“Volozhin Yeshiva” Survey Email Ruffles Feathers
A group of vigilante Yeshiva University undergraduates has initiated a platform for the purpose of informing classmates about potentially halakhically problematic material that they may encounter in courses offered by Yeshiva College and Sy Syms School of Business.
The group of students is operating under the anonymous email address of “firstname.lastname@example.org,” which also operates a semi-active Twitter account with the handle @VolozhinYeshiva. The group claims to be the continuation of the Volozhin Yeshiva, a prominent a Lithuanian yeshiva that operated from 1803 until 1892, when roshei yeshiva decided to terminate operations rather than succumb to Russian pressures to increase secular studies in their curriculum. According to the group’s profile, “YU’s founders were descendants and students of the Volozhin Yeshiva. We are it’s [sic] continuation! We are Volozhin!”
The group gained attention two weeks ago on the evening of Monday, April 1 when hundreds of male Yeshiva University undergraduates received an email from the account encouraging them to fill out a course evaluation form to anonymously submit information about specific classes in which halakhic issues may have arisen. The email requested that submissions be as precise as possible, and added that “the project is being run with input and advice from Rabbanim.” Submissions are then evaluated by the group’s moderators, and, after approval, are posted on a public Google Doc.
As of the time of publication, 12 courses have been listed on the document. The courses, which all list professors’ names, allegedly taught or presented questionable material such as R rated movies, “inappropriate paintings” and Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.” Other courses listed include “Human and Animal Physiology,” which allegedly displayed “pictures of human and animal physiology” on the board, and “Principles of Biology II,” in which, allegedly, “such topics as evolution were taught as scientific dogma.”
When asked for comment, both the Yeshiva College and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) deans claimed to have no knowledge of the project. The Yeshiva College deans in particular expressed disappointment with the initiative, noting that they are open to critiques about halakhic issues that may present themselves in courses. Dean Fred Sugarman described the initiative as “very strange and troubling.”
A brief Commentator investigation revealed that the group is administered by a team of current YU students, who spoke with the newspaper on the condition of anonymity.
The students explained that they spoke with several rabbis “to ensure what we are doing is halakhically permissible and how to keep it that way and, more generally, how to go about in a respectful manner.” When pressed about which rabbis in particular they consulted, the group said that “YU rabbis were consulted.”
The group did not consult with the deans in advance of their initiative. “We feel that this is a public information project by students for students and not one that necessarily requires involvement from the university,” the group explained.
The group declined to share precise details about how they gathered students’ email addresses, or which students in particular were contacted, offering only that “emails were gathered over a period of time from public sources. No specific groups of students were singled out.”
“We are simply trying to inform students of potential halakhic issues within classes,” the students explained when asked about the goal of the project. “It is always better to know what one is getting oneself into when they are signing up for classes.” The students added, “We would like to note that we are not trying to cause anyone trouble nor upset or offend people. We are just looking to help out the students.” They also shared that they “have heard from students across all majors, morning programs and religious spectrums that they would be interested in this information.”
Some students have raised the concern that this group’s initiative, due to the nature of anonymous submissions, may be subject to factual inaccuracies. Indeed, one Yeshiva College student, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Commentator that the submission about “Principles of Biology II” was his own. “I submitted my post about evolution simply to troll Volozhin Yeshiva,” the student explained. “I also should note that my original post was edited by the moderators, which probably means that they suspected that I made up the post, but decided to publish it anyway.”
When asked about such accuracy concerns, the group of students insisted that they “are only looking to publish things that are fact. This is a program that will only work with the cooperation of the students, so we are asking all of the students to take it seriously.”
Aside from concerns regarding vigilantism and accuracy, the other major concern, expressed by many students and professors, had to do with the issue of besmirching professors by name in a public setting. In response to this concern, the students explained that they have consulted with several poskim and concluded that “all the things the teacher presents and assigns to classes are done in public and therefore considered public knowledge (befarhesiya).” They added that “even if it was not public knowledge it is permissible to warn people of things” and that “anything that might be remotely subjective, and border on lashon hara, we will research, and we turn to rabbinic guidance to make sure that it is permissible before publishing it.”
The group also encouraged students who may be concerned to speak with their rabbis. “The rabbis we consulted were in favor of the project,” the students explained, “and felt that it is permissible as long as we follow certain standards.”
“It is important to also note that we are not attacking any teachers personally,” the students concluded. “We only wish to publish the content and syllabi of classes so students can be informed about the content of their classes before enrolling.”
Photo Caption: As of the time of publication, 12 courses have been listed on the document.
Photo Credit: The Commentator