to research an issue that I felt many Jews my age are facing,” he explained. “The answers actually have consequences for how I’m going to” relate to Judaism.

Among the academics who gave presentations to the students was Kate M. Loewenthal, a psychology professor at Royal Holloway University in London. She spoke about the challenges facing a religious woman in the world of academia, and the importance of overcoming one’s own self-imposed limitations in order to confront the stereotypical limitations imposed by others.

Zach Bodnar, a University of Pennsylvania senior, said after the conference that the dialogue was eye-opening.

“Many of the presenters discussed some very fundamental ideas in Judaism that we all question, especially when coming from an academic background,” said Bodnar. “Everything in college is about empiricism, and some things in religion are just not empirical.”

A total of 11 presenters discussed their research projects at the symposium.
A total of 11 presenters discussed their research projects at the symposium.

More on the Horizon

Organizers said that they want to expand the conference in future years.

“This year was very important in widening and deepening the quality and quantity of the papers submitted by the students,” reported Rabbi Yitzchok Dubov, director of the Sinai Scholars Society.

Rabbi Moshe Gray, director of the Chabad House serving Dartmouth and a member of the symposium’s executive committee, said that he saw in the conference a model for similar events around the country.

“We’re aiming to create more such symposia,” he stated, “each with a narrowed focus on certain topics to stimulate in-depth conversation and discussion.”

Gabi Tudin, a Middle East studies major at Dartmouth, pronounced the conference a success, noting that the most impressive part of the event was “hearing Jewish scholars my age openly discuss Judaism.”

“Many kids are usually embarrassed to discuss these things with their peers,” she explained.

“Few people have the boldness to address the issues we discussed today,” added Bodnar, whose family moved to the United States four years ago after living in Hungary and Australia. “But based on the reaction around the room, I can tell I am not the only one who thinks about these issues; many others have been thinking about these things, as well.”

Taking part in the proceedings was philanthropist George Rohr, a funder of the Sinai Scholars Society. He said afterwards that he was impressed with the students’ work.

“I was particularly struck by the breadth and depth of the topics covered by the students’ presentations, by the seriousness of purpose that they each brought to their work, and by the vigorous, no-holds-barred give-and-take among the students and faculty during the discussion period after each presentation,” he said.

“The caliber of these students’ work was tremendous,” added Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. “They were able to approach the Torah with a fresh perspective and dove right in, offering unique insights into fundamental philosophical questions, while at the same time, inspiring their peers.”

At the end of the conference, Ithaca College senior Zach Klein, who delivered a paper about the interplay between art and music, was chosen as the recipient of a $500 prize for his work. Klein’s research focused on the question of whether Jewish practices could be critically analyzed as a form of art.

The paper was “very poetic and based in practical Jewish learning,” said Lior Bassell, a Dartmouth senior who served as the conference’s student coordinator.

During a midday break, Naftali Loewenthal, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies who also spoke at the conference, approached Klein to discuss his paper. Klein said that the interaction has encouraged him to continue his research at Jerusalem’s Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies this summer.

“It meant a lot to me that Dr. Loewenthal” came over, said Klein. “He said that my analysis likening prayer to music was a really beautiful concept.”