By: Chana Weinberg | Features  | 

It’s Policy, Not Psak

When the athletics department decided to have the women’s basketball team play its home games in four different gyms, none of which were the Maccabees home court on the Wilf campus, rumors circled YU--it’s a dress code issue, women’s basketball is not an appropriate event to be held on a rabbinical school campus. It is likely you imagined rabbis sitting in a room, discussing and then deciding a halachic psak regarding the permissibility of women playing basketball games in the gym. The Klein @ 9 controversy also appeared to students as a psak decision made by Roshei Yeshiva. But, as I learned in an attempt to investigate the halachic basis of these decision, rumors and assumptions, though often based on truth and reason, can be inaccurate or even false.

I began my research by reaching out to the people in the university who are in the position to make halachic decisions. One correspondence I had, with Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, was curious. I asked, among other things: What is the process that the Roshei Yeshiva have to make halachic decisions for the university? Rabbi Wieder replied: “I personally am not involved in any psak for the University, I have no idea who (if anyone) is asked and under what circumstances.”

A Rosh Yeshiva not involved in making psak?! That seemed strange. I must be missing a key understanding of the Rosh Yeshiva’s involvement in student life.

This confusion called for deeper analysis, so I searched for a long-tenured school official with the experience required to understand the inner workings of decisions made at YU--someone who could give a clear explanation of how psak is decided at the university. I thought Rabbi Blau, mashgiach ruchani since 1977 and a part of YU since undergrad in 1959, would be a fitting interviewee.

Sitting at a table in a packed beit midrash I asked Rabbi Blau the same question I asked Rabbi Wieder and hoped for a simple explanation. The hope quickly vanished--these things are just not simple.

“Not every Rebbe, because he says shiur, considers himself a posek,”  said Rabbi Blau. “There are a number of rabbanim who are halachic experts in particular areas, but to a large degree that reflects itself outside of yeshiva.” Rabbi Blau continued by explaining how community rabbis give halachic advice to their congregants and how that differs from the type of issues that arise in Yeshiva.

“If someone is a rav in a shul, he will get many different kinds of questions: he is going to have issues that affect the married couple; issues about having an elderly parent who is very sick… what should you do in terms of keeping them alive? A vast majority of these questions will not come in the context of day-to-day life in yeshiva.”

As for what happens in Yeshiva, Rabbi Blau explained how “internally… there are limited areas of psak… Many of the issues are questions of appropriate atmosphere kinds of things. The Shulchan Aruch doesn’t talk much about having male and female colleges from the same institution a couple of miles apart. I couldn’t find that anywhere.” (I didn’t look that up, but I trust this assessment.)

At this point, I understood that psak halacha is not how the Office of Student Life decides to approve of a speaker or an event. This explains why topics such as female athletes playing games in the gym and Klein @ 9 can become so contentious--we are not given clear-cut halachic answers but rather are presented with policies that the university has established and stands by.

Many questions come screaming into my brain at this understanding: why is one policy chosen over another if it is not halachic? Who decides or decided in the past what those policies are? If there are set policies, then why aren’t we given full explanations of how the decision was made? Now you either have a question list of your own forming, or you are wondering why I’m letting these things bother me--most people are OK with what the university decides, so I should just let it go. Either way, it is important to know how these policies were formed at YU and how they come into play today.

Rabbi Blau continued to be a wonderful source as he explained the concept of the “internal mesorah [tradition]” at YU. Similar to precedent, this mesorah has guided decisions in the past and continues to guide us and create both policies and problems for us today.

Rabbi Blau used the first gemara shiur taught at Stern to model the concept of “internal mesorah”. The Rav, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, world-renowned Jewish leader and philosopher in the 20th century and former Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, came down to Stern College and gave the opening shiur of the new gemara program. “[The shiur] was introduced by the Rav because that gave it the stamp that it is an approved thing,” and with the stamp of approval from the leading Modern Orthodox Torah scholar of the day, the Stern gemara program was launched and continues to be held to the standard of excellence that the Rav exemplified in his first shiur. It was decided in the past and now becomes standard policy at YU: women are given the opportunity to learn gemara at a high level.

After sharing this story, Rabbi Blau reminded me that this was disputed even though the Rav gave his approval. It still became “part of the mesorah of the Yeshiva,” however, that women learn gemara. After the Rav’s passing, these policy decisions became less clear-cut. For example, in 2000, Rabbi Abba Bronspiegel and Rabbi Yehuda Parnes, who were both at YU for more than 40 years, left for the newly opening yeshiva, Lander College for Men, because of alleged clashes in religious ideology, particularly issues with women’s Talmud study.

So we have an example of precedent and of how following the precedent leads to controversy. Rabbi Blau explained that conditions are similar today; there are areas of contention in deciding religious policy at YU. “Things can be a little fuzzy” is how he put it--a refreshingly honest remark. This fuzziness, explained Rabbi Blau, is exacerbated by changes in the administration. “Status quo, even if it may be wrong, is hard to change,” said Rabbi Blau. Newly appointed President Berman will avoid “rocking the boat” at the start of his administration, therefore some changes that people are looking for will take time to develop. Rabbi Blau did note, however, that President Berman is going to have more say in religious policy than his predecessor, Richard M. Joel, because he is an ordained Rabbi.

We now understand that the University makes religious policy, not psak. These policies are based on precedent and an overall evaluation of where the school wants to set its hashkafa. All of this is passed down as “internal mesorah” to guide the next generation of students and faculty in the way of Torah umadda.

This “internal mesorah” strongly parallels to the policy decisions made by any other university. For example, in November 2017, the University of Pennsylvania, following a slew of controversial political remarks made by professors, had unclear and hasty reactions to these statements, revealing an inconsistency in its overall policy of how to react to professors making controversial statements. Additionally, administrators of Stanford University, which has an “internal mesorah” of commitment to free speech, removed posters with insensitive comments-- an acute deviation from its stated standard.

While we face battles with policy issues just as the top universities in America do, we bear the yoke of hundreds of years of tradition and religious commitment. With that in mind, one could argue that we should hold our institution more accountable for unexplained hashkafic policy decisions, especially those generating negative student reactions.
Though it is still unclear how these policy decisions are made and who specifically makes them, my conversation with Rabbi Blau reassured me that YU upholds a rich history of commitment to Torah values which we benefit from in numerous ways: never missing classes or tests for chaggim; the constant availability of high level Torah learning; the ability to play (and win) on NCAA level sports teams without worrying about games or practices being on Shabbat. I also learned that I am not alone in thinking that these religious policy decisions can be “a little fuzzy”. The controversies surrounding the gym and Klein @ 9 are likely a by-product of the “internal mesorah.” If we were given psak, we would have been told that it is assur [impermissible] for men to watch women play basketball or that it is mutar [permissible] for women to speak from the pulpit. We hear the results of a policy decisions and we trust they are rooted in good faith. But maybe we need some explicit explanations as well.