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What Dining Halls Taught Me About Growing in Wisdom

Becoming Religious at Harvard

By Spencer W. Glassman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

Every Harvard tour mentions the many hours of deep discussion a first-year has in Annenberg, or the close-knit community formed in the Houses — as if each dining hall is like a family table. As I became an Orthodox Jew, I left behind the endless rows of the Berg and the ornate ceilings of Leverett to eat in a building some students don’t even know serves food: Harvard Hillel.

Like many other first-years, I loved Annenberg. Entering with my card out, I would hand it over to John so that he could shout “The Glassman!” back to me. The room looked like the way Harvard is supposed to feel, with statues in the back and entrancing stained-glass windows throughout. More so than the appearance, or what now seems like plentiful options of food, the people roaming around made Annenberg lively. Most of the faces that I recognize when I walk around campus were imprinted in my memory next to the Veritaffle press or at a table of twelve people whom I’d never met. This exposure to so many different people is exactly what Harvard intends for first-years and tries to mimic for upperclassmen.

The House dining halls are seemingly supposed to be miniature versions of Annenberg. Whether you are in Leverett or Pforzheimer, you will meet a representative sampling of the Harvard student body. A student who properly takes advantage of the House dining hall has many people to wave to in the SEC even if they are a Comp Lit concentrator.

I began sophomore year by sitting with my roommates in Leverett House, slowly acclimating to the environment and meeting the tutors, other students, and staff. Only a few months later, when I began to follow the rules of Kashrus (keeping kosher) more seriously, my roommates would joke about whether I was really a Leverett House student. I had no hard feelings toward them. After all, I almost never ate in the dining hall. When I’d get back to our suite, they would ask, “Where did you go? Hillel to Chabad then back to Hillel and then Chabad?”

I’d answer, “Basically, yeah.”

But as my world has grown smaller, it has also grown deeper. In Annenberg, I had to reintroduce myself during every meal. It was a struggle to keep track of everyone’s names. If I met someone who lived in Hollis one day, I had to store that fact in the back of my mind so that I could ask the next Hollis resident if they knew each other. Despite my Rolodex of names, intended concentrations, hometowns, and dorms, I didn’t really get to know that many people. While most of the people I wave to in the streets are from Annenberg, very few of those who would stop me to have a conversation are.

With so few people eating at Hillel, I had to get past introductions quickly. I didn’t start keeping kosher because I only wanted to eat with the people at Hillel. Most of the regulars at Hillel, I met because I started keeping kosher. I no longer had the opportunity to get the most out of Harvard by meeting everyone; instead, I had to get to know these few people very well.

We can learn about the world in two ways. We can go everywhere, meet everyone, and read every book. This exploration will make us understand ourselves far better. It will grow us through new reference points and memories. It is part of the reason why studying history or reading older books are such valuable endeavors: They are foreign to us. They speak about human experience, but are distanced from our circumstances. This is essentially Annenberg.

Yet, in “Siddhartha,” Herman Hesse articulates an alternative — one that involves appreciating the miraculous depth of the world by exploring one place. In this book, the eponymous character finds themself being taken across a river by a ferryman named Vasudeva. Siddhartha is confused as to how Vasudeva retains such a refined soul and sagacious disposition after spending his whole life crossing the same river back and forth. Vasudeva responds, “The river has taught me to listen, from it you will learn it as well. It knows everything, the river, everything can be learned from it. See, you’ve already learned this from the water too, that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek depth.”

So how are we to take advantage of our time at Harvard in the wake of these seemingly opposite approaches to acquiring wisdom? Should we take classes in every subject at the broadest level to gain an appreciation of every aspect of human knowledge? Or should we make one thing our own, no matter how particular it is, and understand that thing with incredible profundity?

Judaism has a strong imperative of Torah study. But deciding how to tackle such study can be overwhelming. There is an essentially infinite amount of material that one can learn about the Torah, from the narratives in Kings to the intricate laws of how to build a Sukkah. One could spend one’s entire life looking at any verse in the Torah, studying every commentary on the verse; or one could get a taste of all the different niches within the world of Torah, without developing expertise in any topic.

When the great Rabbi Hillel the Elder was asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this — go and study it!” Hillel teaches us that we can both seek to understand this maxim as wholly as possible, and through that realize the meaning of the rest of the Torah, or we can learn the whole Torah and from that be able to appreciate this maxim.

Such is the case at Harvard. We can try and meet everyone on campus, or we can really get to know a few people. We can join every club, study abroad, and travel the world, but all the while not really know anything about Cambridge beyond the gates of Harvard. At the same time, if we spend all our time exploring every nook and cranny of Harvard Square, we’ll miss the whole world. We can also take classes in every discipline, to familiarize ourselves with ecology, English, and Economics. Or we can gain a Ph.D. level of knowledge in just one of them. The instantiations of this dichotomy are endless, and there is no heuristic to tell us which one is better than the other. But we shouldn’t fear, because both will grow our wisdom if we show proper concern.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

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