By: Shai Berman  | 

Regarding the Imposition of a Theology

Author’s note: This article is a response to a pieced titled “Regarding the Building of Bridges,” which appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Commentator. All references in this article to “the article,” “the piece,” and “the author” refer to that article and its author. Further, the first 6 paragraphs of the article presented here draw heavily on the language and formulations of the first 6 paragraphs of “Regarding the Building of Bridges,” and thus, for full comprehension, readers should familiarize themselves with the first 6 paragraphs of that original piece, if not the entire piece, before reading further.

Peace is unsettling; quiet is disquieting. We students are so comfortable, so at ease in our environment, that we yearn for discontent, for something to mutter about. Towards the middle of October 2015, a student took it upon himself to compose and publicize an article in the Commentator in response to frightful mischaracterizations visited six months ago by last year’s Yeshiva College Student Association upon the helpless student body. That article was essentially an attack on the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva College – the writer demanded that they, the Jewish Studies faculty, heed his understanding of Orthodox theology’s voice when constructing their curriculums. The author was successful, not necessarily in influencing curricular decisions, but in creating the impression that he at least pretends to represent the true Torah values of the this university and its students.

Towards the beginning of the article the author sets out his plans for his piece, to analyze the perceived failure of the Academic Jewish Studies in creating some sort of confluence between the Yeshiva and the University. To frame the analysis, the piece is titled: “Regarding the Building of Bridges.” I myself have a tendency to assume that articles which involve architectural analogies and spiffy phrases such as “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “Franciscan University of Steubenville” are of significant merit, but when I inspected this one I was surprised to discover that it was not.

Contrary to the author’s claims, if a Yeshiva College student feels a separation between our morning Torah studies and our afternoon secular classes, Academic Jewish Studies can certainly be the bridge linking the two. Academic Jewish Studies conducted in our university classes operates under modern academic norms but also within the confines of the traditional orthodox assumptions of the professor (all of whom, I may add, are practicing Orthodox Jews). When religious assumptions are put into play in the classroom, they are analyzed alongside other extant information which relates to that assumption rather than glossed over with a lackadaisical nod to their hallowed status. Unfortunately, this quest to try to come to a more informed understanding of elements of Jewish texts and history, sometimes involving a willingness to understand certain elements of our tradition in a non-literal sense, as serving a purpose other than a simple historical account from our forefathers is sometimes flatly rejected by our institution’s yeshiva component.

Illustrations of this sad phenomenon in the Bible department have reared their heads before, perhaps most strongly by a fellow who published an article in Kol Hamevaser two years ago entitled “Shut Down the Bible Department.” I will not discuss here the assertion to eliminate the Bible department, but in his response to this article, Nathan Hyman makes a basic observation that has merit. Many critics of Bible teachers at Yeshiva University base their criticism on a their own specific notion of what is traditional and what is nontraditional, a notion which sees whatever students “grew up believing” as the standard against which the Bible department be assessed, regardless of the fact that many of these beliefs do not meet with the unanimous (and sometimes even majority) consent of Orthodox Jewish scholars throughout the ages.

This attitude can impact students’ perception of reality, even to the point that the author can hurl grave accusations at his peers and professors. In one Bible class, the author understood collective nervous chuckling from other students as an indication that they believe that, when subjected to rigorous scholarly analysis, the doctrine of divine authorship does not hold water. Moreover, he contends that Yeshiva College’s academics and students refuse to take a bold stance on certain issues which the author considers authentic Jewish principles because they fear being sidelined by the larger academic community.

This phenomenon is not limited to Bible classes. In Jewish History classes as well, some students react adversely to the presentation of historical evidence or analysis which clashes with accounts found in the Talmud or even Second Maccabees. I wonder, from where did this tendency to disparage those who do not assign undeniable historical veracity of these sources come from? Who engraved the precept “Thou shall absolutely believe all the words of Chazal and Jason of Cyrene as accurate historical fact” onto the Stone Tablets of Orthodox theology?

If one takes the author’s opinion on the limits of Orthodox theology as fact (which is certainly how the author presents it), then, yes, the academic Jewish studies faculty at Yeshiva College, as well as many students, have some serious introspection to do. However, those who do not view Orthodox Judaism as confining its adherents to the strict boundaries the author imposes can certainly gain a significant amount from exploring the intersection between Torah and modern scholarship. For example, I found that learning about the Cyrus Cylinder gave me deeper understanding of Sefer Ezra. In the Cylinder, Cyrus speaks about how he restored various cults’ sanctuaries and gave the peoples under his rule the ability to return to their lands. With this in mind, Sefer Ezra’s description of the impetus of the Jews’ return from Babylon, God’s “stirring up” Cyrus’s spirit, is all the more interesting. Perhaps Ezra was choosing to interpret the current events, i.e. Cyrus’ policy of allowing people to return to their homelands and worship freely, as an indirect communication from God that the Jews should return to Israel. An alternative understanding is that God’s stirring up Cyrus caused Cyrus to adopt this new policy, not only for Jews, but for all the peoples in his kingdom as well. Either way, with this in mind, one can more easily understand why most Jews did not heed this divine message and return to Israel; if Cyrus’ policy was directed, not just at Jews, but at many other people as well, it is less obvious that God is sending a message to the Jewish people.

Another, perhaps more acute example, is the comparison of Torah laws to other ancient near-eastern laws carried out in most Intro to Bible classes. Professors work with students to discern how Torah law was similar to the law of the surrounding cultures and in what ways it differed. This in-class analysis can shed light on the ways God intended His nation to be different from other nations and also illuminate the messages He hoped His people would be able to impart to the rest of world, topics which may be of central importance to Yeshiva College students who are trying to better understand the relationship between modern society and both their Jewish identity and Torah observance.

To return to the original issue, can academic Jewish studies, as taught in Yeshiva College, serve as a bridge between our daily dual religious and secular focus? Yes. As explained above, one can effectively make use of modern scholarship in the quest to try to come to a more informed understanding of elements of Jewish texts and tradition. But does academic Jewish studies play this role for everyone? Not necessarily. For the author, his study of philosophy serves as the bridge. For some, perhaps, the study of literature can serve this purpose, and others may still be searching for this link. In the end, however, the importance of Academic Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College need not, and should not, be tethered to its ability to bridge the gap between morning and afternoon. The document which the article referenced perhaps erred in its implication that the need for Academic Jewish Studies requirements at Yeshiva College rests in its capacity to “serve as the bridge between our Torah study and our analytic methodologies of scholarship.” Perhaps that document should have continued to state that, in order for Yeshiva College to ensure it meets its goal of producing graduates who are well rounded not just in secular realms, but in Jewish ones as well, it must provide a Jewish education which provides access to our tradition with the greatest feasible breadth and depth. While a plurality of students use the morning program solely to study Talmud, and others also explore Jewish thought as well as Bible through the lens of medieval commentaries, Academic Jewish Studies provides students with some foundation in Jewish history, a deeper understanding of some of our canonized texts, and a familiarity with our nation’s language. To have allowed these elements of a Yeshiva College education to become the latest casualties in the recent wave of cuts within the university would have been to sacrifice a core element of the mission which drives this institution.