Torah U-Madda: Give YU Some Credit
Yeshiva University’s motto, Torah U-Madda, attracts a wide range of students within the Modern Orthodox (MO) spectrum. Loosely defined, Torah U-Madda means combining Judaic and secular studies. It requires strict adherence to halacha and encourages the integration of secular studies. How secular studies are to be incorporated remains a great debate discussed by many.
Historically, the ambiguity of this concept existed since its inception. Dr. Bernard Revel, YU’s first president, initiated the concept (he originally referred to it as Torah and Chochma) and was quite vague about its specific meaning. Dr. Norman Lamm, in his book Torah Umadda, writes that Dr. Revel “had spoken of ‘synthesis’ and Torah Umadda, but never explicated its inner meaning and its theoretical structure”. Further, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter, in his article “Torah u-Madda Revisited”, notes that, at different moments, Dr. Revel tweaked his phraseology and explanation. In 1946, when Dr. Revel’s successor, Dr. Samuel Belkin, instituted Torah U-Madda as the official motto of YU, the lack of a precise definition persisted. Rabbi Dr. Schachter documents the varying formulations presented over time by YU’s presidents, originating with “harmonious blending, union”, but expanding to synonymous expressions, such as “combination”, “interaction”, “synthesis”, etc. YU’s current undergraduate mission statement discusses “combining the finest contemporary academic education with the timeless teachings of Torah,” but remains vague about how to accomplish this synthesis. What is clear, though, is that the vagueness and ambiguity of the definition and application of Torah U-Madda persist in Yeshiva University to this day.
There are three basic perspectives that translate Torah U-Madda into practical methods for students to approach their YU education. Although they are independent ideas, they do not necessarily preclude each other. In fact, often a combination of these perspectives is pursued.
The first approach originates from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. It maintains that secular education is a means toward an end. It is imperative to support oneself and one’s family. Thus, if a college degree fulfills this goal, a person should obtain one.
The second approach understands secular studies as useful secondary tools and aids to Judaic studies and practice. For example, the knowledge of animal anatomy and physiology is extremely useful for a schochet; mathematics can aid a person in constructing a halachically appropriate eiruv.
The third and most expansive approach of the three grants a fundamental value to learning secular studies. One variation of this is that secular studies can be used to enhance our appreciation of God, and of His world. Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, in his lecture “To Cultivate and to Guard: The Universal Duties of Mankind”, argues further that as a continuation of God’s mandate to Adam HaRishon of “Le-ovdah”, “to work” or develop the land, we have an obligation to improve upon the world and, thus, be involved in worldly matters. Clearly, while these viewpoints have varying applications and do differ on issues, they agree that the college secular education system contains value. The greatness of YU’s ambiguous motto is that it incorporates all of these views.
One significant application of the ambiguous Torah U-Madda motto is the student course-load. Since students come from multiple backgrounds and many of them have varied Torah U-Madda perspectives, it is essential for them to have flexibility in how their daily schedule is constructed. While the fusion of a morning Judaic program and afternoon (or nighttime) secular curriculum is a requirement, YU provides ample flexibility in this configuration. To cater to these multiple types of students, there are four morning Judaic learning programs: the Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC), the James Striar School/Mechinah Program (JSS),Yeshiva Program/Mazer School of Talmudic Studies (MYP), and Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP). Each differs in content, intensity, and length of Judaic study, catering to the large varying corpus of students. The afternoon studies consist of both secular and Judaic subjects, such as Jewish history or Jewish philosophy. Some are rigorous, while others require less work. Further, students are given the option to take anywhere from 12 to 17.5 credits, and can even count their morning program’s study toward the tally of those credits. There is a lot of flexibility in the dual curriculum that YU provides, which allows students to construct a system that snugly fits their Torah U-Madda viewpoint.
Some note and lament this ambiguity of Torah U-Madda. They contend that by ensuring the opportunity for excellence, both in the Yeshiva and the University portions, YU sacrifices quality. They reason, in reality, YU consists of an elite few who aspire to study both fields rigorously, while the remaining majority focus on one of the two. Despite the overall strength of both Judaic and secular curriculums, which appeal to these diverse Torah U-Madda perspectives, YU could spend its budget better by focusing its funds toward a specific genre of students. They argue that instead of trying to gain more students, YU should limit its scope of acceptance. YU should attract a specific prototype student with specific goals of how to educate that student, limiting the institution to a specific definition of Torah U-Madda. Narrowing its focus would permit YU to take an already impressive program and create a more excellent one.
Certainly, this argument finds its place in Rabbinic literature. Chazal developed a concept of “tafasta, meruba lo tafasta,” commonly referred to as “don’t bite off more than you can chew”. At the outset, it would seem that attempting to reach a broader student body by providing a significant range of Judaic and secular curriculums would be too ambitious.
However, I believe that the ambiguity of Torah U-Madda and its application in forming a broad student body is an extremely positive and beneficial aspect of YU. Not only does this ambiguity mold YU into an institution where diverse MO students can thrive, but the ensuing environment provides unique and significant opportunities to those students, which are nonexistent elsewhere. Further, it allows YU to contribute considerably to the broader MO community.
In addition to the unique curriculum, a distinctive feature of YU is its social community. The interaction between different types of students provides the opportunity for dialogue between them. How they relate to each other and the ideas they discuss during college can become the basis to form bonds that will stay with them forever. They could provide the means of friendly interaction, association, and cooperation between their various communities in years to come. Of course, this type of interaction is quite idealistic and does not necessarily occur every day or even for every student. Certainly, the opposite could be true as well. Students from different backgrounds could have negative interactions with others and create negative connotations about a different group. Nonetheless, the forum for dialogue between different groups within Modern Orthodoxy is made possible because of their coexistence in Yeshiva University.
Although diversity does exist in other institutions, the dynamic at YU is unique. While a secular college may consist of Jewish students from all walks of life, it may lack a significant presence of students that represent each type, or at least the different MO philosophies. Similarly, in the more Yeshivish colleges and Yeshivas, there is, of course, variation, but that variation is minute in comparison to the variation existent in YU. In YU, not only is there diversity, but the number of students who fit into each of the multiple perspectives of Torah U-Madda is significant. This dense diversity of Modern Orthodoxy fosters discussion that can help the future synthesis of MO divisions.
This form of dialogue and interaction has additional benefits. Dr. Lamm, toward the end of his Torah Umadda, writes that there is “no model of Torah Umadda that is exclusively valid for all people at all times. There is a plurality of versions or paradigms to choose from.” The opportunity to be exposed to the other perspectives of Torah U-Madda is healthy, since it forces students to think about and take ownership of their own version. Further, whenever there is any diversity, there is the opportunity to learn from others as well.
Aside from catering to a wide variety of students, YU’s ambiguous and far-reaching motto ensures YU’s position as a center for Modern Orthodoxy. The MO society is vast and consists of communities that represent the differing interpretations of Torah U-Madda . YU is filled with and produces a significant portion of future MO leaders, scholars, and laymen for those communities.
In the Modern Jewish History course I took last semester, my professor, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Rosensweig explained how the Chassidic movement grew to be so widespread. He explained that the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, Rav Dov Ber, ingeniously transformed Chassidism into a global movement by decentralizing it. He created a skeleton of how the Chassidic communal structure should appear and then sent out disciples to create branches of their own with more personally-developed structures. In this way, he stabilized and unified the Chasidic movement by allowing for variation.
Similarly, YU uses this technique through its motto to stabilize and maintain the MO community. YU does not create the already existing differing groups and philosophies of Modern Orthodoxy, but does place them under one “roof”. YU incorporates them into one unified group with a common idea, that of strict observance of halacha and the inclusion of both secular and Judaic studies. To be clear, this inclusion has its limits. Despite being flexible, YU does not open its doors to those who do not fulfill this criteria, such as those in the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements. Rather, it requires a certain set of accepted principles, such as the acceptance of Torah Mishamayim, of the Written and Oral Torah, and the binding character of halacha.
Perhaps, YU’s umbrella inclusion of the differing groups of Modern Orthodoxy strengthened the movement and helped protect it from detrimental social currents. There were concerns some years back about the future of Modern Orthodoxy as a movement. I propose that YU’s position as a center of Modern Orthodoxy helped strengthen and stabilize the movement and prevented it from fizzling out.
The rationale for different groups to coexist is not a new one to Judaism. Expounding on the story of the splitting of the Red Sea, Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, one of the Midrashei Aggadah, informs us that that there was not, in fact, one path through the sea; rather, there were twelve — one for each tribe. The Midrash further notes that the walls dividing these paths consisted of water, and that, while traveling, the Jews glanced at those in neighboring paths. Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg, in his Sichat Mussar lecture entitled “Uniting a Divided Nation”, pointed to Rabbi Greenwald (the Puppa Rav) who elucidated the significance of and lesson from this Midrash. Rabbi Greenwald explained that while it is significant for us to stay in our “lane”, it is also crucial to glance at those beside us and gain from their valuable approach to life. Similarly, Yeshiva University utilizes its Torah U-Madda motto to create a unique community; one that consists of a complex and varying student body that can provide, appreciate, and learn from differing perspectives on campus. The significant breadth of its student body has a tremendous impact on the greater Modern Orthodox community at large.