By: Moshe J. Bernstein | Opinions  | 

Where is Our Mission? Where is Our Raison d’Être?

My colleague, chairman and scholarly collaborator, Professor Aaron Koller, presented his view of the revision of the Jewish Studies in an article in The Commentator, April 15, 2019, pp. 21-22. Under the headline, “An Improved Judaic Studies Education,” he presents an ambivalent perspective (“I say this with sadness … and also write bedema‛ [in tears]” vs. “I am excited about the real educational benefits”) on the new curriculum, with a stress on what he sees as the exciting elements. I share his sadness, but cannot agree at all with his excitement.

When the Beren Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College revised its general education requirements during the 2012-13 and again in the 2014-15 academic years, in response to intense and incessant administrative pressure, we spent a great deal of time considering the rationale for the requirements and their relationship to the mission of Yeshiva College. Both of those factors were critical in the vigorous discussions that preceded the adjustments in the required curriculum (which eventually included, under that administrative pressure, a reduction in the number of credits from 14 to 12 [not including Hebrew]).

The structure of the requirements remained the same: six credits of Bible (down from eight, but still including what I believe to be the fundamental course, “Introduction to Bible,” now retitled “Text, Context and Tradition”), with a large and varied number of “text” courses that could be employed to fulfill the requirements; six credits of Jewish History with the ways in which they could be fulfilled being expanded, with only one “survey” course in JHI being required, while the other semester could be chosen from a variety of courses which did not have to be broad surveys. The current revision (2018-19) would have benefited from the sort of reflection in which we engaged then.

The current adjustment in the requirements can be succinctly said to be based on one word, “optionality,” and was driven by the self-delusive administrative misconception that changes in a variety of areas of YC requirements (such as Jewish Studies and the Core) are the solution to reversing the dropping enrollment at the College. And, once again, it is clear to many of us that pressure from the upper administration played a significant role in the decision of the faculty. The administration believes that if the Jewish Studies requirements were mitigated, more students would apply for admission to YC. I really wonder whether this is truly the case, and, if it is, whether those students are the ones for whom Yeshiva College was founded. (If these changes bring students banging down our doors, I will ungraciously admit to having been wrong.) At some point we will lose our essential identity as Yeshiva College, and no longer merit the name.

From an historical perspective, Yeshiva University never had a grand synthesis called “Modern Orthodoxy,” as Professor Koller claims; it might have been an ideal, but there was always a dynamic tension between Yeshiva and College/University. It was not always comfortable, and was regularly under stress from one segment of our institution or another, but it is what has distinguished us, and should continue to distinguish us, from all other American institutions of higher education. If Yeshiva University is, as it has always prided itself to be, the academic flagship institution and bastion of Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy, it is our institutional responsibility to lead our community, and the students who come from it, in the direction that they ought to go, rather than allowing them to dictate academic policy and yielding to the desires of students who would like to complete a four-year college education in three years. Our education needs to stand for something, not turn into a cheapened piece of merchandise that will attract more buyers.

The new and virtually unstructured requirements, in my opinion, are but one more manifestation of a watering-down of the Yeshiva College liberal arts education. Giving students “optionality” very often will lead to their adopting a path of least resistance in areas of their education which they do not perceive as primary to their career goals. The very way that the new requirements are structured creates a weaker set of courses than the old ones. One of the options that students now have in Jewish History is two-credit courses, which can be fitted in to what used to be called the “Bible slot” in the schedule. The goal is to enable students to take all their Jewish Studies requirements before 3 p.m. That convenience for students was clearly not weighed against the very clear academic inferiority of two-credit courses to three-credit ones. The majority of YC students can actually be better served by survey courses which they will avoid for convenience’s sake.

In a two-credit course, there is no opportunity for studying the sweep of history which is an explicit goal of our curricular rationale; there is no time for enough reading; and serious writing cannot be assigned. The amount of subject matter which can be mastered is critically reduced. The bits and pieces of several two-credit courses may not add up to an integrated and holistic perspective on any era of Jewish history. And finally, two-credit Jewish History courses cannot play the robust role in the YC Humanities curriculum that three-credit courses played in the past.

The other feature of the new packaging is the reduction in the number of required credits in Bible. This is particularly painful to me, not merely because it is the area in which I do most of my teaching, but because I believe that in the hierarchy of importance in Jewish Studies, the study of Bible, Torah shebikhtav, must take priority over that of as significant a subject area as Jewish History (which I teach as well). They cannot be considered merely interchangeable parts of a total number of credits that need to be taken by every YC student. As academic disciplines, there are perhaps no hierarchical distinctions among fields, but from the perspective of talmud Torah it should be clear which is primary.

And let us not forget that the reason for the Jewish Studies requirement in the College is to provide our students with a broader and more rounded Jewish education than their many hours in the bet midrash can furnish. The study of Bible in the original Hebrew must be a cornerstone of that education (and we indeed need to do more, not less, to develop greater Hebrew competence in students who enter YC ill-prepared). But to suggest that since we cannot cover more, we should not require our students to cover as much as we do currently, strikes me as analogous to suggesting that since our students can’t cover most of Shas while here at Yeshiva, we should exempt them from learning all but one masechta.

This is not to suggest that curricula are carved in stone and immutable, but major changes in curriculum such as the one that led to the creation of the YC Core several years ago, deserve more forethought than this one got. It is possible that had we taken our time with the revision, we would have realized that the administrative pressure needed to be resisted strongly, as it was four years ago. Perhaps we might have decided to demand the return of the two-credit course that was snatched away then, in order to assign it to a requirement in Jewish Thought which we have not had in the past. Our department and its requirements need to be acknowledged to be a mainstay component of what Yeshiva College is, and not something that we continue only for historical reasons. Weakening the requirements will not accomplish that.

Yeshiva College is a remarkably unique institution; it is neither a classic yeshiva, nor a classic secular liberal arts college, but rather an amalgam of the two. This unusual status is what demands a serious Jewish Studies component in the College, and in many ways, Jewish Studies in the College is the bridge between the two disparate sections, a bridge, as I like to call it, between the bet midrash and the library. Our faculty, too, must participate in this duality; they are perforce Jewish educators (mehannekhim), in addition to being professors in the finest academic department in Yeshiva College.

The component of the liberal arts education that is offered by the Beren Department of Jewish Studies must prepare rabbonim and ballebatim, clergy and laity, of the next generation of Orthodox Judaism. It needs to be the strongest one possible, not an attenuated one. And the University administration needs to recognize that in order to be worthy of the name Yeshiva University, and in order to attract students of the quality that we want, we have to demonstrate to the American Orthodox community that we have something unique to offer their children, something that neither Touro College nor any Ivy League university can offer. When we stop doing that we will have lost our raison d’être. And for anyone who needs a reminder of what we shall look like then, please read Binyamin Koslowe’s editorial, “A View From the World of Tomorrow,” in the last issue of The Commentator (May 5, 2019).


Moshe J. Bernstein is Professor of Bible and Jewish History at Yeshiva College where he holds the David A. and Fannie M. Denenberg Chair in Biblical Studies.


Photo Caption: Our education needs to stand for something, not turn into a cheapened piece of merchandise that will attract more buyers.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons