By: Netanel Paley  | 

Why The Mazer Yeshiva Program Can’t Afford to Be Lakewood

PaleyIt’s 9:23 am on a typical Monday morning. A student - let’s call him Moshe - in the Mazer Yeshiva Program trudges into the Glueck Beit Midrash (study hall), coffee in his hand and a dire need for coffee in his eyes. He sits down across from his chavruta (study partner), opens his Gemara Sanhedrin (book of Talmud about the judicial system), and begins to learn.

11:57 am. Moshe finishes studying the sources prepared by his Rebbe, closes his Gemara, and begins the exhausting trek to the caf for lunch. There is no written record of the thousands of words exchanged between the study partners, no trace of evidence that they were even there.

1:02 pm. Moshe enters the shiur (lecture) room, hoping the ideas he discussed with his chavruta will be echoed by the Rebbe. As shiur begins, it quickly becomes clear to him that that will not happen.

2:28 pm. Moshe leaves shiur, satisfied by the intellectual sophistication of the lecture but left with more questions than answers, even if some of those questions are only asked subliminally. Chief among them: What have I gained from this shiur? Why am I learning this now?

9:25 am. Having forgotten those questions, he enters the Beit Midrash the next morning...

Do you see a pattern here?

The Mazer Yeshiva Program has long been the crown jewel of RIETS’ Undergraduate Torah Studies division. It boasts more than 30 learned, dedicated Roshei Yeshiva who have devoted their lives to the study and dissemination of Torah. Its hundreds of students can boast that they learn Torah from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. And as a yeshiva with a storied history and legendary Torah scholars such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, it at least deserves (though it does not always receive) the respect of greater Orthodoxy alongside its larger Charedi counterparts Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood and Ner Yisroel of Baltimore.

The Mazer Yeshiva Program also has significant flaws. For one, there is no reason or incentive for our Moshe to write down his own thoughts during seder (independent study). This might not be a serious problem on its own, but it seems to be symptomatic of a larger problem: Moshe and his peers are learning solely to prepare for shiur, because they don’t feel empowered by their learning. That means if they don’t understand shiur, or they didn’t understand why their Rebbe’s Brisker chilukim (conceptual Talmudic distinctions) are meaningful, their learning is less pragmatically productive and efficient. Of course, every moment spent learning Torah is to be valued and has spiritual significance. But in a program whose students devote as many as five hours to Torah study, it is imperative that they maximize their time. It is quite difficult to do that when they don’t understand why they are learning Sanhedrin, even if they don’t bother to ask.

The problem is that no one seems to have a good answer to that question. Ask any MYP student and you might hear something like this: the yeshiva adheres to the time-honored tradition of learning so-called “yeshivish” masekhtot (tractates) of Talmud such as Sanhedrin because of their supposed complexity and intellectual sophistication over halakhically practical tractates such as Berakhot. On the surface, this is merely an homage to the Eastern European yeshiva system and an unconscious choice for a respected yeshiva that has to keep up its reputation as an elite Talmudic academy. Yet a simple assessment of this seemingly inconsequential decision reveals how remarkably inefficient it is. Consider the following: The importance of mastering halakha when one has time to do so is undeniable. Yet the majority of students in MYP do not have time to learn halakha regularly, and even if they do, do not have the time or resources to learn it in depth. Why not learn halakhically practical masekhtot so Rebbeim can teach both theoretical Talmudic principles (sometimes called lomdus) and how those principles become normative halakha? Not only would it provide an opportunity and much-needed time window for students to learn halakha, but it would also teach them about the halakhic process, something that few outside the rabbinate actually understand. And Moshe and the rest of us would actually have something to write down during seder, whether it be notes on the margin of the Shulkhan Arukh or halakhic musings on the latest technological innovation for Shabbat.

Administrators and students might counter by highlighting the RIETS semikha (rabbinic ordination) program’s intensive focus on studying halakha in depth, or the new 6-year-program for semikha-track undergraduate students which requires participants to master the Mishnah Berurah, an essential halakhic work that summarizes the laws of daily living. While both are certainly to be applauded, neither constitute a solution to the problem. Most MYP students do not study for semikha, rendering their years in MYP perhaps their last chance to devote a significant amount of time to studying halakha in depth. Many will graduate YU having never properly learned the myriad laws of Shabbat and Kashrut. And while Mishnah Berurah is one of the most important halakhic works of the last century, it cannot serve as a substitute for in-depth halakha study because of its condensed format.

It becomes even more difficult to defend the status quo in MYP when one considers its negative correlations with the yeshiva culture. Perhaps most grievously, the disproportionate focus on theoretical lomdus has resulted in disproportionate enrollment numbers in different shiurim. The shiurim of two elder Roshei Yeshiva, two of the greatest poskim (halakhic decisors) of their generation, have significantly less students than in previous years because students are attracted to shiurim that favor Talmudic theory over Halakhic practice. It is not uncommon to hear MYP students groan when they reach portions of Gemara that are not intellectually satisfying, such as Aggadic material or kiddush ha-chodesh (declaration of the new month). And on Shabbat in the cafeteria, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an MYP student reaching out to a student of another Jewish studies program (which, ironically, have a superior, more balanced curriculum) to share their learning that week. This sort of intellectually dishonest Talmudic elitism might have it roots in yeshivot in Israel where these students studied, not YU. But at any rate, MYP’s current model is allowing this attitude to thrive, and that alone is a reason to make changes.

It is not enough to rebut that every yeshiva is like this. The largest Torah study program in the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy needs to be more than a traditional yeshiva. The majority of MYP’s graduates will enter the workforce rather than the rabbinate, creating a new generation of laymen who will help shape their Modern Orthodox communities. It has always been YU’s mission, if sometimes unstated, to play a role in weaving the halakhic and ideological fabric of those communities; the Center for the Jewish Future, for example, provides YU-sponsored pastoral and educational resources to Modern Orthodox congregations across North America. With the ever-increasing influence and broader acceptance of Open Orthodoxy, however, YU’s grip on these shuls and schools is beginning to loosen. While the halakhic and ideological lines between Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy are clear to those in RIETS and those associated with it and its faculty, they are rather hazy to communities who are not, particularly outside the New York area. Especially in new congregations, RIETS graduates are competing with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduates for pulpits. If YU wants to maintain its current influence to chart the future of Modern Orthodoxy, then, it is essential that it make a conscious effort to imbue the new generation with its moderate Orthodox values. At present, that is not happening.

The unfortunate result is that less and less YU graduates and students, even those in MYP, understand these values. Take the concept of mesorah (tradition), for example, which was the most favored argument of many RIETS Roshei Yeshiva in their opposition to rabbinic ordination of women. I am completely confident that these Roshei Yeshiva, given the depth and breadth of their knowledge of Torah, can precisely define what mesorah means to them and how it plays a role in the halakhic process. I am much less confident that my fellow MYP students can do the same. In fact, I have discussed the meaning of the term with several of them, from different shiurim, and have yet to hear a satisfactory answer. Yes, there could be many different reasons for that. But regardless of the answer, it is quite probable that a new Torah curriculum, one less heavily focused on theoretical lomdus and more balanced by practical halakha, will leave MYP graduates with a deeper, more grounded knowledge base and a more thorough understanding of the halakhic process. This new curriculum, in turn, will prepare them to establish communities within the boundaries of YU’s Modern Orthodox ideology and allow them to defend those boundaries from questionable halakhic innovations.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not expecting any changes to MYP soon, perhaps not ever. But I do know that the current hashkafic climate is too volatile for one of YU’s greatest intellectual and spiritual resources to stand by and wait to react to the next halakhic innovation. It’s time for a change.