Defending Jewish Studies at a Jewish University
Yeshiva University ranks highly among those few institutions that offer a strong combination of Judaic studies and secular academics, preparing its students to serve as Jewish leaders in a largely non-Jewish world. When we leave our safe, cloistered, religious environment and enter either graduate school or the rich multicultural workforce, we serve as representatives of YU and the larger Jewish community. YU equips us to do so effectively. If the Jewish Studies department were downregulated, YU would lose this unique edge. Suggested cuts deemphasizing the Jewish Studies department reflect a failure to understand this distinctive aspect of our great institution.
As a medical student, I feel this sense of responsibility on a daily basis – when interacting with physicians, classmates, and patients. For many with whom I interact, I am their sole representative of Orthodox Jewry. When people raise legitimate questions about customs, history, culture, I call upon my training and learning at YU to fulfill the charge to “know what to answer (da ma l’hashiv).” In a world increasingly anti-Semitic, accurate representation of Jewish thought and belief and of our history of striving for peace and upholding the sanctity of life is crucial to combat the rampantly spreading pervasive ignorance that can be found daily on social media, on anti-Israel college campuses, and often in the New York Times.
Beyond the necessity to prepare students to represent Judaism to broader society, Jewish studies is important because Judaism is the glue that binds otherwise disparate Jews together. Recently, a non-English speaking Jewish Israeli patient found himself alone in a New York hospital, on the service where I was rotating. Thanks to Professor Yair Shahak and his year of superb Hebrew instruction, I was able to interpret for him. But as anyone with a similar experience knows, our connection was more than that of an interpreting service. Communicating with a fellow Jew in the Jewish language instantly forges a connection over 2,000 years old. There is immediate trust and mutual understanding. The patient relaxes and feels understood. We are of the same cloth.
Downsizing the Jewish Studies department, simplifying courses, relegating rich courses to online exams, deprives students of the background necessary to share their Judaism beyond YU – with Jews and non-Jews alike. We cannot adequately represent Judaism to non-Jews if we ourselves do not understand our history and culture. We will lose our ability to meaningfully connect with each other if we do not understand what we share.
Yeshiva University boasts excellent professors and courses, thriving extracurricular programs, research, and a strong student advisement and support network. But so do the other top 50 schools in the country. What makes Yeshiva University unique – and the reason students turn down Ivy League offers to attend YU– is the outstanding Jewish Studies. By watering down the Jewish Studies department, even without modifying the strong, traditional morning learning programs, Yeshiva will lose much of its unique edge and power to develop Jewish leaders, because it is the Jewish Studies which singularly combines Torah principles with religious cultural values. It will not attract students who appreciate what Yeshiva uniquely offers, and begin attracting those who do not. YU will lose its stellar reputation for offering excellence in both Torah and Madda. What does Torah U’Madda mean, if not for being trained to engage in the secular world while living, upholding, and representing Torah values? Without Jewish Studies, this crucial bridge will be lost. YU will become a university that also has a Yeshiva, but it will no longer be a Yeshiva University.