Torah and Madda or Torah with Madda?
I generally object to any criticism of YU. It is an institution for Jews, and as such it demands our defense. I generally argue that YU should be praised out loud, even if it isn’t deserved, because YU’s success and reputation are necessary for the advancement of the Jewish people. Now, however, YU must be reprimanded for going astray.
This week, YU President Rabbi Ari Berman took a ride in the elevator to Belfer Hall with a group of students, including me, coming out of a class for which we all ostensibly read “Frankenstein.” by Mary Shelley. Rabbi Berman wanted to discuss Frankenstein, which proved awkward because most of the students apparently hadn’t read the book. More troublesome though, Rabbi Berman wanted to discuss Frankenstein as it relates to Jewish thought. He must not have realized that the general studies professors at YU do not approach Jewish thought with great rigor. If Rabbi Berman thinks Frankenstein’s most important points relate to Jewish thought, then he should insist that teachers teach it in a way that incorporates Jewish thought.
At YU, the rabbis I have met believe in the school’s motto, Torah Umadda, and they constantly strive to show how Judaism is compatible and enriched by secular studies. However, many general studies teachers do not seem to share this attitude. As the rabbis of YU marry Torah Umadda, some teachers view the Torah aspect of YU as an irrelevant, even destructive force. Some professors apparently suspect that any good word spoken about Orthodox Jews is either a mistake or a lie. Orthodox Jews did not fight for civil rights, he heard from a professor; we must confuse them with enlightened Reform Jews. Orthodox Jews don’t believe in feminism and don’t include women in religion, an English teacher insists; Wilf’s students can’t even learn with Beren’s students! I saw a YU market thread where many students commented that a YU department head had made repeated anti-Semitic remarks. I had to attend assigned films that implied that the Israel Defense Forces, in which I served, are a genocidal, imperialist and evil force. Some of the humanities departments seem so gripped by radical, secular leftism, so utterly antithetical to Judaism, that they cannot accept a good word about religion and Orthodox Jews.
I am not talking about this often veiled anti-Semitism because I am on a crusade against these private teachers. I rather believe that their presence on campus is only the symptom of a more systemic problem. I also don’t want to pretend that most or even many professors don’t like Jews; This is obviously not the case. My problem is the total disconnection between Torah and madda aspects of Yu. What the locked-down anti-Semites and opponents of religion are teaching here is just a particularly strong reminder that Judaism in YU is disappearing every afternoon.
Yeshiva University attracted elite students because of its uniqueness. Some of the best and brightest would turn down acceptances from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and many other top schools because YU was the only place that had both Torah and madda. Now, thank goodness, campuses across the country have Chabads and Hillels, and frankly YU is often less creative, inspiring, and engaging than Chabad on Campus. Chabad treats Judaism as something to be loved and spread in all areas and all aspects of life. For me, YU treats Judaism as something that should only be taught in morning classes.
I agree that students here are probably more likely to marry Jews and have Jewish children than at other universities, but YU’s emphasis on secular studies outweighs its emphasis on religious studies. Rabbis are great, but they are caught in an institution that systematically stifles their good work in the afternoons. Secular knowledge should enhance Judaism, but at YU the two often seem to be in competition. And I think secularism is winning.
The rabbis appear completely helpless when it comes to secular matters. What some rabbis oppose down in the beit midrash is encouraged upstairs in the amphitheatres. If Yeshiva University is too afraid to encourage religion in secular classrooms, then the dream of modern Orthodoxy walks on thin ice.
Administrators of Yeshiva University can easily choose to improve this institution by taking control of their recruitment and goals. Professors with beliefs contrary to Judaism belong to Hunter College, not YU. Professors who have a distaste for Israel belong to Columbia. Rabbis must have some level of control when it comes to secular studies. If students who oppose YU’s religion and values protest loudly, so be it. As things stand, YU’s apparent core values are not manifesting in any meaningful way. At least not after morning classes.
There should be religious aspects of secular classes. Instead of showing up to biology class and being told that everything Jews believe is wrong, I want to be taught how Jewish wisdom supports and aligns with modern science. Rabbis should lead secular departments and teach some secular subjects. Wouldn’t Rabbi Benjamin Blech be an exceptional English teacher? Wouldn’t Rabbi Mordechai Cohen make an excellent professor of Far Eastern history? Rabbi Mordechai Becher knows as much about history as any other YU professor. Why is it relegated to the morning?
We need many more professors like Professor David Lavinsky, who often brings Judaism into discussions; he currently teaches a course called “Milton and Religion”, with Rabbi Dov Lerner. Let this class, this professor and this rabbi serve as role models. Wouldn’t “The Source”, “Exodus” and “Altneuland” be more relevant to our lives and our values than “Eureka” and “Slaughterhouse Five”? Learning Judaism in secular classes would make both Torah and madda more interesting, effective and exciting aspects of YU. It might even attract more students who are accepted into Ivy League universities. It would definitely make YU unique. YU would be a better university. And as a bonus, Rabbi Berman won’t think we’re all stupid when he tries to discuss Judaism and Frankenstein with us. We could teach ourselves instead.
The thing is, many courses here are boring because they’re irrelevant. Most students do not crave knowledge about the subjects they are required to take. But, if classes incorporated Jewish thought and history, I believe students would be much more inspired to attend and participate. Secular subjects wouldn’t just be for credits and grades, they would reinforce our deepest beliefs. YU could become one of the only colleges in the country where students are constantly learning. YU could easily become an elite.
Yeshiva University administrators are expected to have values, principles, and courage. What and where are their principles? Religion and Judaism are losing the battle at Yeshiva University. I call on the rabbis of YU to tell the administration, as I say now, that YU must be a place where Jewish values and education can thrive. Separating the two principles of the school will lead to it becoming a watered down, merely socially orthodox institution. Their union could place us among the most vaunted educational institutions in the country. The administration must take control and prioritize its values, its mission and its role in shaping the Jewish future.
Photo credit: Yeshiva University