By: Samuel Gelman (Houston, TX) | Opinions  | 

More Than an Announcement

It is hard to decide where to even begin. The recent statements by Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman regarding the coed Shabbaton are disturbing, embarrassing, disrespectful and ominous. They underline major issues Yeshiva University faces today, including its treatment of women, its view of the male-female dynamic, the role of the rabbi and the lack of clear leadership at YU. But before delving into these more abstract issues, let’s start with the facts.

In his plea, Rabbi Shulman stated that “No yeshiva past or present, none of the yeshivot where you learned before, would dream of hosting a coed Shabbaton on the yeshiva grounds. Nor was it ever done in the 100-year history of this yeshiva.”

This is false. This yeshiva held such a Shabbaton on May 2-3 in 1980, just under 40 years ago. Kabbalat Shabbat was held in the Morgenstern Shul itself, right below one of the major male dormitories, and the meal was held in the Rubin Cafeteria, right below the other major dormitory. Rabbi Dr. David Ebner and Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen, a current YU Rosh Yeshiva, both gave divrei Torah on that Shabbat. Having meals and davening on Wilf Campus itself seems much more “scandalous” than scheduling programming in the Shenk Shul half a block away from Wilf Campus. But moving past the facts, the striking issue here is how this recent controversy and campus-wide conversation plays into and encompasses many of the larger debates YU struggles with every day.

Like so many of the issues that relate to YU Shabbat programming, we begin with the role of women on the Wilf Campus. Rabbi Shulman’s statement that the “Yeshiva is a makom kadoshwhen discussing the coed Shabbaton is deeply troubling. With it, he seems to be implying that, by having a coed Shabbaton on the Wilf Campus, the kedushah of the yeshiva is threatened or even destroyed; that, somehow, having women and men interact with each other as they honor the glory of God and celebrate Shabbat makes the yeshiva less of a yeshiva; that having women uptown gets in the way of the men's’ religious growth.

This is not the first time women have been cast as the stumbling block in front of the blind yeshiva student. The Klein@9 controversy had similar undertones, as certain individuals claimed that it would make the men uncomfortable to see and hear a woman give a dvar Torah, and that because Wilf is a men’s campus, we have to make sure to respect the concerned group’s wishes, even if they might not necessarily attend Klein@9.

These arguments are deeply degrading to the women of the Beren Campus and effectively turn them into the enemy. They are cast as a modern-day Siren, told they must stay away lest they seduce the good and pure yeshiva student away from his religious growth and study into a life of sin, seduction and lust. I agree that the yeshiva is a makom kadosh, but there is no reason to believe that a Shabbaton such as this one did not elevate the yeshiva. The Shabbaton consisted of davening, singing, joyous meals and Torah study, the same things that occur at every YU Shabbat. Furthermore, it gave many students their first relatable Shabbat on campus, allowing them to connect to the religious day. Is that not kadosh? Why does all of this change when women are involved? Why do we view women as a threat to the spirit of the yeshiva? What do statements like these say about the men who believe them?

In his comments to The Commentator, Rav Shulman linked the Shabbaton to dating, saying that “Boys and girls should date, but they don’t have to date in the beis midrash.” What he seems to be implying here is that this Shabbaton was created to allow men and women to meet for romantic purposes. While I am sure that some men and women participated in the Shabbaton to spend time with their significant others or look for potential partners, the idea that this Shabbaton was based around romance and dating is highly misconstrued. The purpose of this Shabbaton was to try and bridge the gap between the two undergraduate campuses to create a new micro-community within our larger YU community.

The Shabbaton also gave a portion of the YU student body that is displeased with the classical yeshiva Shabbat programming a Shabbat experience they could truly enjoy. So many students at YU are dismayed by how Shabbat functions uptown. They find the cafeteria cold, unwelcoming and hashkafically uncomfortable. They are not interested in hearing a parsha shiur from a rabbi they have no relationship with. They don’t want to spend every weekend playing Settlers or Codenames. They want a warm, vibrant social environment, one that includes men and women. Not because they necessarily want to date them, but because hanging out with old friends from school and camp and meeting new people is an enjoyable social experience. They want to hear new perspectives and have different conversations. They want to enter new social circles. They want to create a community that mirrors what they have at home and what they will have once they leave the halls of YU.

This negative association of coed events with improper dating is not a new phenomenon in YU. Women who come uptown to the Gottesman Library endure strange looks and audible comments from men and women alike about how they are just there to meet guys. Men that take the shuttle downtown have a certain stigma attached to them, as not having a shuttle account uptown is viewed by many as a sign of piety.

Major coed events like Stomp Out the Stigma and the YOMs are attended by a larger number of women than men, as guys are pressured to not miss night seder and be associated with such things. All of this creates a poisonous and unhealthy environment. Associating everything with dating and romance places unnecessary pressure and shame on those who participate in such events. It creates unrealistic expectations and leaves many feeling upset at themselves after such an event when those expectations are not met. Furthermore, it prevents men and women from attending events they find interesting, fearful of the reputation that would come from being seen there. The comments made by Rabbi Shulman only add fuel to the fire, as the Shabbaton will now forever be associated with dating, and all those who attended it will be marked.

This brings us to the third issue: the role of the rabbi. In his comments, Rabbi Shulman spoke about how the Shabbaton was opposed by every rosh yeshiva and rebbe, saying, “that in itself is wrong.” This is also false, as there were multiple YU rabbis who participated in and helped plan this Shabbaton. Regardless, the idea that the opposition of the rabbinic leaders of this institution to this Shabbaton should somehow make it “wrong” is a problematic approach to take. How many roshei yeshiva must be consulted for something to be considered “wrong”? What if they disagree? Is it majority vote? Two-thirds majority? What about BMP, IBC and JSS rabbis? Do they get a say? What about rabbis in the OSL, Straus Center and Center for the Jewish Future? What about Beren Campus or Revel rabbis? Is every YU rabbi allowed to just stand up and make a public plea? Where does the line end? Where does the buck stop?

Furthermore, the roshei yeshiva do not dictate YU policy on their own, as is evident by the disparity between Rabbi Schachter’s psak regarding lighting Chanukah candles and the official YU policy, which was established by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Schachter holds that one should light in their room, but, since YU does not allow candles to be lit in the dormitories, he recommends students go home, light and sleep there. Most students stay on campus and light in the dormitory lounges, evidently not following the psak of Rabbi Schachter. Is this also “wrong”?

While we do have a vague and undefined “internal mesorah,” history shows it is susceptible to change. The mesorah used to be that women were not taught Talmud at Stern College for Women, until it wasn’t and the tradition became the exact opposite. Of course, Rabbi Shulman is allowed to disagree with a change in the tradition (even though, as we saw before, no change is occurring). He could have voiced this opinion in his shiur, in one of the mussar schmoozes or in private to students who asked him for guidance. But to make a public announcement and appeal in the Glueck Beit Midrash — a place where all Wilf students should feel welcome and comfortable — and then call it “wrong” is a misguided view of his and the rest of the roshei yeshiva’s authority at YU.

Which brings us to our final issue: the lack of clear leadership. I am sure my previous paragraph infuriated many readers. “Rabbi Shulman is a rabbi,” they may argue. “Of course he has authority and gets a say in the policy of the yeshiva. That is what a rabbi does.” Now, if this were his yeshiva, I would wholeheartedly agree. However, this is not his yeshiva. It is not Rabbi Penner’s yeshiva; it is not Rabbi Schachter’s yeshiva; it is not Rabbi Berman’s yeshiva. Rather, this yeshiva belongs to no one.

The question of who is in charge of religious policy at YU has plagued the university for decades, and has become the subject of much debate in the last few years. Scandals such as the Klein@9 controversy and the Rabbi Klapper incident all occurred because no one knows who is in charge. Is it President Berman? Rabbi Penner? Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz? The Office of Student Life? Rabbi Shulman? Without a formal figure or body to ask questions to and make clarifications, the yeshiva is left in a limbo state with multiple factions arguing over what it stands for. No one can claim they speak for the yeshiva because no one knows who is in charge.

This lack of clarity is hurtful to the student body. They are left confused and agitated, looking for clear leadership only to be greeted with silence or empty ideologies. One side is always left feeling betrayed, waiting for clarification from their leaders that will never come, holding onto the hope that this is not the “real YU.” The other side basks in their victory until the next controversy flares up and the roles are reversed. And so the cycle goes.

YU suffers as well, enduring embarrassing story after embarrassing story, making it look like an archaic institution in the eyes of the modern Jew. It pushes prospective students away and makes it all the more difficult for many of the alumni to discuss their alma mater with kind words. It makes the rabbis who make these announcements, silence women and tear down fliers look bizarre and disconnected from reality. Due to their controversial nature, these actions become their defining factor as opposed to their great Torah knowledge, communal work and chesed.

If YU wants to avoid stories like these, it must clarify who is in charge and what they stand for. They must decide if announcements such as the one that occurred on Feb. 13 are appropriate. They must decide if coed Shabbatons like the one that occurred this past Shabbat are appropriate. It is unclear who this announcement would come from, and many will be upset no matter what course of action is taken. But at least the students will know where their university stands. At least they will know who to turn to.

Until then, the pulpit should remain empty.

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Photo Caption: The Annual Welcome Back BBQ, one of the many coed events on campus.

Photo Credit: YU News