From the Archives: Rav Soloveitchik Decries Secularization of Yeshiva; Students Protest at Chag Hasemicha
Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, The Commentator has chosen to republish several articles relating to the student protests of 1970 against the secularization of Yeshiva University and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s controversial Chag Hasemicha shiur on the matter.
Title: From the Archives (April 15, 1970; Volume 35 Issue 13) — Rav Responds to Secularization; Sympathizes with Student Rally
Author: Andrew Geller
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has called on the Yeshiva administration to reverse the trend toward secularization upon which it has embarked. His address, delivered during the celebration of Chag Hasemicha on April 12, was seen by many as one of the most significant in Yeshiva’s eighty-five year history.
The Rav defined three specific problems which he fears may soon face the undergraduate divisions if Yeshiva College remains a secular institution. He cannot believe that a non-sectarian school will be able to enforce religious observance in its dormitories. He fears that a rebellious student may soon challenge the college’s requirement of attendance in a religious division, a requirement no longer compatible with Yeshiva’s secular status.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s greatest fears concern Dr. Belkin’s successor. The Rav pointed out that the religious ideology which is the backbone of Yeshiva today is due to a great extent to President Belkin. But since all men are mortal, he said, Dr. Belkin’s position will inevitably be filled by another, whose competence will not be as great as Dr. Belkin’s. Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasized that the administration cannot allow the character of the entire university to depend upon one man, but that it must be a concrete and legal part of the University’s constitution.
Reaction to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s speech was immediate and varied. Dr. Belkin was visibly upset by both the tone and the content of the Rav’s remarks. At several points during the Rav’s speech he interjected denials to accusations made against the YU administration, but the Rav insisted that he be allowed to speak freely.
One member of the Board of Trustees charged that the Rav had chosen a bad time and place for his remarks. Moreover, since the Rav has done little to aid YU’s fund-raising efforts, in was not in his province to criticize the way Yeshiva obtains its money. Even some rebbeim in the yeshiva expressed their belief that Rabbi Soloveitchik had not grasped the financial implications of the situation.
Student reaction was overwhelmingly favorable. Some felt that his complete rejection of present Yeshiva policy made Dr. Belkin’s position untenable and would ultimately force the latter’s resignation. Others were of the opinion that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s personal praise of Dr. Belkin was completely sincere and his threat to leave YU was sufficiently vague so as to allow Dr. Belkin room to maneuver without resigning his position.
The issue of secularization has burned fitfully among the student body throughout most of this year. However, the issuance of new catalogues representing JSS and EMC as non-sectarian institutions aroused the resentment of many students who felt the administration was dealing deceitfully not only with Albany, but with its own students as well.
On April 8, four semikha students presented Dr. Belkin with a list of six demands which they termed “imperative.” They asked that:
1) The corporate structure of YU be changed so that RIETS (both undergraduate and graduate), YC, EMC, JSS, Stern and TIW be established as a separate corporation independent of the other divisions of the University.
2) This new corporation be given as assets classroom, dormitory, and library buildings currently used by it as well as an equitable share of the endowment.
3) All new catalogues issued under the pressure of the present charters be immediately withdrawn and new ones stating conspicuously the requirements for a double program be issued as soon as possible and forwarded to Albany.
4) Salaries of the religious faculties be raised to at least parity with those of the college faculty.
5) Faculty councils of the respective religious divisions be empowered to set definitive policy with respect to admissions, curriculum and degree and semicha requirements.
6) The Belfer Graduate School and its buildings should be totally shut down on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
The students, banding together under the banner “Concerned Students’ Coalition,” pointed out that the $300,000 in Bundy funds which the undergraduate divisions would lose if they remained sectarian was an insignificant sum compared to YU’s multi-million dollar budget.
According to the Coalition’s leaders, the six demands were negotiable. They indicated that they might be satisfied with a return to the situation before 1967, the year in which RIETS was separated from the University.
As no positive response to their demands was forthcoming from Dr. Belkin’s office, the students decided to picket the Chag Hasemicha on Sunday, April 12. This decision was supported by some of the rabbinic faculty and by Rabbi Soloveitchik himself.
At a student meeting on Thursday, April 9, some students expressed the opinion that picketing alone, even with the threat of bad publicity, might not be enough to force a restructuring of the entire University. They believed that only occupation of the college buildings could bring about the changes they had demanded.
The picketing action itself, however, did not receive the support of the entire student body. A declaration of support was signed by the presidents and presidents-elect of JSS and SOY, the president-elect of YCSC, the president of Stern College student council, and the editors of the Observer, the Hamevaser and Hamashkif. Conspicuous by their absence were the signatures of the president of YCSC and the editor of The Commentator. Later, Robert Sacknovitz of JSS and president-elect Robert Weiss of YCSC claimed that their signatures were added to the declaration of support without their explicit consent.
The lack of popular enthusiasm was also evident to an extent when the actual event took place on Sunday. Only 25 Stern girls took part, and of the 200 YC students who marched in front of Furst Hall and the main building, the majority were from RIETS and JSS; few if any were from EMC. Not one member of the YCSC executive council was present.
Even Rabbi Soloveitchik declined in the end to back the pickets. In his speech on Sunday he claimed that he had put a stop to the picketing, and only upon being informed that students were indeed marching, at that very moment did he declare his wholehearted support for “those fine young people” and their demands.
A number of students declined to join the coalition of essentially right-wing students, some of whom had previously been involved in protests not approved of by the general student body. Some who did march did so because of the influence of the Rav’s speech, not because they supported all of the Coalition’s demands.
Many of the pickets had opposed publicizing the affair through the news media, fearing chilul Hashem. Nonetheless, the leaders of the Coalition insisted upon obtaining a demonstration permit and requesting a police contingent, moves designed to attract publicity.
Among the administration as well there was some confusion. It was Rabbi Israel Miller, the Assistant to the President, who arranged for WYUR coverage of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s speech, apparently in the mistaken belief that the Rav’s speech would mollify rather than inflame student opinion.
The most crucial credibility gap is the one which seems to exist between the executive officers of the administration and the rest of the University. Rabbi Soloveitchik made it quite clear that he no longer believes the public relations office or Yeshiva’s attorneys. He is not at all impressed by the machination of the “snobs” at Einstein, Belfer, Ferkauf and Wurzweiler and is convinced that we can get along without these graduate schools.
Some doubt if even Dr. Belkin is truly aware of the implications of Yeshiva’s drive toward secularization. Or it may be that he indeed understands the situation, and that he allows it to continue is the greatest tragedy of all.
In either case, until the various segments of the University reestablish trust in one another, there can be no fruitful negotiations within the University. If there are no meaningful discussions, then those issues which face YU in this crisis may never be properly resolved. And if that happens, there may no longer be a Yeshiva.
Title: From the Archives (April 15, 1970; Volume 35 Issue 13) — The Rav’s Speech
Author: Bernard Firestone and The Commentator Governing Board of 1969-70
Rav Soloveitchik’s speech on Sunday in which he expressed concern over YU’s direction delineated the fears of much of the student body. The possibility of widespread secularization at the College is one which frightens anyone concerned with the survival of this unique institution.
Our fear is that this noble speech which intended to unite the YU community for an attack on its problems, might in the end contribute to a needless polarization. Until now the differences in the secularization fight have been pragmatic ones, between those who say we need Albany’s money to survive and those who feel that we can survive without it. The effect of the speech might well be to elevate this pragmatic argument into an ideological one. Let us be more explicit.
Throughout his talk, Rav Soloveitchik lavished extensive praise on Dr. Belkin. Yet his concluding remark indicated that if YU were to continue its present policy he would feel forced to resign. The extension of what he was saying, as understood by most people was the following: Dr. Belkin’s current policy, if continued, will become so inimical to the Rav’s conception of a Yeshiva University that he would leave the institution that propagates it.
The Rav was trying to articulate an exceedingly difficult position, that is, he wished to undercut a university policy without undercutting the administrator who guides that policy. Though he tried to lay blame on others, the majority feeling was that the chief victim of the attack was Dr. Belkin, with some expressing the feeling that as much could have been accomplished in a private address to the Board of Trustees.
And thus the tragic polarization. The Rav intended to criticize a policy, not a man, but many have identified the two so closely that they’ve chosen to construe his speech as an attack on both.
This is the turmoil in which we currently stand. The underlying attempt of the Rav’s speech was to unify YU for an attack on its problems. We hope that it is this that results from his speech, and not increased polarization of a community already too divided.
Title: From the Archives (May 27, 1970; Volume 35 Issue 14) — Letter to the Editor
Authors: Hervey Bennet, Louis Schapiro, David Seinfeld, Steve Singer and Leo Beer
The Concerned Student’s Coalition, by its very name, attempted to monopolize concern over the recent “secularization issue.” Nevertheless, there are many students at Yeshiva who are just as interested in our university maintaining its unique character, yet feel that the actions of the coalition are causing irreparable damage to the university.
One cannot question the motives of some of the people who are actively participating in the coalition’s activities. They are voicing a legitimate fear that YU may become more “University” than “Yeshiva.” Yet, unfortunately, our institution cannot exist today without government funds. This, as we all know, has sparked the particular chain of events that has led to the present crisis. Needless to say, it is naive to think that only the Bundy money is involved. The name of Yeshiva has been smeared throughout many Jewish communities in the country. People who have never seen YU and alumni who are only acquainted with half-facts began sending telegrams and vicious letters attacking Dr. Belkin. Many Jewish communities were represented at the Chag Hasemicha and several of the fund-raisers present were left with a bad taste in their mouths at the site of Yeshiva students picketing.
Yeshiva is already beginning to feel the financial pinch, and if the university will reach the point where it will no longer be solvent, tremors will be sent throughout the entire American Jewish community. YU is the foundation of the structure of Orthodox Judaism in the United States. Therefore, our main concern should be to maintain the Yeshiva character of our school, and we should voice our opinions to that effect. However, in light of the uniques position of our Yeshiva in Orthodox Jewish life, we must never risk the demise of the university.
We deplore the involvement of the individuals far-removed from the Yeshiva scene in the present crisis. We deplore the vociferous attacks upon Dr. Belkin’s integrity, and we hope that he will find strength to continue to serve Yeshiva as diligently as he has in the past.
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