At The Crossroads
When I recently heard that Rabbi Dr. Aaron Segal would be hired as the new professor in the Yeshiva College philosophy department, I couldn't help but think about—nay, gorge myself on—the fantasy-world the hire promised for the future of YU: a YC graduate making for homegrown academic faculty; a philosophy professor whose doctorate from University of Notre Dame would wow people almost as much as his Talmudic prowess acquired over years of study at YU and Yeshivat Har Etzion; a real, living , Modern Orthodox, torah umadda personality at a flagship institution severely lacking in leaders dedicated to its own sacred mission.
This might just be a fantasy, and Segal might not be the Soloveitchick-eque savior that my mind wishes he would be. But his arrival—and the fantasy it engenders—prompted me to take pause and think about the current state of affairs at Yeshiva University.
When I first applied to YU—and through my years studying in Israel as well—it appeared to be a bastion of torah umadda, the center of the Modern Orthodox world that embodied and realized the inspiring philosophical teachings of The Rav and Rabbi Lamm that lay at the basis of so much of my religious experience until then, an ideal religious environment where the beit midrash, the lecture hall, and social activism merged into one. And though this perception may have been naïve and the result of simplistic and wishful thinking on the part of an idealistic teenager (it was), I do not believe I was the only one under such a spell; it appears to me that this understanding of YU is the one propagated by many rebbeim in America and Israel and by the institution itself as well.
But when I arrived at Yeshiva College—and I can speak only from my own experience and those of fellow students—such a robust and sophisticated environment is not what I encountered. Certainly, there was a strong beit midrash where I could learn gemara, high-quality classes for secular and even Judaic studies, extra-curricular activities for social and intellectual engagement, and CJF trips galore for activism and tikkun olam; but these separate opportunities did not overlap or integrate or cohere as one, but rather took place in parallel with each other, albeit on the same campus at the same time.
I am not asking that my university connect the dots for me; to a certain extent this lack of imposed ideology represents a mark of maturity, in that the school treats its students as adults capable of thinking through ideas independently. I am asking, though, whether YU represents—and actualizes—the idea of an integrated philosophy between Torah and Madda, Modernity and Orthodoxy, where the learning in the beit midrash draws from sources, methods, and personalities in the College, and the academic classes draw from and relate to the ideas discussed in our sacred texts; where Modern Orthodoxy is performed not only with of Rabbi Brander in Nicaragua but with of the roshei yeshiva in Washington Heights as well. When do the Yeshiva and the University grow so distant from each other that they become, in fact, Ner Yisrael with Brandeis across the street?
President Joel is known to say that YU preaches (or pitches) a “Big Tent” where multiple streams and strains of Judaism and Orthodoxy can live in peace. And, indeed, why harp on subtle distinctions between groups that have so much in common and so much to gain from one another? As a flagship institution, it is YU’s role to cater to and unite as many communities as possible. But all politics aside, it is worth considering honestly what it means to have a Big Tent and at what cost it comes.
By maintaining a Big Tent, YU can incorporate many different opportunities, ideas, and experiences, but cannot integrate them into a coherent whole; it is as though beneath the Big Tent sit hundreds of Little Tents, each spread out into its own corner, not interacting with any of the others. Because the institution is home to such diverse and contradictory personalities and philosophies, it is unable to articulate one meaningful message or agenda other than that it wants to be home to many messages.
To be clear, I do not mean to say that a Big Tent mentality is a bad thing, but only to hold up a mirror to ourselves so that we recognize what we are truly doing. To a certain extent, it may not be the goal for every student to excel in every area or to integrate them all but rather for each student to find his or her own way within an Orthodox environment. But for better or for worse, it appears that this is the philosophy our institution has taken over the past few years—to sacrifice a strong and integrated ideology for a weaker but broader coalition of groups.
And as members of this small community, it is in our own interest to remain cognizant of and honest about the path that our leading organization is following. If we agree with the direction YU is taking we should make our support clear, and if we disagree we should voice those concerns. In any case, though, we should understand the source of YU’s decisions.
To that end, I return to my initial inquiry about leadership at Yeshiva University; who are the inheritors of our torah umadda forebears making the decisions about YU’s ideological and philosophical direction? From another angle, are decisions even consciously made about these issues or do they simply “happen,” without any guiding voice? What is the role of the roshei yeshiva in this process? What about the President? And to what extent are these decisions made on an ad hoc, politically convenient basis on the one hand, or on ideological and philosophical grounds on the other?
Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Dr. Lamm can no longer respond and write to the critical issues of our time, articulating a sophisticated Jewish approach to modernity; and thus, we must ask ourselves, Who will lead Yeshiva—and the Modern Orthodox community in general—as we approach the crossroads between the cutting edge and the obsolete?