By: Reuven Herzog | Opinions  | 

Letter to the Editor: Reuven Herzog

To the Editor:

I want to extend my thanks to a classmate of mine for recently sharing his voice in this newspaper (“Letter to the Editor,” March 28). For all those who are invested in “serving the needs of the students,” it is important to know the diverse voices within the student body.

One of the things that has particularly bothered me about the past few weeks’ events is that we’ve read arguments that were thought-out and explained in depth from various students. But from the administration’s side we heard one matter-of-fact decision only second-hand, and another statement that was a single paragraph and without any explanation.

I am sure that within the various offices of OSL, RIETS, and above them, there were long debates analyzing the different reasoning and effects of different decisions. As students who are parties to the decision, we deserve an explanation of a final outcome. As Jews who look to our senior decision makers for guidance into the essence of YU, we should hear how those decision makers conceive of our environment. And as much as YU considers itself “the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy,” it should wield this title with seriousness, understand the ramifications of its decisions among the broader community, and indicate to this broader public (who, as demonstrated on social media, are definitely watching) the logic and reasoning of any decision, so that it can be extrapolated properly. Responsa literature is one of the hallmarks of the halakhic tradition, with contemporary examples like Igrot Moshe and Shu”t Minchat Asher providing exceptional lamdanut and reasoning; these works are treasured not just for their decisions but their contribution to the world of talmud Torah. Closer to home and in the realm of public policy, last year the OU published a 20-page document with citations regarding the role of women leaders in the Modern Orthodox community. YU should give us more than one brief paragraph.

At the same time, I would like to respond directly to some of the arguments the author put forth. He claimed that the Klein@9 community should not have the freedom to set its own communal norms; from his perspective, student communities should “willingly and explicitly [follow] those halakhic parameters set by our religious authorities, as [they do] in every other aspect of life.” But what religious authority is he deferring to? Neither the original decision nor the OSL statement referred to either a specific halakhic authority or to a particular halakhic text.

The author also implied that Klein@9 looks to be innovative, treating “Yeshiva as a laboratory for synthesis.” But large numbers of shuls within the Modern Orthodox community are completely comfortable with women speaking to the congregation following davening—either in positions as scholar-in-residence, community scholar, or in community congregations without a full-time rabbi. This is not innovative anymore; it is established practice, one that several students grew up with and wanted to mimic on campus.

Finally, the author devoted much of his piece to the argument that YU should not have “an environment that allows practices that other yeshivos wouldn’t dream of.” He put forth that YU should be a yeshiva “in line with all traditional yeshivos.” And in many discussions with students and administration I have heard the claim that “we do x and don’t do y because we’re a yeshiva.” The issue with this claim is that it treats the idea of “being a yeshiva” like an axiom. By definition, yeshivot don’t include women. By definition, yeshivot give all authority to the administration. By definition, yeshivot are traditionalistic and not innovative.

I don’t want to debate the historical accuracy of any of these claims. Instead, the author, the student body, and, particularly, the administration should address the question of what a Modern Orthodox yeshiva ought to be. What are our religious values; how do we conceive of our educational model; who are our gedolim and what is their role? We ought to ask how the context of New York, 2018 is different from Volozhin, 1854—or, for that matter, New York, 1886—and how we establish ourselves in our own time. When we make a claim that ultimately relies on “because we are a yeshiva,” we beg the question: Do we have our own values, do we have a guiding philosophy; or are we only mirroring decisions other people make?

Yes, YU is a yeshiva. It is both the first and the foremost Modern Orthodox yeshiva. Therefore what? Previous leaders of YU, including Presidents Revel, Belkin, and Lamm, as well as Rav Soloveitchik, were fearless in charting a course based on what they thought matched their values. The challenge of synthesizing Modernity and Orthodoxy and Torah and Madda has not gotten simpler in the past century. It is incumbent on all of us to not resort to empty slogans but to address essential questions.