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Censorship is Soo Two Decades Ago

Though notorious for being the decade that bore the best Macs basketball team in decades (until today!), the 90s at YU had more depth than just jocks and sports. YU faced existential questions similar to those that students and the institution as a whole face today: censorship, literary sex scandals, and the age-old question of yeshiva or university.

In an article published October 27, 1993, The Commentator's Alex Bailey reported that the YCSC's literary journal, Kol, was confiscated and even extracted from student's personal mailboxes due to "sexually explicit references" for the first time in, at that time, Kol's "thirty years of intermittent production." This act of censorship led Dr. William Lee of the English Department and Rosh Yeshiva Rav Kahn to engage in an extensive debate in The Commentator spanning approximately six weeks.

Only the copies still in the editors’ hands survived the purge.  There is one "public" copy left in the YU archives, but, like any archival materials, this copy can be viewed by appointment only, and with the supervision of a librarian.

There were two articles in question: “Smiling John” by Howard Katz, and “Ruminations of an ex-Boyfriend, or: The Night God Called,” written anonymously.

Some students were quite upset by the sexually explicit and linguistically crude articles, both religiously and emotionally, and some of those took their grievances to then University President Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm.  The story goes that they showed him the passages they found most offensive, and he immediately agreed with their dismay and disgust. Although the reports do not explicitly state it, it seems that he himself authorized a group of students to seize the piles of the publication that were still available around campus. With or without President Lamm’s authorization, all the copies that had been available to students immediately disappeared.

Howard Katz’s story “Smiling John” created both a groundskeeper, the voice of most of the story, and the title character, a suicidal, wheelchair-bound man who tells stories-within-the-story of his sexual conquests and wants the groundskeeper to help him commit suicide.  His dialogue includes curses and purely sexual content, not to be confused with intimacy, love, or anything else.  Creating such a character required curses and an amoral attitude toward sex.

That issue of Kol also included the less racy, but still halakhically disheartening “Ruminations of an Ex-Boyfriend or:  The Night God Called,” “a first-person prose piece in which the speaker, evidently a YC student, has been dating a girl named Rebecca and waiting to have sex.  Feeling ashamed, she calls to cry on his shoulder after having had sex with someone who now won’t even talk to her.  The speaker, Neil, is angry rather than sympathetic and ends up including the experience in a literature term paper he’s writing.  Rebecca, we assume, is in school at SCW, though that’s not absolutely certain; the piece opens with his friends heading down to see young women on a Thursday night.  Clearly the author felt he was taking chances because the piece is written anonymously.

In retrospect, "Ruminations" could perhaps be seen as more problematic than the short story because of its autobiographical premise and because it points to violation of halakha by a girl who’s most likely from SCW and, at the very least, in the realm of thought of a YC student.

At the root of the scandal, what upset the students in Fall '93?  What upset President Lamm, Rabbi Kahn, and Dr. Lee, all of whom reportedly responded with passion?

In response to the scandal, Dr. Lee came out with an extensive article entitled "Yeshiva, Yes, University, Yes"  (December 1993). He believes that YU is a unique place in that while "Torah values may not change…Torah U'madda does because Madda does." As such, "Is there such a thing as a Yeshiva University?" he asks. "Yes, but not without controversy and contradiction." He understands "some objections to Kol which deserve to be taken seriously." Yet he also maintains that "freedom of thought, inquiry, study, speech, and writing weigh in heavily; they help take the measure of a true university." Dr. Lee points out that "Torah and Madda, yeshiva and university inevitably clash at times because the assumptions behind them fundamentally differ," but YU exists to work within those boundaries and reconcile the two.

In the following week's Commentator, Rav Kahn responded with an unabashed, strong, two-page-spread article entitled "Yeshiva, Yes…" A major claim asserts that "YU is not a Siamese twin with two heads and one heart: YU was a yeshiva first and, after the advent of the college, continues to be a yeshiva foremost…YU may have many populations, but it has only one Torah…only one halakha."

But more than the issue of Yeshiva versus University, students and faculty alike were upset by the YU community's favorite subject, no doubt: censorship in light of potentially explicit content.

In terms of censorship, Kol, arguably, could be censored because it was funded by YCSC. The Commentator report in '93 echoes recent statements made by the student councils, "Since YCSC pays for the printing and production of ‘Kol’…they [asked] to remove the journals that they felt were improper." Thus, because the councils funded the publications, they could be censored. Many letters to the editor published between October and November of '93 all mentioned the issue of freedom of speech and censorship. Some students were opposed to the "divrei cheisheik" and wished to suppress “nivul peh,” while other students such as Editor-in-Chief of Kol, Joel Haber, believed that this was "absolutely an act of censorship."

Yeshiva student Hillel Weiner suggested a root for the problem that called for the need of censorship to begin with: a lack of communication between the administration and students. "What we need," he proposed "is a more active association between the college and the yeshiva," said Weiner in his letter to the editor on October 27, 1993.

Just like the Kol articles, 2011's favorite "Anonymous" described a halakhically forbidden sexual encounter, though there is, in comparison to 1993, almost no crude language or explicit sexual context (unless you count the word “bra,” and for some reason no one ever does). Like "Ruminations," the author of "How Do I Even Begin to Explain This" was anonymous and described an encounter that was, presumably, autobiographical in nature. What really hit home in both articles was the fact that they both alluded to SCW—and the allusions were in no way subtle.

Many alumni who were enrolled in YU during Fall 1993 immediately recalled the Kol event, when last semester's Beacon scandal reached their ears. "I emailed a classmate of mine and said, hey deja vu, didn’t this already happen when we were in YU?" said Rabbi Uri Goldstein (YC ‘96).

Every generation thinks that it is unique—that they are the ones discovering the world and making new waves—when the truth of the matter is that everything has been done. We are no different. Surrounding the Beacon scandal, there was buzz about how "nothing like this ever happens at YU." However, we are not the first ones to finally "break out" of the confines of a "yeshiva" university. History repeats itself and there's a lot we can learn from perusing Commie archives. May we always work to ensure we are progressing intellectually and religiously, and dealing with our conflicts in informed, productive manners.