Aspiring Judaic scholars from across the country descended on Princeton University Sunday for a groundbreaking conference with leading professors in an examination of the nexus between Jewish ethics and the post-modern world.

For the participants of the first-ever Sinai Scholars Academic Symposium, which was hosted by the campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch center at Princeton, the conference represented the culmination of grueling research to prepare papers on a host of topics, from the protection of human rights to the power of speech to convey metaphysical reality. It was also an affirmation of the undergraduates’ scholarly skills.

“The fact that professors came in from all over the world for this conference shows us that our ideas are important,” said Shifra Blumenthal, an English major at the University of Colorado. “It motivates us to want to explore further.”

The symposium brought together the Sinai Scholars – members of a select group of students who take non-credit courses at 45 campus-based Chabad Houses in a joint program of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and the Chabad on Campus International Foundation – and a panel of professors, including Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, professor emeritus of philosophy at Toronto’s Humber College; Lewis Glinert, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Dartmouth College; Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University; and Naftali Loewenthal, professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at University College of London.

Nine of the students presented their original papers, which were selected by the Sinai Scholars board, during a schedule interspersed by lectures from the professors. Groups of attendees came from Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, NYU and other institutions.

Hosted by Chabad on Campus at Princeton, the conference was sponsored by Capital IQ, a financial consulting firm.

Sarianna Murphy from the University of Colorado presented a paper titled “Exploring the Morality and Legality of Torture and the Defense of Necessity as Understood by International Human-Rights Law, International Criminal Law, and Judaic Law.” Looking at the question of how best to protect a society from the threat of terrorism, Murphy’s discussion centered on the conflict between prohibitions on torture on the one hand and actions rooted in self-defense on the other.

“Even under Judaic law,” her paper concludes, “acts of violence which are committed out of self-defense and preservation are indeed understood and in many ways, allowed.”

Stanford University’s Daniel Slate, meanwhile, looked at modern applications of the Ten Commandments in discussing his paper, “Sinai and the Principles of Highest Purpose.”

“When we struggle with the Divine, we are not going against G‑d, we are rising to the challenge,” he asserted. “The Ten Commandments are like a constitution: precepts that create basic norms. Jewish law has provided articulation of the principles given at Sinai and we gradually through time and history find that we have a fuller articulation.”

Dartmouth College professor Lewis Glinert addresses the conference. (Photo: Binyamin Lifshitz)
Dartmouth College professor Lewis Glinert addresses the conference. (Photo: Binyamin Lifshitz)

In response, Glinert asked Slate how an individual Jew would know to act in a unique situation, to which the student replied that an examined study of the corpus of Jewish codes and ethical works would provide a solution to even the most perplexing of circumstances.

Picking up on the idea of the Torah being immutable, while the distillation of its laws is an ongoing process, Schochet spoke about Divine revelation.

G‑d revealed Himself at Sinai and gave mankind certain instructions,” lectured the professor. “Religion needs verification just like everything else in life, and by the whole Jewish nation witnessing publicly that defining moment of our beliefs, we all became prophets.”

In her presentation, NYU student Rachel Channon addressed the nature of Divine speech.

“Speech is how G‑d creates,” said Channon. “So we must always tell the truth and say positive things to bring goodness into the world.”

Schiffman then posed a challenge to the student.

“Yes, but sometimes we must lie in order to preserve the peace,” said the NYU professor. “Perhaps we should address the question: Should everything always be revealed?”

Following the proceedings, Loewenthal, who flew in from London specifically for the conference, said that he was “highly impressed with the skills of those who presented, and with [the students] who asked questions and responded.”

“The students put in a lot of research, and were well-versed in the topics of their theses,” agreed Schochet. “I could tell that they really knew the depth of their material.”

Shifra Blumenthal presents her paper, “What and Where is G-d, and What Does it Have to Do With Me?” (Photo: Binyamin Lifshitz)
Shifra Blumenthal presents her paper, “What and Where is G-d, and What Does it Have to Do With Me?” (Photo: Binyamin Lifshitz)

Ideal Location

Ethan Ludmir, a biology major at Princeton who participated in the conference as the president of the hosting Chabad House’s student board, saw in the event a statement on the campus’ vibrant Jewish life.

“This is the perfect spot,” he said, gesturing to the ivy-covered walls of the university’s gothic-style buildings, “to bring Jewish students and academics together.”

“This is a great opportunity for students to experience the intellect and scholarship that Princeton is known for,” offered Rabbi Eitan Webb, an officially-recognized university chaplain who has directed the Chabad House since 2002.

Surveying the day’s back-and-forth, Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, called the conference “groundbreaking.”

“This was a big pull, an opportunity for students to speak one on one with scholars,” echoed Rabbi Yitzchak Dubov, director of the Sinai Scholars Society. “They each have a chance to discuss their personal ideas on Judaism and hear feedback from people who dedicate their entire lives to it.”

“When I saw that I could write an essay, and then go to a conference and defend my arguments and talk about my ideas, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Blumenthal.

As the day drew to a close over dinner at the Chabad House, a winning paper was announced and its author awarded a cash prize. The winner was Murphy.

“From this experience,” she said, “I feel the sense of community and universalism that as a child, I hadn’t realized Judaism represented. Chabad is a place that I and so many others can call home.”