By: Shoshy Ciment | Editorials  | 

The Woman Question and the Problem of Undefined Leadership

At this point, it’s hard to deny: many YU roshei yeshiva act as though they would like to eliminate women from the Wilf Campus.

We were reminded of this last week when Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman encouraged his male students to leave the Wilf Campus in protest of the uptown coed Shabbaton, the first of its kind in almost 40 years. Why? Because it was coed and therefore unfit for a yeshiva campus.

I wish I could say I was surprised. But unfortunately, empty and unfounded protest has become the regular answer to the slightest scent of a woman — however tzanua — on the Wilf Campus.

Let’s not forget the Klein@9 debacle, where a woman giving a dvar torah at a community-oriented student minyan led to the official banning of women from ever doing so again.

What is it about a female presence on the Wilf Campus that seems to send some of the roshei yeshiva into a panicked frenzy? What tremendous power does this class of students unknowingly wield? And where do we draw the line between disagreement and complete degradation of an entire constituency?

Rabbi Shulman’s fear — and the fear of many of his students and colleagues — is not entirely baseless. Their argument, as outlined by students and Rabbi Shulman himself, rests on the fact that coed events are inappropriate in a yeshiva setting. As Rabbi Shulman said, “Coed events have their place, but not in the yeshiva campus.”

But that’s the thing — Yeshiva University is no ordinary yeshiva. While the beit midrash component of the university is unique to YU, there is also a complementary and crucial “University” aspect as well, which includes secular studies, extracurricular events and a college with almost 1,000 women a few miles south of the Wilf Campus.

It’s hard to imagine what some of the roshei yeshiva see when they think of a school-sanctioned uptown coed Shabbaton. The Shabbaton was approved by the Office of Student Life, the same body that has rejected multiple clubs’ movie showings because of inappropriate subject matter. This Shabbaton was an attempt at community building between the two campuses. It featured learning activities, communal meals and set time for healthy and appropriate socializing.

“Boys and girls should date, but they don’t have to date in the beis midrash,” said Rabbi Shulman. What a beit midrash date actually looks like is left up to conjecture, but the idea that inviting women to eat, daven and learn within 500 feet of the beit midrash somehow breaches the sanctity of a makom kadosh is just fear-mongering nonsense.

The question of a woman’s role on the Wilf Campus — and in Yeshiva University in general — bears no simple answer. Maybe that’s because the roles of the roshei yeshiva on campus are eternally undefinable. In fact, the YU roshei yeshiva are not even officially responsible for making psak for the university.

A student asked Rabbi Jeremy Wieder about this in April of 2018. He said, “I personally am not involved in any psak for the University, I have no idea who (if anyone) is asked and under what circumstances.”

In the same article, Rabbi Yosef Blau was quoted as saying, “Not every Rebbe, because he says shiur, considers himself a posek.”

But still, the YU roshei yeshiva somehow seem to eternally preside over the vacuum-tight bureaucracy of Yeshiva University. Somehow, it always comes back to them. And women are marginalized as a result.

If the roshei yeshiva don’t make the rules, then who does? Who decides that women can’t speak at a YU community minyan or that a university-approved Shabbaton should be boycotted? Who is responsible for the elusive and undefined policies that punctuate virtually every step — from club approvals to Shabbatonim to dress codes — at Yeshiva University?

According to President Ari Berman, the students — working with the proper administrators — are crucial to this. “I have confidence in our student body that if they work together, they can find the right directions and vehicles for these kinds of issues,” said Berman on the topic of women giving divrei Torah on the Wilf Campus in a recent frustrating interview with The Commentator.

To any student, it is obvious that such decisions are not entirely up to us. There has to be some administrative power that codifies and sets the rules. Expectantly and perhaps optimistically, we look to the roshei yeshiva for this. The result is ambiguity, confusion and stagnation.

Maybe having only one rosh yeshiva would simplify things. But so would a definitive job description for the body that seems to hold more power than President Berman himself.

There’s a problem of responsibility at YU. The Office of Student Life and other important bodies often stumble over hearsay rules and what can only be described as unofficial traditions masquerading as rules. We can’t keep calling on the university for change when we ourselves don’t know who hears our voice. If the roshei yeshiva are the people in power, their roles should be defined loudly and clearly for the entire university.

And if that means that women don’t belong on the Wilf Campus, then codify it. A harmful, tangible rule is better than a nebulous, unfounded theory. If we know what we’re fighting against, we might actually make a change.

With roles and positions that are clearly defined, there is no excuse for hiding in the fog of ambiguous leadership. To be sure, our calls might still fall on deaf ears. But at the very least, the policy-makers will be held accountable for the decisions — and announcements — they make that directly impact every student in YU.