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The consumer vs. the covenant

Has a relentless focus on outcomes stripped the academy of purpose?

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.

Modernity poses a challenge. We begin to think of our own lives exclusively through the lens of a consumer rather than as a covenant. There is a comfort in being a consumer. One knows the product, reads the instruction manual and checks the warranty. Very little risk. In a covenant, however, there is exposure, vulnerability, uncertainty and great risk. But the upside is different as well. The consumer is only transactional, the covenantal is transformational.

One of the primary challenges in living in a consumer culture is confusing the two modalities and approaching covenantal matters as consumers. This deeply impacts fundamental aspects of our culture, including the rising divorce rate, an alarming increase in mental health struggles and the way we think about our own education. So long as higher education is exclusively focused on information, we will always be outpaced by technological change. Information drives consumer decisions, and there are better ways to access information than just the halls of a university. But the covenantal model of faith will always provide values for the lives of our students. Covenant creates community. A consumer mindset is utilitarian — information precedes commitment. In a covenant, however, commitment precedes information — the relationship is a product of the commitment itself. And this is the enduring value of faith based communities — particularly in higher education. Faith nourishes, strengthens and enriches life. As our students construct their lives, faith is a reminder that their lives are part of a larger purposeful story. And through covenantal commitments, we create new chapters in that great story, remaining deeply rooted and forward focused.

This is a moment for faith. As the world evolves with unprecedented speed — in science and technology — the very fabric of our community, identities and sense of self has begun to erode. A younger generation is emerging that feels untethered from communal infrastructure. With the unprecedented choices afforded through technology, there is now a crisis of anxiety, loneliness and commitment. And it is faith communities like Yeshiva University which, rather than retreated, have advanced the value of faith.

We are deeply rooted and forward focused. We have a 3,000-year-old tradition, yet we remain forward focused — ever ready to confront the challenges of the future. Some people misunderstand the juxtaposition of being deeply rooted and forward focused. They assume that the deep roots of Jewish tradition serve as a bulwark against instability, ensuring that the changes of the future don’t undermine our tradition.

But that is not the true purpose of faith. Being deeply rooted is what propels us with confidence to infuse the future with meaning. A deeply rooted past is a responsibility to perpetuate and grow. The roots of the Jewish tradition serve as a call to action, to look forward, continue the grand narrative of the Jewish people and bring our values out into the world.

Our students are the leaders of tomorrow because they contextualize their lives within our covenant of faith. Faith is a reminder that your life is part of a larger story. Faith is a reminder that your life has a story. When people ask me when Yeshiva University began, I answer that we began 3,000 years ago when Moses received the Torah at Sinai.

And it is our deeply rooted story that ensures that our children will not only survive history but drive history as we move history forward towards redemption.

Ari Berman is the president of Yeshiva University.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.