By: Rabbi Zev Eleff  | 

Youth and the YU Idea

In March 2000, YU roshei yeshiva denounced a decision by the editors of the school’s student-run rabbinic journal Beit Yitzchak to include a “problematic” article; one that, in the words of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, “lost all tradition.” The Beit Yitzchak editors recognized that the article, which proffered source criticism rather than traditional learning, would generate debate. However, they decided to publish it “to see what the response would be … to test the waters a little,” as co-editor Aaron Koller explained. The Commentator reported at the time that YU facilities staff confiscated copies of the volume and, at least initially, RIETS refused to underwrite the cost of the publication.

This episode, full of questions surrounding rabbinic authority and familiar figures, came to mind after reading a plea issued by my friend and senior colleague, Rabbi Steven Burg. Upset about recent campus commotions and troubling statements, Rabbi Burg demanded that “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.”  

That Rabbi Burg took on the issue is reasonable. He is a prominent YU alumnus and a longtime leader within the Orthodox fold. Rabbi Burg was animated to speak up about the school’s organizational chart because of his devotion to what Rabbi Norman Lamm called back in the 1960s the “idea of Yeshiva University.” Or, as the late Dean Norman Adler put it, Yeshiva College is a Modern Orthodox experiment that tests the religious hypotheses of its teachers and students, as well as of women and men beyond its campus borders. The same is true of the school’s other sites.

Yet one of Rabbi Burg’s pivotal facts is off the mark. He claims that YU has not had an authoritative, power-wielding rabbinic head since Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik retired in December 1985. To the contrary, Rabbi Soloveitchik never held that position. President Samuel Belkin was both top executive and Rosh HaYeshiva. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik derived his unofficial high status by dint of his peerless stature as a scholar and teacher. That’s how he rose above the other excellent RIETS roshei yeshiva. In later years, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s best students were promoted to the school’s faculty and they, naturally, deferred to their teacher’s decisions. Among these was, of course, President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Norman Lamm. 

Then again, Rabbi Soloveitchik usually steered clear of campus politics. In 1968, for instance, students observed an exceptional case in which the Rav had “broken with precedent” by issuing criticism of recent student activities.

Then who typically took up the gauntlet for YU? Most often, the school’s greatest champions were the young people most invested in its Torah u-Madda mission. In the 1960s, the outspoken youth movement — a theme threaded throughout American Jewish history — included Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, then in his thirties. There was also the quartet of undergraduates that raised school spirits in 1963 by competing on a nationally televised quiz show, celebrating their yarmulkes and Jewish values while older people preferred that they tone it down. In addition, although Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik was younger than most YU rabbis, he was emboldened to protest the Vietnam War and oppose calls to introduce biblical criticism to the college curriculum. Moreover, the youthful collegians were the ones pushing for genetic screening and more mindfulness about Tay–Sachs disease. 

This was a shared sentiment. Beyond Washington Heights, former OU president Moses Feuerstein reassured thousands of listeners in Jerusalem that American Orthodoxy was in good shape heading into the 1970s because of the efforts of young people inspiring a “religious renaissance.” Likewise, and back at YU, the subsequent decade witnessed the emergence of younger rabbinic scholars and empowered students (many of whom later went on aliyah) taking up various campus causes.

That Rabbi Soloveitchik elevated Yeshiva University is beyond question. However, the pivotal issues facing the school and the broader Modern Orthodox community were typically taken up by cadres of energized young people — both faculty members and students — devoted to sorting out the dilemmas of Judaism and modern life.

As always, there are crucial matters to be addressed by Orthodox Jews. Solving them does not require fortifying our enclave with firmer top-down leadership. Instead, we might assess whether Modern Orthodoxy has, like it did in the past, cultivated women and men prepared to embrace their roles as the champions of their faith.

Do our institutions provide space for today’s most remarkable young people? Do they invest their religious visions with a sense of trust in an emerging generation to ignite another bottom-up Modern Orthodox youth movement? Tested time and again like a worthy experiment, this strategy has redounded very well for Modern Orthodoxy and, at its core, is the finest idea of Yeshiva University.


Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College. He is a graduate of Yeshiva College’s Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program and was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. 

Photo Caption: Students protesting the Vietnam War, one of many bottom-up social movements that came to YU.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons