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Balancing RIETS

If one were to take a glance at the Yeshiva University logo, they would immediately notice that admittedly tiresome phrase, Torah U’madda. What one may not notice— or realize—is that beyond its obvious utility as a catch phrase, the slogan actually represents a remarkable philosophy, which although difficult to quantify, has shaped an ideal towards which “Modern Orthodoxy” have always strived.

In recent months and years, there has been much talk in the YU community about the direction that RIETS (the Yeshiva component of YU) seems to be heading in— both in the dialogue on campus, as well as in writing. For example, in a recent opinion piece published by the YU Commentator, titled “How YU Left Me Estranged from Torah,” the author painted his religious experience at YU in a mostly negative light, alleging that the Roshei Yeshiva in RIETS are, essentially, a monolithic group that can no longer relate to the average YU student. To put things in more concise—albeit unsophisticated—terms, there seems to be a general feeling among many YU students that most of the Roshei Yeshiva in YU are unlike them, in that they are not truly “Modern Orthodox.”

Unfortunately, by generalizing—and using obscure labels—the problem that so many seem to have with RIETS is difficult to diagnose, and thus, even harder to fix. Statements such as “The Roshei Yeshiva don’t believe in Torah U’madda” are often muttered, but rarely particularized in any meaningful way. Which Roshei Yeshiva? And, more importantly, what does Torah U’madda even mean?

If one were to ask the average YU student to name a figure who truly embodied Torah U’Madda, they would most likely regurgitate one of several names, including Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, or perhaps even Rabbi Bernard Revel. If you asked them what about these individuals embodied Torah U’madda, they might have a harder time coming up with an answer, because frankly, most of these figures have been out of the limelight for quite some time, and their hypothetical stances on today’s issues would be difficult to ascertain. Furthermore, analyzing these luminaries’ past writings, words, or actions will always come along with a certain degree of subjectivity. The result is that there are leaders in all streams of Modern Orthodoxy claiming to be the true torchbearer of Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophical legacy.

There may, indeed, be many Roshei Yeshiva in YU who don’t agree with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s particular description of Torah U’Madda (which is stated relatively explicitly). However, by defining the idea of Torah U’Madda as one answer—given by one man—it becomes profoundly limited. Rather, Torah U’madda ought to be thought of as a question, whose answers are diverse, deep, and dynamic enough to keep pace with our ever-changing world. The question, on the other hand, is simple. How do we balance Torah and secular studies? How can we best balance being Jews and being citizens of the modern world?

Even the RIETS Roshei Yeshiva who are to “the far-right” understand that in today’s society, there has to be some degree of interaction between halackhic Jews and the outside world. They understand that the question of Torah U’Madda is a pertinent one, which must be persistently addressed at some level. Frankly, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Nearly all of them possess degrees of higher learning, and more importantly, they have chosen to teach in YU—not some yeshiva that shuns secular studies and all interactions with the outside world.

Regarding the allegations of RIETS’s homogeneity, the issue becomes trickier. There are clearly many YU students and faculty members who group the Roshei Yeshiva into a singular mass, with one common opinion. However, certainly there are others who would suggest that there are large differences among them, and that they are far from unified. The truth is that, like most blanket statements, both are partially correct—and partially incorrect as well. It would be wrong to group the Roshei Yeshiva together, because clearly they are individuals who disagree on many things. However, one might also err in suggesting that they equally represent the full spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy.

Of course, in the face of such charges, there remains a fairly obvious question: What are the repercussions of an insufficiently diverse RIETS rabbinate? Simply put, I believe they are significant in both pedagogical and communal senses. There is no doubt in my mind that more diversity in the hashkafot and learning styles of the Roshei Yeshiva would benefit the undergraduate community. Many new students just arriving back from Israel are in a vulnerable religious place. If they feel that they need a relatable role model—in addition to an expert Talmud teacher—then it is the full responsibility of the Yeshiva to provide these role models to pupils of all hashkafot and personality types. After all, RIETS itself stresses that the purpose of the Yeshiva is not just to enable the accumulation of knowledge, but rather, it is to catalyze personal growth.

Secondly, there are many students who have jumped around from shiur to shiur, and have never managed to find the same learning style that they came to love in their Israel yeshiva. Remedying the issues of insufficient learning style and hashkafic diversities would be a step in the right direction for the yeshiva. It could result in more students being able to find the right shiur or role model for them, and ultimately, it might result in a more vibrant Torah study culture on campus.

Going beyond YU’s responsibility to its undergraduate population, I believe that YU has a responsibility to all of American Orthodoxy. At the risk of exaggerating YU’s importance, I do truly consider YU to be a central pillar of Modern Orthodoxy, since it is the premier semikha institution in our community. In a very real sense, YU is responsible for training our spiritual leaders of tomorrow.

Of course, YU musmakhim are not robots that completely emulate their teachers. That being said, most people’s behaviors and outlooks are significantly shaped by teachers and role models. It would be a dangerous thing if the future spiritual leaders of such a diverse community became more and more uniform, thus widening the gap between pulpit and congregant, Rebbe and student.

If a true and honest discourse on our complicated existence is to exist, there must be a significant diversity of opinion—especially among amply qualified and scholarly leaders. As long as YU remains a central institution of Modern Orthodox Torah study, it would be prudent to ensure that its faculty of Torah educators can sufficiently cater to the full spectrum of our community.