By: Michael Z. Kellman  | 

From the Editor’s Desk: Recognizing the Rosh HaYeshiva

The recent passing of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l has dealt a tremendous blow to World Jewry and Modern Orthodoxy. The Rav leaves a gap in our communal life which is irreparable. At YU, this loss is immeasurably more painful. The Rav always had a special connection to Yeshiva, acting as the Rosh Yeshiva here from his arrival in 1941 and giving shiur until 1986. He helped define us in his role as the preeminent figure in Modern Orthodoxy and the living embodiment of the ideals of Torah U’Madda. Anyone who heard the speeches at the Azkara on Sunday, or knows someone who had contact with this great figure, knows than that there is no one who can replace this man who was so often larger than life.

This is the foundation of many of the problems which face YU and its population.

Yeshiva University grapples daily with a dilemma which plagues all institutions trying to serve a varied population which is split, often strenuously, on most issues. In the case of YU, as is often true of people or organizations that try to please everybody, nobody is satisfied. The critics on the right chastise us for defaming the word Yeshiva by applying it to our bastion of secular studies. The liberals among us ridicule our aspirations towards higher education and mock our close-minded, religiously-limited view of the world.

Many argue that in its institutional schizophrenia, YU ends up being neither a Yeshiva nor a University. Wandering in a jungle of philosophical disputations, we flounder in the quicksand of issues which bogs down Modern Orthodoxy today. We find it difficult to define our role, our mission, or our system of beliefs. The major source of this confusion is the absence of a University-wide accepted Rosh Yeshiva.

In the Rav’s heyday, he was The Rosh HaYeshiva. As many remarked in their hespedim, and as is indicated in his title, he was The Rav; he was everyone's rebbe. At the Azkara, all points in the religious spectrum were represented. He demanded, deserved and received respect and admiration from everyone he encountered.

In today’s YU, many rebbeim take their title of Rosh Yeshiva literally, dictating their own policies during shiur. Their pot shots at the Yeshiva in which they teach seem ludicrous. I cannot understand how anyone can sit in a yeshiva while placing himself in direct conflict with its ideals.

In any Yeshiva, there can be only one Rosh HaYeshiva, who sets policy and hashkafa, and takes the mantle of spiritual leader of the Yeshiva-community. A multitude of Roshei Yeshiva leads to a multitude of opinions and the splintering of the larger YU community into diverse and often conflicting groups. While this allows a larger YU mosaic to exist, with a variety of opinions and a wider spectrum of Judaism, it irrevocably divides us and creates a population of isolated partisans each loyal to a particular rebbe or shita, ready to do battle for their cause. It is therefore impossible to act as a unified community with shared ideas which works towards a common goal.

The Rosh Yeshiva and President, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, hasa unique position which is accompanied by its own unique difficulties. As Rosh Yeshiva, he is called upon to subsume our collection of shittot into one derech and hashkafa. As President of the University, he is responsible for representing YU to the outside world, and all the thousand tasks which demand the attention of the chief administrator of a university.

This dual role calls upon Rabbi Dr. Lamm to accomplish the impossible. One man, however good his intentions, cannot be everywhere at once. And this is one of the main problems. In my own informal polling of my fellow students, I found many who reacted with astonishment when I informed them that Rabbi Lamm was the Rosh Yeshiva. Most confessed their ignorance as to the identity of the spiritual leader of YU, and many guessed other popular rebbeim and poskim. Even more telling was the comment of one student who sat behind me at the recent Dorm Talks which featured Rabbi Lamm. As Rabbi Lamm rose to take the podium, the student exclaimed, “Oh, that’s Rabbi Lamm?!” While I am sure that this comment was meant facetiously, in every joke there is an ounce of truth, and in this remark the truth hurts.

People do not know the Rosh Yeshiva. His presence is not felt around the Beis Medrash or YU. Students are unaware of his positions and views of what Torah U’Madda means and should mean to us, as its champions in World Jewry. The mission of the school as developed by its leader is lost on its constituents. While copies of the book “Torah U’Madda” and other such publications abound, I do not think that the minuscule portion of the population who have read them make a dent in the overwhelming ignorance of the majority.

Perhaps a monthly sicha by the Rosh Yeshiva, or more than one appearance in the school per semester, would increase identification of the students with the man who is supposed to be our ‘rebbe’, as Rabbi Lamm so lovingly referred to the Rav in his hesped. Perhaps the problem is just that one man cannot simultaneously hold both positions. Perhaps the President cannot be the Rosh Yeshiva, or vice versa. They are very different jobs which inevitably come into conflict.

However, a greater problem is posed by the students themselves. Many of them refuse to accept Rabbi Lamm as their rebbe. Sitting in Dorm Talks last week, I was disgusted and appalled to hear a trio of “yeshivish” guys, sitting in the back, mocking every word which came out of Rabbi Lamm’s mouth, I do not understand people who claim to be yeshiva bochurim, yet show no respect for a Rav, any Rav, let alone the Rosh Yeshiva of their yeshiva. If they do not consider YU their yeshiva, then they don’t belong here. If they disagree with Rabbi Lamm or any other way, that is their prerogative. However, to sit in the back of a public forum and openly mock a Rav? This is unheard of!

I have known Rabbi Lamm my entire life. I grew up in his shul and have respected him since the days when he would lift me in the air, only to have me inevitably grab hold of his beard. I respect him as a Rav, a Talmid Chacham and as a Rosh Yeshiva. Granted he does not have the widespread appeal of the Rav, or the encyclopedic knowledge or universal acceptance. However, there is no one who can make those claims. The Rav is gone, his equal will not be found. Yet, we must discover how to continue to live in his absence, with our Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Norman Lamm.