By: Zachary Orenshein | Opinions  | 

YU's Hidden Gem

Consider this account of a moment of religious confusion resulting from what was meant to be an empowering lecture:

“A few years ago, I had a startling experience. For days, I had been anticipating this event. After being inspired by his books for years, I was finally going to hear this great figure speak in person. I scanned the room eagerly. There he was, finally, walking up to the podium to face the crowd. I was overcome with feelings of awe and excitement. But then, he spoke. And I was offended. Dumbstruck. How could someone whose writings taught me so much say words which hurt me to the core? To this day, I am not sure how to process that moment because even though I deeply disagreed with what he said then, I had always enjoyed his books before…”

This was told to me by a friend of mine and as soon as I heard it, I knew it didn’t sit right with me. I understand the listener’s response and I think it was natural. However, my experience in Yeshiva University has shown me the great advantage to be had in responding differently. YU has taught me how to learn from a great variety of people who disagree with me and to build real connections with them as well.

The typical yeshiva is run by rabbis who have specific perspectives on Judaism. Thus, they end up attracting students who see the world through that perspective. The unique opportunity YU affords its students is in its deviation from that model. The rabbis in YU are more different from each other than the classical model of a yeshiva would ever allow. This reality has two tremendous benefits. First, the student body is more diverse than a classic yeshiva; therefore, the social connections we can make here are great in number and in variety.

Second, and the point I want to emphasize, is that this variety of perspectives among the rabbis forces students to constantly encounter people whom they both deeply respect and disagree with strongly. Before I came to YU, I knew I viewed the world differently than some of the rabbis here. Now, after three-plus semesters, I have discovered more things we disagree on and more rabbis with whom to disagree. However, at the guidance of more seasoned YU students, I eventually made the conscious decision to learn from these rabbis as well. The result is not just that I know things now that I am tremendously grateful for learning, but that I have gained the irreplaceable life skill of embracing respectful and constructive disagreement.

I now take for granted that people disagree with me regarding topics I feel strongly about, yet I push myself to hear what they have to say. I can have an argument about something I feel passionate about and remain calm enough — most of the time — to have a respectful two-way conversation. I can now get excited about hearing a lecture from people I know I disagree with in many areas because I respect them and I understand that they still have a lot to teach me. I think this is a powerful way to approach the world in general.

For this reason, I am grateful to both Rabbi Shulman and President Ari Berman for the actions they have recently been criticized for. Yes, I side with the many roshei yeshiva who have expressed that they are in favor of the coed Shabbaton. However, I may have gained the most in my learning and religious development so far in YU from the roshei yeshiva who were most strongly against it. Rabbi Shulman reminded the Modern Orthodox world of the invaluable opportunity YU provides its students to encounter intellectual opposition from respected figures. It may be true that the content of the announcement should upset us. Yet, we cannot ignore that at the same time his respectful tone with which he delivered his words and his deference to the opinions of the other roshei yeshiva communicated this kind of mutual respect loud and clear. That’s exactly the point. If I spent my time at YU focusing on what I did not like about the rabbis and teachers in my presence, I would not have learned nearly as much from my experience.

President Berman is someone who I think clearly appreciates this. Some have criticized President Berman for not addressing specific issues and remaining too general in his statements. It seems to me that the only way YU is able to remain one institution containing so many great rabbis, teachers and students with such a range of perspectives, is if its foundational values are at once specific enough to want to fight for, yet general enough that we can all agree. To me, this is President Berman’s Five Torot. When I heard them the first, second and third time, I was inspired and felt proud to be a part of YU. Does that make me want to hear what President Berman has to say about more specific issues on campus? Sure. Yet, I think doing so may be irresponsible as long as he is the head of this institution of such delicate diversity. Individual rabbis within YU will continue to state their many different opinions which will continue to make YU a compelling place to spend crucial years of a person’s developing religious life. In my opinion, though, the president’s current position is correct. In areas of controversy, we cannot look for a unifying opinion from the top, or for a single psak to bind the entire student body. Such an approach would endanger our invaluable diversity.

Recent events have highlighted for us that YU’s unusual diversity for a yeshiva presents both great challenges and great potential. The diversity among the rabbis allows for many different students to find their place and at the same time learn from teachers and students so different than them. I encourage everyone to be concerned about preserving this special gift that we have. Let’s pursue our visions with respect for the space of others’ visions, so we can take full advantage of the variety of people around us and the great things we have yet to learn from them.


Photo Caption: YU Roshei Yeshiva at a RIETS Event in Lamport Auditorium
Photo Credit: YU News