Torah u’ Madda: It’s Time for a Female President of YU
In May of 1908, seven students of a small school in New York City went on strike. They were fed up with the limited and unsatisfactory nature of the curriculum being offered at their seminary and the lack of study options made available to them. They wanted to enrich their knowledge through a rigorous, multi-disciplinary educational system; they wanted to be forced to think critically about their lives and to be challenged. Said one of the students, “…The school does no good. We can enter when we please; go out when we please. Nobody seems to care. We want a programme. We want to know where we are going and when we will get there. We want to study philosophy, and history, and languages…!” It would take the school’s leaders nearly twenty years to respond to these students’ protests. But when they finally did, a wholly new institution was born. It was to be called “Yeshiva College,” or colloquially, “The Yeshivah”.
The 1920s marked the inauguration of a new and expanded home for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. The new college would be more than a rabbinical seminary: it would offer secular training as well. The establishment of a liberal arts college attached to the seminary was perceived as a response to the growing desire of students to attain scientific knowledge as a way of supplementing their study of Jewish texts. It was also seen as a critical endeavor key to the survival of Jews in America. If one peruses the pages of The New York Times in the late 1920s (alas, the Commentator was not yet in print), one begins to uncover what must have been a major crisis for American Jews at the time. One headline blares: “Education Association Finds 72% of Jewish Children Get no Religious Instruction;” another heralds “Education is Hailed as Hope of Judaism”.
Explaining the phenomena, a noted scholar quoted in the Times hypothesized that “Jewish culture has really begun to take root in this land,” and as a result of this assimilation, Jewish traditions were being forsaken. Reflecting on this point, Dr. Bernard Revel, the President of the Faculty of the College, remarked that “In an age of general ebb of idealism, we have neglected our children and abandoned them spiritually. In return, many of them have abandoned us…It is the immediate and superlatively important task of American Jewry to evolve as system of education creating a truly invincible Jewish life, strengthened by the teachings of the Torah, by the traditions, aspirations, and hopes of Judaism in harmony with the forward influences of the age.”
The newly inaugurated college was designed to do exactly that: it would expose students to the wonders of the secular world while keeping them firmly grounded within the limits of Torah Judaism. But it was clear which of the two components would receive a greater emphasis. Said Rabbi M.S. Margolies, President of Yeshiva College and of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in 1929: “If we are to succeed, we must give our utmost attention to the very life of our historic mission, which is the study of the Torah.” The introduction of liberal arts as a response to the allure of the outside world was only intended to enhance the world of divinity and spirituality within the walls of the Yeshivah.
As an institution, Yeshiva College was envisioned to serve another important purpose. The Yeshiva University prototype saw itself as an accepting, loving educational home for all Jewish students. Here, students could openly embrace their religion and celebrate their being Jewish. Dr. Revel remarked, “There are still among our American-Jewish youth natures that are deeply spiritual and keenly sensitive to matters spiritual. Thrust into an environment that is not altogether sympathetic, these students fail to respond….In existing colleges and universities Jews are either lost sight of or, in mistaken efforts at adjustment, they are led to efface their Jewish character…” Yet the irony of this statement is shocking when considering the YU of today. Modern Orthodox young adults are venturing away from Yeshiva in favor of other universities and seminaries, precisely because these other institutions are far more religiously accepting and open than our own school which was founded to attract these very students. The once -radical idea of combining Torah with secular studies has become extremely mainstream, and YU is threatened once again with being too static and traditionalist.
Where did Yeshivah go wrong? How did the college go from being a trailblazing, innovative entity that would save the future of American Jewry to becoming a virtual pariah in the Modern Orthodox world? How did our leaders, once seen as so progressive and forward-thinking, become perceived as timid, conservative, and backwards-minded? How did what was once the flagship institution of the movement become a marginalized, much-ridiculed school of the politically old-fashioned?
Part of the problem seems to be that we have forgotten our guiding principle of Torah u’Madda. To my understanding. Torah u’Madda, as initiated by Dr. Revel, is not merely a synthesis of two distinct ideals. Torah u’Madda is a solitary, uniform whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is the coalescence of these two values that leads us towards the ultimate source of truth in our lives; it is this combination that dictates our Judaism and our beliefs. As Modern Orthodox Jews, we believe that without Madda, there can be no Torah; without Torah, no Madda. And thus, Torah must be able to reflect Madda, and our Madda must be able to align with Torah values. But if we become too cautious and wary, and convince ourselves to overlook or ignore Madda, we risk alienating the Torah within us. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be stolid and reticent. We must be active in championing our causes and in campaigning for what we believe is right.
We must recognize that the Madda of today is not the same Madda as in 1929. Granted, our modern-day society has many negative values that Yeshiva University rightly should distance itself from. However, living in this age has yielded a full host of exciting advances and discoveries in many fields which have significantly impacted our lives in countless numbers of ways. One area where modern society has evolved and taken great strides forward is in its embracing of increasingly varied roles for women. The backing for this movement within the Modern Orthodox world has generally been strong, too. For example, consider the unequivocally supportive language of the Rabbinical Council of America’s October statement regarding the ordination of women: “In light of the opportunity created by advanced women's learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage.” It is clear that our women are urged to aim higher, to achieve more, and to play a consequential role in society.
Yet while the RCA members (and proponents of the statement at YU) seem content with allowing women to aspire and achieve greatness, they contend that women are still forbidden to assume the highest and most respected position for Torah scholars. I do not subscribe to the belief that our rabbis are antiquated and stubborn, holding on to the last vestiges of tradition and trying desperately to let their voices be heard while the world around them crumbles. If one believes, as I do, that there is no intrinsic halakhic problem with women becoming rabbis, then it is time that we begin preparing to integrate them into our synagogues. It is time for YU to once again innovate, and gather and shepherd all the elements of Modern Orthodox society into a new institution that is committed to Torah values and to championing the cause of women.
But, as many will point out, accepting the above position is unfortunately not clear cut nor agreed upon collectively. By catering to the more liberally minded elements of Modern Orthodox society, YU could potentially alienate its traditionalist stalwarts and risk spawning yet another institution to seize upon our failures. So until all elements of our society are ready to accept female rabbis, YU must innovate in a realm of universally acceptable halakha.
A wonderful opportunity presents itself at this particular juncture. As University President Richard M. Joel prepares to vacate his position after three terms, the question of new leadership for the university has become a widely publicized and highly speculated-over issue. Although a number of the articles delineating candidates have halfheartedly included female candidates, it appears that these inclusions were more for the sake of being politically correct or on the basis of hopeless optimism rather than pragmatism. But I would like to formally call for a female president. Appointing a woman to the highest university position we have will send out a powerful message to our entire community that we stand behind our women and that we support them wholeheartedly in their endeavors. A new generation of young Jewish women can grow up aspiring to be more like this particular woman and like the other role models in their lives who have attained remarkable success in their fields of work. But this cannot be a token individual who has been selected solely based on her gender. She must be a true model of a G-d fearing woman, one who displays a firm dedication to Torah and Mitzvot, to halakha, and to the Jewish people. She must be exceptionally intelligent and totally capable but also an example of modesty, compassion, and understanding. Most of all, she must be able to assume the difficult role as a living symbol of Torah u’Madda.
In 1929, The New York Times praised Yeshivah’s leadership for founding the new institution, hailing that “Far-seeing leaders and educators came to the realization that an outstanding institution must be erected if traditional Judaism was to be preserved in its new milieu.” Today, in 2015, the same must be done. If Yeshiva University wants to safeguard (or reassert) its position as the flagship institution of the Modern Orthodox community, it must respond to the needs to the community. This can only be done through innovation and positive change, through understanding the needs of its constituents and addressing issues in a way that is cutting-edge and yet molds perfectly within the realm of our Torah values.