What Should You Do and Why?

A new professor at Tufts tackles life’s big questions through the examination of Jewish law and ethics

In the classroom, Yonatan Brafman poses big questions: What is justice? How should we define human rights? What are our obligations to other people? How do we live a good life?

He’s not alone in grappling with such questions, of course. Trying to figure out what we should do and why is “something that we are constantly doing as human beings and as citizens,” says Brafman, who joins the Tufts faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Religion in September.  

He helps students explore these issues by drawing on his study of Jewish law and ethics in the context of moral, legal, and political philosophy. His courses at Tufts will cover topics such as modernity and Judaism, religion and justice, and an introduction to Judaism.

Brafman’s position is a new one for the religion department, created to expand the university’s offerings in Judaic Studies, says James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “He fills an important gap in our curriculum,” Glaser says. “I think he’s going to be a magnet for students—and not just Jewish students—because he’s a dynamic, exciting individual, his work is rooted in big ideas, and he’s got big things to say.”

The new position, and Brafman himself, are welcome additions to Jewish life at Tufts, says Rabbi Naftali Brawer, the Jewish chaplain and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel. “This appointment provides Tufts with an expert who can speak to many issues confronting contemporary Jews and Judaism, as well as deepen interfaith understanding,” he says. “I'm excited to have Professor Brafman join our community.”

Brafman comes to Tufts from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was an assistant professor of Jewish thought and ethics and directed a graduate program in Jewish ethics. He earned his doctorate in the philosophy of religion and Jewish thought at Columbia University, and has taught at Princeton and Columbia, as well as at yeshivas in New York City and Jerusalem.

Brafman started studying Jewish texts as a 6-year-old growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Queens, but his academic training has been in secular universities and he draws a clear line between his personal religious commitments and what he teaches. Judaic Studies is “not only for Jews, certainly, and is not only in the service of Judaism,” he says. “It is the exploration of Jewish texts, Jewish history, Jewish experience as part of the humanities, part of reflection on human experience.”

Last fall, as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed deep inequities in America and mass protests against racism roiled the country, Brafman taught a course he created called Judaism, Human Rights, and Social Justice. The reading list included philosophers like Aristotle, John Locke, and John Rawls, as well as Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, giving students a common foundation in a variety of philosophical approaches to social justice and human rights. Toward the end of the course, Brafman asked students to apply those theories to issues such as reparations for slavery and triage decisions in health care.

“I’m a theorist, but I think that we often can get a better grip on theories through thinking about their application,” he says.

In other courses, he might ask students to consider the definition of religion itself. Why has it been deemed, in some cultures and time periods, to be something private, concerned with faith, and mainly involving rituals in a house of worship on a designated day? What understandings of religion does that leave out?

Brafman is also interested in questions about the basis for religious laws. Jewish legal thinkers over the centuries, whose writings he likens to Supreme Court decisions, make arguments based on all sorts of reasons, from health considerations to politics and precedent, he says.

“Very infrequently do they say, ‘Oh, you should do this, because it’s a commandment,’” he says. “There are various forms and types of reasoning at play, and this really goes to break down the distinction we might assume between religious reasoning and ethical reasoning, prudential reasoning, political reasoning, and so on.”

Whatever the subject, Brafman looks forward to having his thinking sharpened by interacting with students. “Tufts has a great reputation as a research university with the soul of a liberal arts college, which really appeals to me,” he says. “I’m always drawn to teaching undergraduates, because things are open-ended for them. They’re trying to figure out the world.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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