By: Benjamin Koslowe | News  | 

Jewish Studies Rethought: Yeshiva College Announces Significant Reduction in Required Courses

The Department of Jewish Studies has approved a revision to the Yeshiva College (YC) Jewish Studies requirements, effective Fall 2019. Voted upon by the Department of Jewish Studies faculty this past week after extensive discussion, the changes affect the YC Bible and Jewish History requirements.

Under the plan, Yeshiva College students will be required to take 12 credits in any area of Jewish Studies (Bible, Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy, [academic] Talmud, Hebrew literature, etc.). Among these courses, students must take one course in Jewish History, one course in a new category called “Jewish Thought and Philosophy,” and one course in Bible.

Students will be able to fulfill the new requirements by taking any combination of 2- and 3-credit courses that add up to a minimum of 12 credits while satisfying the three requirements. As the new requirements are numerically and categorically subsumed under the old requirements, current students who have already fulfilled their Jewish Studies requirements will not need to make any changes to their academic plans.

These changes mark the first major update to the Yeshiva College Jewish Studies requirements in over three years, and the first significant restructuring of undergraduate requirements during Rabbi Ari Berman’s presidency. The revision, which was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Department of Jewish Studies faculty, will be evaluated by the YC Curriculum Committee, after which it will be presented to the YC faculty as a whole for formal approval. Only after formal approval will the revision will become official.

At the present time, the Hebrew language requirements remain unchanged. Since this Spring 2019 semester, as The Commentator recently reported, male undergraduate students have been required to take between one and three semesters of Hebrew language, depending on their track placement as determined by a YU-administered language competency examination. The Jewish Studies update also does not affect Sy Syms School of Business students, who at the present time are still required to take Hebrew language, as well as one of three dockets of Jewish Studies courses (Sy Syms Contemporary Jewish Studies, YC Jewish Studies or James Striar School courses), depending on their morning program and interests.

“The formal Bible requirement is much reduced, and there is no particular course that is still required,” expressed Professor Aaron Koller, the Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies. “We view this as sad but necessary, and we would like to work with the yeshiva to encourage students to increase their study of Tanakh.”

Koller emphasized that there will be “an increased range of options within Jewish Studies, which should enable students to find classes that they are interested in, and should also enable faculty to teach classes that they believe are important and interesting for our students.” The official voted-upon document added that students “gain immeasurably from these changes” in terms of scheduling, as “students in all morning programs can fulfill their Jewish Studies requirements without having to worry about possible conflicts with their other YC requirements and courses in their majors.”

In order to maximize course choices and scheduling flexibility, 2-credit courses of all types will be offered in the Tuesday/Thursday 1:05-2:45 slot. As in previous semesters, courses will also continue to be offered for Isaac Breuer College of Hebraic Studies (IBC) students in the Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday 11:00-12:15 slots, as well as in the weekday 3:00, 4:30 and 6:45 slots for all interested students. Honors courses will be limited to 3-credit courses, and will be available in multiple disciplines within Jewish Studies.

Though The Commentator reached out to Deans and many Jewish Studies professors, as of the time of publication, most declined to comment on the recent development. One professor, who requested to not be named, expressed concern about whether there will be enough course offerings for all of the tenured Jewish Studies professors.

For decades, Yeshiva College students were required to take several Bible courses, including an introductory Bible course called “Text, Context, and Tradition” in recent years, or more colloquially known as “Intro to Bible” (the course’s exact title has varied over the years). The course has been taught by many different professors, recently including Professor Moshe Bernstein, Professor Shalom Carmy, Professor Yaakov Elman (who passed away last July), Professor Shalom Holtz, Professor Aaron Koller, Professor Ari Mermelstein, Rabbi Allen Schwartz and Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

Though “Intro to Bible” will no longer be a required course, it will almost certainly continue to be offered, at least for the time being. Koller explained that part of the thought process that led to “Intro to Bible” losing requirement status was empirical evidence that the course, though theoretically important, did not seem to be succeeding at the goal of creating sophisticated Modern Orthodox readers of Tanakh. According to Koller, this realization led to an evaluation of whether the course was in fact one that needs to be taught to every student.

Aside from “Intro to Bible,” the Department of Jewish Studies is reconfiguring many of its other 2-credit courses. “This makes for educational and pedagogical challenges,” figured Koller, “but will significantly ease some of the pressures on the students in the afternoons.”

With a broader array of course offerings, Yeshiva College students will be able to fulfill Jewish Studies requirements with greater variety. For example, whereas students were previously required to take one survey course — typically either “Classical Jewish History” or “Medieval Jewish History” — and one in-depth course in Jewish History, they now might avoid survey courses altogether and instead study a more specific topic in Jewish History. Like “Intro to Bible,” the futures of the “Classical Jewish History” and “Medieval Jewish History” courses remain to be seen.

Additionally, the new higher amount of options will allow for students to fulfill Jewish Studies requirements with courses outside of the Jewish History or Bible departments. Such courses may include offerings in the Jewish Philosophy department, as well as electives in Jewish Studies that may be offered in various departments. Next semester, for example, visiting professor Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann will be teaching a course in the discipline of academic Talmud, which will fulfill a Jewish Studies requirement.

The changes in the YC Jewish Studies requirements are the first to be announced during a wave of several such curricular brainstorming sessions that have been taking place over the past few weeks. Currently, Wilf Campus Hebrew language faculty are in the process of discussions that are expected to result in a slightly modified set of requirements for next semester. Additionally, Yeshiva College faculty have conducted several meetings to evaluate the General Studies Core Curriculum and possibly institute modifications, although this remains to be seen.

The broad pattern of curricular updates is taking place on the heels of recent experimentation with the notion of “optionality,” which President Ari Berman has discussed with faculty on several occasions now, including at a meeting of Yeshiva College faculty in early February. According to several faculty members who were present at the recent meeting, the idea of “optionality” is to maximize academic options for students, in some cases by reducing requirements, to address issues such as the limited time during the day and other factors that currently, in theory, turn potential students away from Yeshiva University. Professor Koller explained that the new Jewish Studies revision was not micromanaged by the President’s Office, although the changes likely are in line with the president’s vision for promoting “optionality.”

“Academic renewal is at the heart of every university’s curriculum,” wrote Provost Selma Botman. “The Jewish Studies faculty care deeply about their students, and their proposed changes to Jewish Studies requirements at YU represent a thoughtful response to their students’ intellectual and educational aspirations. This highlights our faculty’s ongoing concern with the quality of their curricular offerings.”

This is a developing story. The Commentator will provide updates if and when further curricular changes are announced.


Photo Caption: Furst Hall
Photo Credit: The Commentator