Yeshiva University should be credited for the stroke of genius that led it to bestow an honorary degree on David Brooks at its annual convocation Sunday.
The resident conservative voice on the New York Times opinion page, Brooks has been described as liberals’ favorite conservative — not shrill or angry, but avowedly centrist, pragmatic and rational, a necessary and relief-inducing corrective to the Tea Party fringe. It’s not surprising that an institution like YU, which has been accused of shifting ever more to the right of a still decidedly liberal community, would want to drape a sash around the neck of a guy capable of regular dialogue with the NPR crowd. It also probably doesn’t hurt that he penned a column earlier this year celebrating Orthodox life.
In a similarly savvy move, Brooks returned the love, invoking Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s famous dichotomy of the two Adams to illustrate a point he has been hammering away at in his columns for years — that our culture is rapidly losing (has lost?) the ability to teach our young about the most important things, that we’ve created a corps of robotic overachievers capable of starting groundbreaking companies and curing fatal diseases, but who are deeply ignorant of life’s deepest truths.
In such a culture, Brooks said Sunday, Yeshiva University represents a “profound and necessary counterculture.”
Brooks devoted the bulk of his short address to highlighting the pedagogical components necessary to fostering Adam 2, the humble Adam who desires to be good, over Adam 1, the majestic Adam driven to achieve and acquire: a moral logic (to complement economic logic), a new metaphor of life as confrontation with our lesser impulses (to complement the metaphor of life as a journey), a new knowledge of how to live (to complement the knowledge of skills), and a new motivation of love (to complement the motivation of self-interest).
On that last point, Brooks delivered his one applause line. He aimed it at the part of the Jewish community that is shrinking — a nod toward the Reform and Conservative movements that, as per the recent Pew study, are struggling to retain their members. But given the crowd’s reaction, it’s safe to say the message struck a chord with the Orthodox crowd’s sense of its own shortcomings.
“We’re good at talking about ritual. We’re good at debating law,” Brooks said. “We’re not great at talking about the love of God.”
Full video below: