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Modern Orthodoxy and the Myth of the Perfect YU Student

YU students often point to a posterchild, the perfect YU guy or lady who’s got all the credentials that our Modern Orthodox institution could hope to boast about. Sure, there are a few different sorts of people here—the line of thought goes—but everyone knows who the “real” YU students are. There exists a single most important breed of Jew, on whose enrollment and participation the university depends nearly exclusively. It doesn’t matter whom YU highlights to its donors or how vociferously any administrators praise undergraduate diversity. Once you’re here, many students believe, you know who really counts.

Most labeling grows out of YU’s own structure. There are real majors and fake majors, frum Judaic studies programs and joke ones, legit yeshivot/seminaries and all the others. Most people probably think that their chosen path represents the single best combination of these possible factors. Deep down, the typical YU student probably feels that if only everyone else here would pursue YU’s offerings the way he or she does, the place would just be so much better. The right relative enthusiasms for Torah and madda; the proper investment in, or abstinence from, the best clubs; the right number of years in the right Israel program—each of these is a crucial factor in creating the “perfect” YU student. Everyone else is everyone else.

This myopic mentality fails to take into account that it’s completely wrong. The fact is that YU needs many different types of students in order to succeed. YU pursues a complex mission, and no one type of person can fulfill it alone. The modern world charges committed Jews with a diverse set of responsibilities. The intensity of this charge calls not for picking and choosing which of these responsibilities to take seriously and which to delegitimize, but for thoughtful recognition that certain components of our mission might best be advanced by specific types of Jews, and other parts by other Jews. The point is not to pick and praise one perfect part of the Jewish spectrum, and devise some ignorant logic by which this one type of person can singlehandedly resolve all tensions of Orthodoxy. When the shades are up, we need to peer outside of Glueck and adopt a broader perspective.

Everyone from the afternoon-seder devotees to the more madda-inclined majors who are still flustered when, at 11:00 PM, they see actual people actually learning in that glass building, contributes crucially to YU and our mission. Unfortunately, while recognition of your own contribution’s value is important, it makes it particularly easy to mentally invalidate and ignore anyone who goes down a widely divergent, or only slightly different, Jewish route. No matter how committed a student is to (an understanding of) Torah u-Madda, he or she would be pathetically misguided to pretend that if everybody pursued precisely that path, then the state of Orthodoxy would be just fine.

Our microcosmic Modern Orthodox community provides an excellent metaphor for world Jewry and the exigencies of its push to survive. Our nation’s most committed yoshvei beit midrash (religious-study-hall dwellers) ensure they we stay firmly rooted in tradition, a historical miracle. The more progressive of our brethren, on the other hand, keep us conversant, relevant, and approachable. Similarly, on our micro level, University President Richard M. Joel emphasizes that YU could not claim collegiate profundity if at the core of our campuses and institutional soul we did not have traditional, serious batei midrash. And while, certainly, YU’s mission would fail without our most committed learners, we would similarly flop without the night-and-day work of our more classically-worldly students.

The two sides, you would hope most YU students believe, are not mutually exclusive. Needless to say, YU claims hundreds of students whose devotion to so many of the various efforts subsumed by Torah u-Madda presents a moving model for everyone. But come mid-semester crunch-time, everybody has got to make serious decisions, and reality forces most people to figure out which parts of the Modern Orthodox mission need their contributions the most.

And that’s wonderful. A YU student’s job is to concentrate and figure out how he or she, personally, can best promote and achieve YU ideals. It’s almost definitely true that nobody will ever determine who the most important Jews or YU students are, but it’s absolutely beyond question that those self-appointed determiners are missing the point. Like the global Jewish community, YU would neither transmit its profound message to society nor ensure its own survival without the multitude of different Jews who keep it stable and keep it moving.

You’ll never figure out who’s the best. But with hard work and the right focus, you might just achieve yours.