By: Akiva Frishman | Features  | 

From the Vice-President’s Desk: Shut Down the Volozhin Yeshiva

While this column reflects the views of a single, outgoing vice president, it should also serve as the “official” position of the Yeshiva College Student Association (YCSA) regarding the “Volozhin Yeshiva” controversy.

The recent revision of the Jewish Studies Core coupled with a disproportionate number of entries on Volozhin Yeshiva’s spreadsheet that disparage certain Bible and Jewish History courses encouraged me to exclusively address the group’s relevance to the Jewish Studies Department, ignoring the broader conversation surrounding what is/isn’t appropriate in the Humanities. Though surely well-intentioned, the Volozhin Yeshiva’s leaders are responsible for a forum that unduly ignores the value of this college’s Jewish Studies curriculum, while simultaneously providing a platform for outright chutzpah.

The respondents on the Volozhin Yeshiva’s survey who warn of troubling passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inclusion of “a critical understanding of the Rambam’s 13 Principles” either misunderstand or simply disregard the value of an academic approach to Jewish Studies. As a whole, the methods that instructors use in this field are entirely correct. It is irrational to deny the fact that a familiarity with the ancient Egyptian language provides a useful tool to better understand Sefer Shemot. Similarly, engaging with passages in Matthew or reading the writings of the Church fathers help illuminate the nature of our Jewish ancestors’ communities and provide insights into their theological values and beliefs. If one is serious about understanding his traditions, if he desires a more authentic perspective on Jewish Studies, it is only logical that he take full advantage of the tools in this college’s classrooms.

Yes, I am aware that certain rabbinic figures dismiss and/or flat out prohibit certain aspects of academic Jewish Studies. I am certainly on no footing to disagree with their conclusions nor present an opposing halakhic rationale. My intention is to encourage students to carefully evaluate the breadth of perspectives on this important issue and weigh the consequences of refusing to engage with such studies. Many articles exist from faculty members like Professors Carmy and Eichler that present well-reasoned arguments in favor of a curriculum that includes academic perspectives. Students submitting responses would be wise to spend their time reading some of these essays rather than present overly simplistic dismissals of valuable courses.

It’s also important to recognize the unique position that this university occupies within the study of Tanakh and Jewish Studies. In almost all other institutions across the world, the concept of the Torah having divine origins is largely ignored, if not ridiculed. The Orthodox student’s reverence for the Torah, Chazal and mesorah are virtues that provide an otherwise nonexistent vantage point in Jewish Studies; his research papers and course discussions elevate the collective academic discourse by contributing a valuable perspective.

I will admit that engaging in certain sources can be difficult, perhaps causing students to question, debate and doubt certain long-held assumptions. But is that really a bad thing? Yeshiva College, as a liberal arts institution, intends to provoke a thoughtful, intellectually rigorous discussion. If a student graduates without ever challenging a single belief from his adolescence, how valuable is his diploma? Is it not concerning that a person might uproot mountains in the beit midrash but refuse to grapple with the theological significance of an ancient Assyrian treaty?

Luckily, this college recognizes the inherent risk in freely exposing students to contradictory ideas and, therefore, creates a structure to mitigate potential harm. A crucial component of the Bible course “Text, Context, and Tradition,” until recently a prerequisite for other Judaic courses, is to slowly accustom students to a more academic approach to Tanakh, sensitively addressing theological concerns and creating a safe space from which to contend with difficult questions. Further, this course, specifically, is often taught by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, a RIETS rosh yeshiva and preeminent scholar in Jewish Studies who certainly has the wherewithal to help students navigate this complex field. In addition, a host of rabbis in the Isaac Breuer College, including Rabbi Hayyim Angel, offer courses that are steeped in traditional interpretation but still introduce other, secular explanations to religious dilemmas, cultivating a healthy, religiously inspiring environment.

The sad reality is that the majority of Jewish elementary and high schools do not prepare their students to think critically about Tanakh. They, instead, establish an extraordinarily flimsy foundation for productive discussions later in life. This is not Yeshiva University’s fault nor is it productive to build upon these past failures by avoiding important discussions in Jewish Studies.

The existence of the Jewish Core, not to mention the Bernard Revel Graduate School, is proof that this university values an intellectually sophisticated discussion about Tanakh and Jewish History. If it didn’t, I’m sure it could have done away with such a curriculum long ago, instead providing each student with an Artscroll Feldheim subscription. Just as Calculus requires familiarity with derivatives and Biology an awareness of human anatomy, a genuine, authentic discussion of Tanakh and Jewish History often demands an examination of ancient Semitic languages, Rashi’s historical context and yes, sometimes Christian Gospels. For students to warn of such topics — or worse, for the university to encourage censorship — is a disservice that hampers intellectual honesty.

But what is perhaps more disturbing about the Volozhin Yeshiva forum is its total lack of respect for Yeshiva College’s educators. Though their complete anonymity precludes verification, I am certain that they, like myself, were disappointed in The Commentator’s initial failure to address certain Rabbeim with their correct title earlier this semester. Kal V’Chomer, it should be troubling that the value of these scholars is relegated to one sentence anecdotes like “he quoted a passage in Paul,” ignoring their immense contributions to the field of Jewish Studies.

If the Volozhin Yeshiva group is correct in their contention that the threats that foreign ideas pose to our Jewish tradition are so intense, should we not stand in awe of the faculty that engages to the fullest extent with these topics and yet still dawn kippot? Does one not owe sincere kavod to those who have surmounted such obstacles? Professors Rynhold, Mermelstein and Koller — among the many other instructors not listed on the group’s Excel sheet — play vital, unique roles within academia, offering rare insights that draw upon both Jewish tradition and secular knowledge. Students should not only take their courses but derive religious inspiration from them as well.

Supporters of the forum might argue that it’s a harmless way of supplying students with a resource to make a more informed decision about their courses. However, the not-so-subtle implication of the entire spreadsheet, as well as the call-to-action email, is that these professors are engaging in destructive, sinful behavior. Again, a hefty attack to launch upon respected educators. Second, while some students might have carefully arrived at the conclusion that academic Jewish Studies is not for them, it is likely that far too many will take the comments out of context and arrive at a premature decision.

The issue of censorship and exactly how much “heretical” material to include in a Jewish institution is certainly recurring and complex, but the Volozhin Yeshiva’s strategy is not helpful. If they truly wanted to assist fellow students, they could organize a panel with roshei yeshiva and Bible professors and engage in legitimate discussion. A “Down with Bible Club” or plastering signs and pamphlets with rabbinic sources in opposition to an academic Jewish Studies curriculum would even show more sophistication and perhaps deserve credit. An anonymous, unendorsed, disrespectful email campaign is simply unbecoming of a university student.

As I reflect on my years in YU, I am struck by the impact that the Jewish Studies curriculum had on both my religious and academic growth. A course in Deuteronomy forced me to grapple with conflicting viewpoints, but simultaneously provided me with a stronger appreciation for our Torah and bolstered my theological convictions. True, Classical and Medieval Jewish History included Christian sources and troubling Rabbinic texts, but they also engendered intellectual honesty and a framework to better understand our Jewish community’s relationship with contemporary society. I will graduate immeasurably grateful to this department and its faculty.

There are many aspects of this college that are admirable, but its Jewish Studies curriculum makes it truly unique amongst institutions of higher education. Let’s embrace the opportunities that this department affords and reject short-sighted attempts to discredit it.


Photo Caption: The Glueck Beit Midrash
Photo Credit: YU News