Not a Theocracy
I rarely furrow my brow. But Rabbi Brander’s recent email condemning one student’s display of a Confederate flag at the election-night party in the Morgenstern Lounge inspired in me an uncommon display of forehead gymnastics. Appealing to “our foundational Jewish values” based on the teachings of Avraham and “the values of Halacha,” Rabbi Brander offered this southern student the benefit of the doubt while simultaneously denouncing any display of the Confederate flag since it is “a symbol too closely linked to the forces of regression and hate antithetical to our religion.”
Somehow, though, I doubt that particular Jewish values inspired this missive. More likely it was some combination of pressure from outspoken students (“the highly personalized condemnations and calls for the university to expel him”), fear of backlash should this incident become more publicly known (“news and pictures of this incident have been widely publicized”), and reflexive submission to modern sensibilities. Perhaps this proclamation did, in point of fact, uphold traditional Jewish values. But in light of our administration’s sparse history of Halachic condemnation, it seems to me that any overlap is merely incidental.
A student wears a Confederate flag to an election party, and the administration strongly denounces this display as non-Halachic. But violations of traditional Jewish norms are, while not the norm, far from uncommon at our university. I have seen students violate Shabbos publicly in the dormitories. I have seen students purchase meals at local non-kosher restaurants. I have seen students walk around campus without head coverings and without tzitzis. I have seen students publicly deny the existence of God, both in classrooms and outside of them. I have been forced by a teacher to study nude paintings even after I informed him that such analysis made me religiously uncomfortable. But the specific examples really supervene on the fundamental attitude -- our university enforces academic standards, not religious law. Should students who violate Halacha be invited in for a talk with Dean Nissel and Jonathan Schwab? Do these students also deserve to be publicly shamed by a Vice President in terms that clearly reveal their identities? Public opinion says no, as does prevailing administrative practice. So why did this student merit special treatment?
It seems that we selectively emphasize Jewish values. When faced with potential backlash from broader society, we ape the boilerplate outrage that we’ve seen erupt from secular institutions in similar predicaments, and call our anger righteous. But in so doing, perhaps we reveal the weakness of our religious leadership and our inability to consistently profess our unique system of laws and values. Maybe this is an unavoidable peculiarity of exilic Jewry; a small values-driven community stripped of independent authority and implanted into a foreign cultural climate will naturally have trouble proudly affirming its particular ideals when they conflict with the ideology currently in vogue. But it’s something to at least be conscious of.
The question is cliché at this point – is YU fundamentally Y or fundamentally U? And the policy debate straightforwardly follows: to what extent should our administration denounce infringement of Jewish law and values? If a student deserves criticism from the administration for a brief display of an attitude incongruous with Halacha, then it appears our leadership has cast their lots with the Y. If we can presume consistency, we might reasonably expect more Halachic edicts to emanate from Belfer. But I personally am not concerned. The appeal to religious authority in Rabbi Brander’s email strikes me as a technique for framing a fundamentally areligious condemnation, not as the dawning of an administrative theocracy. Time will tell.