From the Archives (March 22, 1994; Volume 59 Issue 11) — “The Idea of a Yeshiva University”
Editor’s Note: As the original editor’s note below indicates, the speech by Rabbi Soloveitchik has been reprinted in The Commentator before. Twenty-five years after its first reprinting, The Commentator is happy to present this important essay once again.
The following essay is an edited transcript of the second part of a drasha delivered by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l on April 12, 1970 at a S’micha luncheon held at Yeshiva University. The first part of the drasha was an exposition on the revelation to Moses after the Golden Calf, and the third part was devoted to the Rav’s misgivings and fears regarding decisions taken by Yeshiva’s Administration in response to various crises they were facing at the time. The second part of the drasha is a vigorous presentation of the role of Yeshiva University in American Jewish life. Minor changes of style and syntax have been incorporated into the text in order to facilitate the reader’s understanding. However, the basic oral presentation and style has been retained. This essay was transcribed by a young Musmach of RIETS and verified for accuracy by a number of prominent Mechanchim.
Yeshiva University is an institution which has been opposed and challenged for a long, long time. This opposition is a result of the uniqueness it has in its singular contribution to American Jewish Life. You will ask me, in what does this uniqueness express itself? The uniqueness is an idea; if you wish, it is faith; if you wish, it consists of an adventure. What is it? The three words, “It is possible” which is the motto of Yeshiva. What is possible? To be a Jew, a loyal committed Jew, living a Jewish life, to be a talmid chacham a scholar, a Jew committed to Torah she-be’al peh, and Torah she-bichtav, a Jew committed to the past, present and future of Jewish history, a Jew committed to the eschatological vision of acharit ha-yamim and, at the same time, to be a member of modern society, a useful member trained in all skills, able to live in the midst of modern society, not to retreat, but to take pride in the singularity and uniqueness of Judaism. It is that idea that the Yeshiva has proclaimed in three words, “It is possible,” and it is to that motto that we especially cling now.
I have been a teacher at Yeshiva for twenty-nine years. Next May, I will complete my twenty-ninth year as a teacher here. The Yeshiva has accomplished something which is unknown in Jewish annals since the Golden Era in Spain; namely, the combination of a talmid chacham with an academician, a person trained scientifically in all the technological skills. I lived many years in Germany and you probably have heard about the revolution which R. Samson Raphael Hirsch precipitated there (he was followed by R. Azriel Hildersheimer zt”l) and it was a very interesting accomplishment. However, the accomplishment consisted of combining academic training with piety. I had a professor at the University of Berlin, Oigen Mitvoch, who was an ehrlicher yid. He used to come on Tish’ah B’av to the Oriental Seminal at the University of Berlin (and Berlin was not New York) in sneakers! Yes, in Germany I witnessed the combination of merger of academic modern training with piety, with legal observance.
However, what the Yeshiva did is something else. The Yeshiva was more ambitious and more bold. It had proclaimed the higher goal, the combination of academic modern training with lomdus, with rigorous scholarship at the highest level. The alumnus of the Yeshiva, whether he is a rabbi or a merchant, a lawyer or a doctor, is a talmid chacham in the sense (and I am very careful and cautious about my statement) that he is interested in Kezos or a Rambam, in a Hiddushei Rabbenu Hayyim Halevi. He has the curiosity. The sign of a scholar is not so much the amount of knowledge he has, but the inquisitiveness, the curiosity, the quest, the interest, the commitment. I saw many scholars with almost unlimited erudition but I have always doubted their scholarship; they were similar to that the Ramban called, chamor nosay seforim — a donkey loaded with lots of books. The real criterion of a scholar is commitment, curiosity, inquisitiveness, a restlessness in exploration, steady questing — and that is exactly what all musmachei ha-Yeshiva have. I can testify that the level of the shiurim delivered at the Yeshiva reached great heights which no other Yeshiva delivered here in America, or in Eretz Yisroel attained. There are boys in our institution who are committed to Torah, bekol libam u-vekhol nafsham, with a fire and a passion which is unmatched in the history of yeshivas. When I see sometimes, I am reminded of Bialik’s Ha-Masmid. They are bright and sharp, and their precision and skill are simply admirable. I can tell you that I sit up studying days and nights sometimes. Many a time my son finds me asleep over the Gemara and it is late in the evening — Why? It is not so much my diligence, but I am afraid of my pupils. If I come into the class unprepared, they will tear me apart, and it happens quite often. At the same time, as far as modern education is concerned, they are academically well trained on par with any boys from Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. And, in addition to scholarship and knowledge, they have a sense of commitment to Klal Yisrael, the likes of which is hard to find.
When I came to Boston thirty years ago, I found six young men who were Sabbath observers. The rest did not observe the Sabbath, or observed it also on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday because they were octogenarians. I must tell you that three of those young men are now my brothers-in-law. Now, Boston which was called an ir ha-nidahas as far as Orthodoxy was concerned is today a stronghold of Orthodox living and questing. In my shul, at Maimonides, the average age of the worshipers is twenty-one! I am the oldest, the oldest in years. I mention Boston simply because I live there, but you will find the same is true in New York, which is a much larger city as well. The fact that thousands of young men and women not only live Jewish lives, but think in Torah categories and talk the language of the Torah, and are committed to our tradition, is due directly or indirectly to our yeshiva. Could I ever have dreamt twenty-five years ago that a bunch of boys from our yeshiva and other yeshivot would occupy the quarters of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York, the sanctum sanctorum of Reform Jewry and make demands boldly and proudly! You will see those “priests” of the sanctum sanctorum giving in to those young boys -- and the same thing is happening in Boston. All this is due directly or indirectly to our Yeshiva. It is responsible for the renaissance of Orthodoxy, and I am not exaggerating. For the Yeshiva is not just an institution or a school; it is a movement, an idea, a challenge, it is a faith and an assurance that Torah can blossom and flourish in the Western hemisphere, close to the skyscrapers of New York. The Torah can be cultivated, taught and propagated in all societies and eras, no matter how powerful the opposition, and no matter how unfriendly the circumstances may be.
If chas v’shalom, the Yeshiva will close, not only will we lose a great institution that has changed the face of American Jewry from the top to the bottom, but we will lose an idea, a vision, and a faith. Orthodoxy itself will be lost! Many schools and high schools will close their doors for the simple reason that there will be no inspiration for them to continue. The Yeshiva is the loadstar which our boys and girls of the third, fourth, and fifth generations will follow. If chas v’shalom, disaster will strike and the Yeshiva will cease to exist, then Orthodoxy will be destroyed. Yes, you will have Orthodox groups, “sects” as Dr. Belkin calls them, here and there, but we are not for sectarian Orthodoxy. We want Orthodoxy to be a popular movement, to infiltrate and penetrate the American Jewish society. We want it to carry the torch of our tradition, of our Torah, proudly and boldly. This type of Orthodoxy will be lost if the Yeshiva will close its portals.
Cynics may poke fun, but, thank God, the American Jew is not a cynic. He is a dreamer, and he is questing for something. The search quite often brings the young man or woman to Yeshiva or Stern College. Let me take this opportunity to tell Mr. [Max] Stern that his contribution to American Jewish education and history is unique and singular, for such an institution as Stern College was unknown throughout the ages, and it saved and saves thousands of girls who come from all parts of the United States. I do not say that Yeshiva is perfect, who is perfect and what is perfect? Only God is perfect. However, its impact on American Jewish Life is stupendous…
Let us understand that the Yeshiva finds itself at the Crossroads of Jewish America. It reflects the entire, colorful spectrum of the American Jewish community. The boys and girls come from hasidic homes, from working class families, from the homes of professionals, from alienated and assimilated circles. Some come from the homes of kana’im while others come from the homes of goyim gemurim and happened to attend a youth conclave [Torah Leadership Seminar] sponsored by the Yeshiva. We do not appreciate how much these youth conclaves sponsored by the Yeshiva have accomplished.
In short, if you want to be acquainted with the heterogeneous American Jewish community, come by the Yeshiva and you will find representation from every nook and corner… The Yeshiva is not only a makom Torah where lomdim are trained, it is also an ir miklat, a refuge haven where young men and women find the Ribono Shel Olam.