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Respecting Our Roshei Yeshiva

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many and various reactions emerged from leaders, religious and otherwise, providing guidance to their constituents in a time of tragedy and confusion. While some of these responses were productive and spiritually enriching, others were neither of those things and, worse, were instead insensitive and offensive. Some of these comments and their speakers have already been reported on and analyzed in various media outlets. Others, however, have not.

As some students may already know, such comments were spoken by a YU Rosh Yeshiva the morning after the hurricane struck the city. Before the end of his signature 8:30am minyan, Rabbi Hershel Reichman addressed the students davening there. He explained that, in response to the destruction, we must increase our kavana during davening and engage in more acts of chessed. Also among his remarks, however, came an explanation for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. According to multiple witnesses, the rosh yeshiva blamed the devastation caused by the storm on recent “immoral” acts, such as financial crimes, prostitution, and gay marriage.

Rabbi Reichman’s remarks are hurtful, offensive, and somewhat strange on several levels. However, this is not the forum to discuss the philosophical and religious implications of the remarks; for such commentary, you can turn to YU’s official response to 9/11 in the form of Rabbi Shatz’s book and Rav Soveitchik’s famous Kol Dodi Dofek address, among several hundred other volumes on the topic of Jewish responses to tragedy.

What I am interested in discussing here, though, is how we respond to such remarks from one of our esteemed and respected roshei yeshiva.

On the one hand, it pains me to even report such news. The values of avoiding lashon hara and richilut would certainly caution against mentioning someone’s name in a public forum, all the more so in a context as negative as this. Even more painful is shining this negative light on a rav, a serious torah scholar, and a rosh yeshiva at this institution, no less; a certain respect must be afforded to that kind of religious figure. On top of that, though his remarks were heard by tens of students at his minyan and spread to others on campus, many did not even know about them. Perhaps if his comments were not repeated and publicized, they could be left at the eight-thirty minyan and forgotten.

On the other hand, I believe it is necessary and important to share this story and for our community—really, the several and diverse communities involved with Yeshiva University—to consider how we respond to these comments, and how we respond to potentially disagreeable rabbinic statements in general.

In this instance, as in many others, it is a difficult terrain to navigate.

Rabbi Reichman—and no other rosh yeshiva, for that matter—speaks for this institution; that is the president’s job. Our yeshiva is proud to have multiple roshei yeshiva with multiple (though limited in scope—but that’s another matter entirely) worldviews. The yeshiva certainly does not officially endorse or enforce any one “party line,” with the exception of clearly halakhic parameters, and each rosh yeshiva is free to express himself as he wishes, regardless of whether his peers or the administration agree.

But while Rav Reichman’s statement does not reflect the position of the university—and should certainly not be viewed as such by the world outside of YU—he is a rosh yeshiva, a leader and public figure of the institution, and therefore the internal members of the yeshiva community have a right to know what he said and to discuss their feelings in that regard. Students who seek to learn from and emulate a rabbi should know about the different statements—however rash—he is willing to make. Members of the community towards whom Rav Reichman’s remarks were directed should be allowed to know what he thinks of them. And talmidim should be able to ask what it means for a rosh yeshiva to say those things—what statement it makes about the institution, how other rebbeim should respond, and how the administration should treat such comments.

Another difficulty involved is that Rabbi Reichman’s comments do not reflect the stance of all Jews—or even all orthodox Jews—on the matter. In a general sense, Judaism, even in its orthodox brand, allows for a multiplicity of opinion; it seems unnecessary to even quote the idea of eilu vi’eilu divrei elokim hayim. More specifically, Rabbi Reichman comes from a chassidishe school of thought while many on this campus—and in the modern orthodox community in general—would associate with a more litvish outlook. Difference of opinion should not surprise us, then, and perhaps not perturb us either.

However, it seems fair to say that even while we believe that different communities share somewhat different values, we can still discuss those disagreements, even if we desire no discord but only to live in harmony and encourage mutual understanding. Pointing out that someone’s remarks emerge from a different school of thought does not fundamentally address the matter at hand, but only reaffirms that yes: there is a disagreement. We believe that eilu vi’eilu divrei elokim hayim but may still explore what lies behind the difference of opinion.

Others would add one more defense: Rabbi Reichman is not a politician, but a Talmudist. He is an elderly man and may not even be aware that his remarks would be so hurtful to this generation’s students. He was appointed to his position for his abilities to teach torah, some argue, not his ability to make sure his statements are “politically correct.” It is not his job to control what he says in that way.

I find this argument troubling and indicative of a deeper concern when confronting difficult statements from roshei yeshiva. It is true that they are not politicians and that they are not known to be expert spokesmen. But they are role models, teachers, people who students are taught to listen to and try to emulate. They are smart and they are wise. It would seem this sort of religious leader should have a heightened awareness of what he says, considering so many people depend on his word.

Some might argue that out of extra respect for our rebbeim we should not scrutinize their public statements. But if we truly believe that our roshei yeshiva should be role models to emulate, perhaps by expecting them to refrain from making rash and insensitive statements we, in fact, could treat them to no higher respect.