By: Avi Strauss | Editorials  | 

A Positive Development but the Wrong Solution

Friday’s announcement that, starting next semester, a new Wilf campus Shabbat minyan will be added where “women and men alike may deliver divrei [T]orah after services” is a welcome step in an ongoing saga to bring campus life more in line with the general Modern Orthodox framework of acceptable religious practice. Considering the wide array of Shabbat morning minyan choices, and the significant Rabbinic and communal backing of the practice of allowing women to deliver a dvar Torah at the conclusion of services, it is welcoming to see Yeshiva University change to better reflect the movement of Judaism it represents.

I realize that RIETS and YU represent both a diverse rabbinical and student body and that changing the status quo would naturally be a sensitive topic, but this solution is wrongheaded and misguided. Instead of owning up to and fixing a misunderstanding, the solution creates another space for a minyan nearly identical to Klein @9, one which will be administratively distinguished from the rest of the Wilf campus. It is a solution that tacitly supports the opportunity for women to speak, but only in a setting that is spatially and ideologically set apart from “the yeshiva minyanim.” It is a solution that knowingly welcomes campus bifurcation and segregation.

Dean Nissel’s statement is misleading. Describing Klein @9 as a minyan “conceptualized” as a lower-case “yeshiva” type of minyan, when it has been advertised from its conception as a student-run and community-oriented one, distinct from the other six Shabbat morning services, borders on historical revisionism.

To be clear, every minyan on campus offers its own religious flavor, and invites students to self-segregate based on pace of prayer, amount of singing, speeches from the pulpit, etc. It would not be reasonable, fair, or level-headed to suggest that all minyanim be seen equally in the eyes of student congregants. But the main minyan in Glueck has never been advertised as the “frummestminyan by any YU communication, and the Rubin Shul minyan, which runs concurrently with Glueck, is not labeled as “short and sweet” for students looking to fulfill their obligation and then go to kiddush. And this makes sense. An institution should let its constituents self-sort, rather than going out of its way to explicitly label and segregate its parallel options.

Yet, the recent statement clearly delineates that, by some vague notion of conceptualization, students who attend this “new” minyan will be participating in services that don’t actually align with what the rest of the student body is doing. Instead of just acknowledging that there should be options for the wide tent that is YU’s orthodoxy, we are being directed to pick a side.

This is most troublesome to the casual Klein @9 minyan-goer. Until now, a typical Shabbat morning in the Klein beit midrash featured a healthy cross-section of the Wilf student body, with guys wearing clothing from black and white to the full spectrum of the color wheel, and spanning a wide range of intellectual and spiritual leanings, all together in one unified setting. Moreover, the minyan has been hugely successful, built and supported by student leaders for two years, regularly gathering a small crowd, and even filling the seats of the Klein beit midrash on occasion.

The announcement itself is framed falsely. We cannot pretend that this decision was solely the result of “student feedback,” nor should we be naïve that Dean Nissel was really the one responsible for drafting and publishing it. A month of criticism from communal lay leaders and alumni, several of whom reached out directly to The Commentator for clarification on the matter, surely played a major role in this decision. To pretend otherwise is silly.

Further, the statement was a missed opportunity for the leadership of this institution to affirmatively state general support for halachically appropriate women’s participation in services. The announcement should have come from either the RIETS administration, who instituted the criticized policy, or the Office of the President, which was likely involved in the statement’s production as well. Perhaps a few well-groomed sentences, to the effect of “YU of course supports women teaching Torah to an audience” and “there was a misunderstanding, and we are working on creating a new understanding,” could have split the difference between not taking full responsibility, while clearly supporting what this statement sheepishly admits. If the university can’t make a statement as bland as that, then there’s a much bigger problem than the question of women speaking from the pulpit.

So while now might be a time to applaud this positive step, students should push for women-delivered divrei Torah in Klein @9 to become a normalized status quo, as opposed to leaning on redundancy and semantics to brush off a mistake, all the while drawing needlessly divisive lines through the student body.