Why YU Needs a Rosh Yeshiva
Editor’s Note: The YU Observer is an independent student newspaper of Yeshiva University.
On September 11, 2019, a friend and colleague of mine forwarded me an article from the YU Observer. The email said that I should make sure to read this to the end. I read the article and was astonished by the concluding paragraph. It read: “So, in short: In a clash between humanity and halakha, opt for humanity, and have enough faith in halakha that the problem will be solved. And if somehow the conflict remains intractable, I would rather suffer for being a good person than sacrifice someone else’s life on the altar of my religiosity.”
I could not believe what I had read. The author seems to state that in a conflict between one’s perceived view of their humanity versus the guidelines of the Torah, one should "opt for humanity". It is almost irrelevant what the article was addressing, in as much as it was attacking the universal beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. Additionally, I can easily imagine this becoming the slogan for anti-Israel rhetoric: while we understand the Torah’s feelings regarding the Jews and Israel, our “humanity” dictates that the Jews must vacate Israel.
Even more troubling was the fact that the writer was not just any student or faculty member, but rather the chair of the Robert M. Beren Jewish Studies department at Yeshiva College. I immediately sent an email to YU administrators informing them that, in my opinion, they had a real issue on their hands. What I came to realize is that the issue is so much bigger than this one article.
As I spoke to many different stakeholders in the YU community, many things became apparent. The general sentiment I heard expressed by YU rabbis from across the board was that this professor’s classes are not reflective of normative Orthodox Jewish thought. If asked, almost all of them indicated that an Orthodox student should not attend his class. Not only was this the case in Washington Heights, but in Israel as well, many yeshivot have told their students that this class was off limits. How someone could hold the title of chair of the Jewish Studies department at YC while also lacking the confidence of so many rabbis, is shocking.
The next surprising conversation I had was with those that tried to explain to me that the Observer was not really a fully sanctioned YU newspaper. I pointed out that it was called the “Yeshiva University Observer,” and had a YU logo on the masthead.
The most worrisome part, however, was the silence. The chair of the YC Jewish Studies department had challenged the value system of the Torah, and not one of the other leaders within the institution had said a word. I was told that there were meetings to discuss it, with the end result being a decision to have more meetings. Leadership requires a voice, and there was none here.
Many that I spoke to quoted stories of Rav Soloveitchik’s compassion regarding wedding matches that had to be broken due to halakhic prohibitions. They would relate how Rav Soloveitchik would cry with the affected parties. These were beautiful stories to be sure, but it was reflective of an institution that has yet to replace Rav Soloveitchik with a new rosh yeshiva. Given the fact that one would be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of sixty that attended Rav Soloveichik’s class, this is long overdue.
While it is a beautiful idea that many maggidei shiur at YU are referred to as roshei yeshiva, it is not practical. YU needs a rosh yeshiva at the top of the institution who can deal with serious issues as they arise and make sure that the institution stays on the Torah path. For two thousand years, this is how Orthodoxy has stayed connected to the mesorah. There are so many difficult issues coming up today, and YU has no official Torah voice to deal with them.
Many times I have asked administrators at YU about certain communal issues, and have found that while everyone is well intentioned, no one wanted to ask shailos because they were scared of being limited. This is a mistake. Torah has to be the prism through which we engage the world. The Almighty was well aware of the concerns of humanity and gave us the Torah to be a light, not a barrier.
If YU cannot set up an ongoing Torah mechanism to deal with flagrant breaches in our mesorah, such as the recent article published in the YU Observer, then it risks losing its way and becoming irrelevant. An empowered rosh yeshiva would be the check and balance that this great institution desperately needs to keep it in sync with the mesorah.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article referred to the "YU Judaic Studies Department." The name of the department in question is the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies, a department at Yeshiva College. The article also stated that "every maggid shiur is a rosh yeshiva." While many are roshei yeshiva, not all are. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.
Rabbi Steven Burg is the CEO of Aish HaTorah Jerusalem and Aish HaTorah globally.