By: Benjamin Koslowe | Editorials  | 

What YU Loses With Its Open Door Torah Policy

Yeshiva University is astonishingly generous in providing Torah to the broader world, and nowhere is this generosity more evident than YUTorah. For almost two decades, YUTorah, coordinated by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, has made thousands of shiurim accessible to millions of listeners around the world. YUTorah has increased the quantity of talmud Torah and enhanced the reputation of Yeshiva University. And YUTorah has also lost YU many of its potentially strongest students, who, due to the proliferation of Torah recordings, can effectively benefit from a strong Torah Umadda education at prestigious secular colleges.

From the time it was founded and for much of the postwar years, Yeshiva University served as the only realistic option for Modern Orthodox college-bound students who sought both a strong secular education and a vibrant religious Jewish community. Even in more recent decades, which witnessed the booming successes of organizations such as Hillel and Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) and their associated strong Orthodox communities on secular college campuses, there was no question that Yeshiva University still uniquely offered a stellar Torah studies program for the modern college student.

Today, though, students are able to pursue both secular academics and serious talmud Torah without enrolling at YU. Some students at colleges close enough to Washington Heights schedule their courses such that they can physically spend their mornings in YU’s Yeshiva Program, and then return to their home base for secular studies in the afternoon. One such student, in a well-read article from this newspaper’s last issue, publicly offered his gratitude to YU for opening the doors of its beit midrash to him, even though he was not enrolled in the University.

Those diehards who physically commute from secular college campuses (typically from Columbia) essentially freeload off of YU. From an economic standpoint, it is not the most prudent move, in the midst of an institutional epoch of financial difficulty, to permit students to fully participate in YU programming without paying.

By the same token, though, those diehards who physically treck on a daily basis between Yeshiva University and nearby college campuses can probably be counted on one hand. Additionally, those students would likely earn merit-based scholarships even were they to attend YU. For both of these reasons, these students’ presence is hardly a financial burden.

Moreover, most similarly-minded students, who number in the dozens (if not hundreds), do not show up in person; rather, they link in virtually from some Hillel beit midrash or dorm room, via YUTorah, to YU’s sanctuaries of learning. In universities like Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Maryland, Rutgers, Queens and beyond, students on a regular basis plug in their earphones and enjoy a solid morning (or afternoon or night) seder, from the Torah that YUTorah offers.

The phenomenon of serious Torah engagement at secular college campuses, in itself, is quite positive. It is indicative of an Orthodoxy that does not throw out its essence at the entrance of adulthood. It speaks of Torah that is valued, even after high school and yeshiva.

And yet, the wide accessibility of serious frumkeit on college campuses necessarily renders Yeshiva University less relevant. It is no secret that YU, despite a respectable college ranking all things considered, still pales in comparison to the quality liberal arts educations offered by Ivy League and other prestigious colleges across America. YU’s main niche is, and has always been, its unique Orthodox community and Torah studies programs. Once vibrant Orthodoxy and talmud Torah are possible at secular college campuses, how can YU compete?

It is most likely the case that YU would gain back only a small handful of students if it would shut down its liberal dissemination of Torah. The vast majority of secular college-bound Orthodox students would still attend secular colleges, albeit with fewer Torah resources. But that small handful of interested students who would indeed attend YU given alternate circumstances is very significant.

These students, were they to attend YU, would most likely be admitted to the selective Honors Program. These students, rather than simply networking virtually into a YU shiur, would fill up the ever-diminishing seats in the batei midrash, and actively contribute in a serious way to seder and shiur culture. These students would be the types to contribute to student leadership, write intelligent senior theses and dedicate themselves to serious discussion-based Honors courses. These students would make a good name for YU by pursuing impressive graduate degrees after college.

It is not as if YU has no such students who take both their academics and their Torah studies seriously. But it is a difficult balance, where even the strongest, most capable YU students inevitably sacrifice some Yeshiva at the expense of University, or vice versa. The top students whom YU needs, who can make significant impacts in both the beit midrash and the classroom, are few and far between. And, ironically, it is YU’s open doors that turn them away.

YU’s Torah policies turn away — at least in the strictly physical sense — older members of the broader Orthodox community as well. It is hard to imagine the hundreds of seats in Lamport Auditorium ever filling to maximum capacity like they once did on a not infrequent basis during the lifetime of Rav Soloveitchik and during the presidencies of Rabbis Belkin and Lamm. Even if YU today were to boast another massively eminent and articulate Torah scholar, it seems likely that many potential attendees would choose to listen to his shiurim only after the fact from the comfort of their homes.

None of this analysis is intended to invalidate YUTorah and other open door Torah policies. On the aggregate, such policies probably yield a greater amount of talmud Torah in the broader community than would be possible without such policies. Though the argument has been made that the YU batei midrash lose out due to the accessibility of YU shiurim, it still seems correct to estimate that overall, the wide dissemination of Torah leads to more Torah learning. At the end of the day, YU’s open door Torah policies should not be limited.

But this analysis should raise some serious existential questions: Is Torah an infinite good whose flowing springs should never be plugged, or might there sometimes be a time to legitimately limit Torah offerings? Given the contemporary feasibility of benefitting from a YU education without attending YU, is YU still the beating heart and epicenter of Modern Orthodoxy that it once was? If the answer to the last question is yes, then just how thin can YU spread itself before it loses its status as a crucial and necessary citadel of wisdom, without which the wider community could not survive?