By: Dr. Will Lee  | 

From the Commie Archives (December 8, 1993; Volume 59 Issue 6) — Perspective: Yeshiva, Yes, University, Yes

Editor’s Note: In 1993, “Kol,” the official literary journal of the Yeshiva College Student Council (YCSC), was confiscated from student mailboxes on the orders of President Norman Lamm, Dean Efrem Nulman and the YCSC president due to the inclusion of “offensive terms” and “sexually explicit references” in the journal. A digitized version of the journal can be accessed here. In the following piece, Dr. Will Lee, a longstanding fixture of the English Department who recently retired, offered a response to these events in which he argued for freedom of expression within a university environment. A response, written by Rabbi Aharon Kahn, will be published in a forthcoming issue. 


G.K. Chesterton once posited that there’s no such thing as a Catholic university. Insofar as it’s Catholic, it’s not a university. Insofar as it’s a university, it’s not Catholic. Is there any such thing as Yeshiva University? Yes, but not without controversy and contradiction. As the Rav pointed out long ago, Judaism doesn’t obey the law of the excluded middle which serves as the basis in logic of Chesterton’s aphoristic insight. Fortunately for us professors in the liberal arts, neither does Yeshiva University. 

We’re all familiar with formulations of Torah U’Madda which try to exclude part of the middle. Only Madda which facilitates making a living. Only Madda which directly aids halachic learning. Only scientific Madda. In almost all of the formulations which Rabbi Lamm characterizes in Torah Umadda, on the other hand, the middle broadens to include liberal arts pursued from within a Torah worldview. In “The Hasidic Model: Madda as Worship,” the main contribution he sees himself as making to the dialogue, Torah Jews integrate Madda within a worshipful life. 

In The Idea of a University, Newman argued that the guiding purpose of higher education is not religious commitment, but knowledge for its own sake, yet his thinking closely parallels Rabbi Lamm’s: for a religion-centered person, the university can become a place for pursuing knowledge as worship — including knowledge of the profane as well as the holy. This synthesis of the sacred and the secular is possible because “the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and works of the Creator.” 

In the wake of the confiscation of Kol on the basis of vulgar language and sexual content, many students have raised their voices and moved their mice to uphold the central values of the yeshiva — the equivalent in our context of motherhood and apple pie. But only one student has publicly objected to the confiscation, and no one has looked at the controversy explicitly from a university point of view. 

Most of us faculty members in the liberal arts would like to believe that we teach in what is not only a real yeshiva but also a real university. If Yeshiva University, the institution we all share, deserves to be called great, it is because most of our students develop religious and moral seriousness at the same time that they learn to think critically within the broad horizons of the real, diverse world we live in. At its best, YU aspires to be both infinitely yeshivish and 100% a university. Our founder Dr. Revel studied Hindu philosophy and wrote on Milton, subjects which some might consider halachically contraindicated. Our current president contributes to the debate on American education in general as well as writing on Jewish education, hasidism and Talmudic law. 

The argument that we are fully a university hinges partly on state aid due us by virtue of our legal standing as a secular university, and partly on our accreditation and membership in good standing among American universities. No one should lightly dismiss those worldly factors, all of which contribute to our students’ admission to respected graduate and professional programs, their being hired for desirable jobs, and their success in the real world after they graduate. Our modern world believes deeply in credentials. But for me, those factors carry little persuasive power compared to the values which underlie the modern university as an institution. Although not nearly as ancient as the Jewish tradition, the university draws on its own ancient roots and adheres to ideals which it has evolved over centuries. Foremost among those ideals in the modern American university are the development of individuals who think for themselves, contribute in some way to society, and participate in the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and truth, including truths about humanity. 

Torah and Madda, yeshiva and university inevitably clash at times because the assumptions behind them fundamentally differ. One assumes a hierarchy of rabbinic authority, both in the Talmud and in the yeshiva, under God; the other assumes democracy. One assumes freedom only within halachic boundaries; the other assumes total freedom of thought and virtually total freedom of expression, with only a few legal limits — the Supreme Court has refused to extend the protection of the First Amendment to such cases as libel, the production of a “clear and present danger” (as when someone yells “fire” in a crowded theater), and obscenity. The Court’s most significant recent decision on obscenity gives up on establishing guidelines such as “redeeming social value,” opting instead to refer to “local community standards.” From a rabbi’s point of view, those standards spring from the Torah and the Talmud; Rabbi Tendler calls the Torah the “yardstick” by which students must measure everything. From a secular faculty member’s point of view, freedom of thought, inquiry, study, speech, and writing weigh in heavily; they help take the measure of a true university. 

Most of our students live in both worlds, yeshiva and university, or three worlds counting contemporary society. More precisely, most attempt to live in the Torah world while encountering the university world and resisting contemporary moral corruptions. As President Lamm was paraphrased in your November 9 issue, “a Jew should learn the ideals of the Western World uncensored in order to be able to say that he rejects those values but he understands them.” Studying, understanding, even empathizing is not the same as accepting or believing. 

Through students’ eyes, I can see some objections to Kol which deserve to be taken seriously. The editors’ disclaimer states that the “language and subject matter which some readers may find objectionable … appear in the voices of personae and do not necessarily represent the views of the authors or the Board.” Perhaps, given the loaded material, they should have added “and certainly in no way represent the views or the values of Yeshiva University.” Perhaps the disclaimer should have appeared in a more prominent position, like the warning label on a CD. Perhaps they should have omitted the university shield from the back cover. Perhaps they should not have selected for the cover a photograph of the shadow of a hasidic Jew praying at the Western Wall, an image which not everyone sees as representing the shadow of the religious right falling across the YU landscape. Perhaps they should not have distributed Kol to all students’ mailboxes, thereby pushing it under the nostrils of many students who found it repugnant. Perhaps they should have asked the authors whether it would be possible to change the obscene language without compromising “artistic intent and integrity.” Perhaps the authors should have changed the language without being asked. Perhaps the faculty advisors, including me, should have realized how certain students and administrators would feel and raised objections to certain passages. Mistakes in judgment are not only inevitable in this university, however, but in a sense desirable. Students who choose wrongly and regret it have internalized their values; those who feel values being imposed upon them from on high may speak and act as if they believe, but they aren’t necessarily speaking and acting from the heart. 

Everyone knows that YU comprises one community with many subcommunities which differ from one another. Many of our students have always inhabited the yeshiva world; others are returning to or finding their way further unto religious Judaism. Some highly value secular studies; others put up with them. At the same time that the Jewish religious world has moved to the right, and more of our students have adopted an increasingly stringent orthodoxy, we have reached further out to students who come to us having assimilated more aspects of modern secular life. Between those two extremes, modern orthodoxy has come under more strain and has had more trouble centering itself. But all our students are members in good standing of the overall community, so that no subcommunity, however sincere, should suppress the feelings and opinions of another. 

Mr. Wittenberf wonders whether I am still sensitive to students’ religious feelings and beliefs. I hope so, but not at the expense of the university ideals which I wholeheartedly represent. When I devoted several freshman composition classes to the controversy over Kol, I allowed students who objected to hearing the offending language and content described to leave the room for a few minutes, becoming in effect conscientious objectors. At the same time I gave every student the full opportunity to express his views, and I did not back away from any fact, truth, or argument. A university exists to consider truths based on various fields and divergent viewpoints, not to remain inoffensive. The same is true of literature. Kol is a literary magazine, not a shiur. 

Defenders of academic freedom and freedom of expression make two points again and again. First, the university must serve as a haven for difficult ideas and words which may offend some or even most of its members. Further, if you suppress one person’s opinion today, yours may be suppressed tomorrow. For the sake of a religious atmosphere, however desirable, do we want language police to exercise power over what we say? First it’s language; then ideas. Kol today; Darwin tomorrow; insufficiently stringent Judaism the next. Suppressing everything objectionable would amount to a system of ghetto walls erected in a vain attempt to enclose the intellect and the imagination as well as the words and actions which flow from them. 

It is worth remembering that what deeply offends some people may not bother others unduly. From my informal discussions, it is clear that many students take four-letter words and sexual content more in stride than many administrators and faculty members do. This desensitization has some positive consequences. Language which might have triggered the “evil inclination” in a student of the forties, and which that same student might have found viscerally offensive, might carry no sexual charge for most students today. Torah values may not change, but Torah U’Madda does because Madda does. All of our administrators strike me as extremely proper in speech and behavior. I’m sure they find foul language genuinely disgusting. These administrators can serve as credible role models for many of our students. But for other students, a generation gap undoubtedly exists without necessarily implying a gap in basic Torah values. A great deal depends on intent, attitude, and context. While the editors of Kol realized that some might find the language and content “objectionable,” I suspect they didn’t realize how deeply it would disgust some of their peers as well as some older members of the university. 

Even if you feel that preserving a religious atmosphere justifies setting limits on students’ self-expression, at least in student publications, you should find it difficult to defend the “procedures” which led up to the confiscation of Kol, according to uncontradicted reports in The Commentator and unpublished accounts by participants in the key meeting. Two students, having seen a copy of Kol, feel quite upset and rush over to the Dean of Students’ Office. The university lawyers, consulted by phone, evidently advise that YU as the private college publisher has the legal right to withdraw Kol from publication, and further, that the head of the university organization that sponsored and paid for it could act on the university’s behalf. (As I understand it, so could the Board of Trustees, President Lamm, or any other administrator acting on the authority of the President or the Board.) President Lamm, consulted by phone, hears passages from two stories and finds them offensive. The Student Council President is pulled out in the middle of class. He finds the passages disgusting and, on the behalf of the elected Student Council and the student body whom the Council represents, signs a letter authorizing the confiscation. Agents fan out over the campus and remove remaining copies from mailboxes and stacks from the dorms. The whole process takes less than two hours. Done. 

It should be obvious on the face of things how hastily and summarily these ad hoc actions took place. A few individuals, key individuals, to be sure, acted on behalf of the yeshiva. I say the yeshiva because they certainly didn’t act on behalf of the university. I don’t believe Dr. Schwartz, the academic vice president, learned until later about the chain of events. Nor were the faculty advisers or the Chair of the English Department consulted, or even informed. Nor were the putative offenders, the editors and two of the authors of Kol. Nor were any students who were likely not to be offended by the passages. Nor, for that matter, was the full Student Council. For these authoritarian purposes, the Council President’s authority was deemed sufficient. What on earth was the rush to judgment? Why the panic, especially since many students had already received their copies of Kol and readily lent them to other students who wondered about the basis of all the fuss. 

Dean Nulman tells me one of his main concerns was what the students wanted. But which students? Do we really want a few students to act as language vigilantes whenever they feel offended? In listening to a select group of students under a fair amount of pressure and aware that President Lamm found the language offensive, Dean Nulman and the other decision makers abrogated the rights of the editors, writers, and many potential readers. The decision makers diminished YU as a university while not necessarily enhancing it as a yeshiva in which students sincerely and voluntarily commit themselves to Judaism. In effect, a few students spoke for all students, one wrote for all students, and the yeshiva spoke for the university. 

Why do I feel students who wish to deserve the opportunity to read “Smiling John,” the prize-winning story by Howard Katz and one of the better stories to which we have given awards over the past ten years? After all, the main character thinks the d-word twice, once as a past participle, and the b-word denoting illegitimacy, again twice. All four he thinks angrily. A secondary character, a cripple, utters harder core vulgarisms referring to sexual acts and parts, refers to homosexuality in prisons, and rather euphemistically and briefly describes the beginning of a truncated nonmarital encounter between him and two women. This out-of-context summary of foul language and sexual content would, I trust, give no one a good reason for reading the story. The decision makers, most of whom, I ironically note, read or heard selected passages, needed to hear no more. But in fact, the story has a great deal to offer. Mr. Katz portrays the main foulmouth as a coarse, desensitized, opportunistic, thoroughly despicable character. Later, in the climax of the story, he turns out to be a murderer, a suicide, and a sadist who plots to hold the main character responsible for his horrible crimes. In fact, his language functions like a neon sign confirming his contemptible nature, morality, and actions. But the story focuses mainly on “Smiling John,” the title character whose smile serves as a shield and a mask. Inside he is angry at his work, his supervisor, and the world, and his mind spins out half-mad fantasies. Outside he smiles and remains passive, a perfect patsy and victim incapable of escaping the cripple’s deadly conspiracy because he accepts events, no matter how bizarre, as they unroll. Mr. Katz did not station himself with a megaphone in the center of the Beit Midrash and begin uttering obscenities. He created two believable characters, one of whom is guilty of a world view so profane and obscene that we are supposed to find him disgusting, within a story which evokes visceral as well as intellectual responses. As sidelights, the story conveys insights into futile attempts to control nature, children’s witting and unwitting cruelty to those who appear deformed or handicapped in some way, and twisted relationships among unreasonable bosses, worthless work, and powerless employees. Overall, it is a moral story precisely because it creates one repulsive, profoundly immoral character who transforms susceptible people into victims. 

Do we want to argue that no student of ours can imagine or understand a profoundly immoral character? Or if he does, he shouldn’t portray that character in fiction? Or if he does, he must portray that character’s speech without using vulgar language? Or, if he uses vulgar language, he can forget about submitting the story to a literary magazine sponsored by the English Department as well as the Student Council? I respect Mr. Wittenberg’s decision as an orthodox Jewish writer never to use curse words; it self-evidently rises from his sense of personal integrity and his religious convictions. But he himself recognizes that his decision implies that he must censor himself. He cannot write about certain types of characters, or if he does, he must paraphrase them. So he cannot write the full truth about the world; he is building walls beyond which he will not allow his imagination to range. All of which is admirable from a religious if not from a literary perspective. But does he want to impose on all other YU students and all other orthodox Jewish writers the obligation to choose the same way? Does he want to say that Howard Katz is a bad Jew for choosing differently? Or I’m a bad faculty member for not respecting the most yeshivish students’ opinions so much that I should censor other students and my own actions as a faculty member in a university? 

I find “Ruminations of an Ex-Boyfriend; or, The Night God Called,” the story by that famous YC student author, Anonymous, not only literarily rough but harder to defend on moral grounds. The main character, who had grudgingly agreed with his girlfriend’s preference to wait for marriage before being jilted by her soon after that, receives a phone call in which she wants sympathy after having slept with and been left by another man. Bitter at her outrageous insensitivity, he thinks satiric, foul words and finally hangs up on her after uttering a vulgar expletive. If I were a halachic Jew, I’m sure I would have trouble with the casual attitude toward religion and sexuality as well as the vulgar language, not to mention the unveiled implication that YC serves as the backdrop for these halachically impermissible events. Allowing for the certainty that the narrator’s ironic habit of mind serves as a defense against feelings that hurt him and the possibility that his blasphemous phrases mask some deep-seated doubts about the justice of the universe, the story essentially skates on the surface with too few signals of deeper issues and meanings. But I would still defend the story because the author pursued one piece of the truth in creating a credible slice of the life of a confused, emotionally immature narrator. 

Neither story initiates a Yeshiva Free Speech movement reminiscent of Berkeley in the sixties. Neither carries the slightest erotic charge. Each represents a credible, limited use of vulgar language and sexually loaded but not explicitly sexual material in the mouths and minds of characters. Each is honest in its own way. 

Arguably, Kol falls under the Student Council budget, and under the Dean of Students’ authority, and under the power of a private college to regulate student behavior. In that sense YU probably had the right, technically and legally, to do what it did. But that doesn’t mean the decision was wise, or just, or courageous, or thoroughly deliberated, or thoroughly justifiable, or that in similar circumstances the same thing should happen. Different student activities, clubs, and publications occupy different locations on the spectrum between yeshiva and university. Some, like the J.P. Dunner Political Science Society and the pre-med journal, primarily complement the academic programs of the university while simultaneously serving as a social purpose. Others, like Hamevaser and Dorm Talks, complement the various Jewish Studies programs. Clearly, Kol falls squarely on the university side of that spectrum. It’s sponsored by the English Department, which provides a faculty advisor — in this case, two. It’s tied to the English Honor Society, a university-oriented student activity. It contains stories and poems just as the Norton Anthology of English Literature does; its very reason for being is to give students an opportunity to publish works in the arts. In the case of at least one past issue, the Dean of the College provided part of the money for its publication. If academic freedom and freedom of expression protect the classroom only, not complementary educational activities and publications, ours is at best a minimalist, truncated university. 

Should Kol cease to be a university publication? Should it move into the yeshiva under explicit, binding halachic supervision? If so, no advisor who has not at least received s’micha could pass judgment on what to select or how to edit a story or poem, the editing would have nothing to do with artistic value, and most English Department faculty members would find it impossible to participate in the process. Would a frustrated minority of students then organize their own samizdat in order to express themselves freely to their fellow members of the creative underground? 

If the confiscation of Kol is discouraging students from speaking and writing their minds, a “chill” is blowing across the landscape of YU in a way that’s quite different from the self-censorship which might have resulted from openly and passionately arguing that student writers and editors showed bad judgment or diverged from Torah values. A healthy university welcomes controversies. Surely President Lamm, roshei yeshiva, the Dean of Students, the Student Council, groups of students, Hamevaser, or all of the above could have come out with public statements deploring the offensive language and content and making it abundantly clear that they did not reflect the values of the institution. Rather than raiding students’ mailboxes, administrators could have called on students to boycott the offending stories. Meanwhile, the English Honor Society could have quietly circulated the word that students who wished to, including the authors, could pick up copies at the Library or some other location dedicated to freedom of inquiry.

Whatever decision an administrator makes in a case like this, he or she is going to offend some members of YU and of the broader community. Kol deeply disturbed some students; its confiscation deeply disturbed others. All these students’ feelings and opinions deserve respect. Meanwhile, administrators must worry not only about religious values but also about prospective students, their parents, and their relatives, potential donors to YU, and journalistic sharks who love opportunities to attack us and identify us with corrupt modern values. At stake are our enrollments, our financial strength, and our reputation inside and outside the Jewish world. The Martilla and Kiley survey indicated that key constituencies look for a yeshiva atmosphere; at the same time, many members of the larger community look for a genuine university which represents academic excellence and integrity. In a “both/and” institution, it’s difficult to judge the religious, educational, and practical consequences of any “either/or” decision. 

If YU rejects censorship and suppression in the future, given the inevitability of conflicts between yeshiva and university, and given that students, like faculty and administrators, are not infallible, what protects YU against intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dangers? In 1986, the YC ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom, consisting of five liberal arts faculty members including two rabbis, placed its trust in four factors, each of them connected in some central way with education in the broad sense. First, the responsible self-government of each member of the university community. Second, the process of consulting with other members of the community — not to be told what to think or do or write but to reach judicious decisions. Third, the inevitability of controversy at YU and at other universities, giving everyone access to various strongly held, strongly expressed viewpoints. And finally, the prerogative of conscientious objection should some event or practice prove problematic on halachic or other religious grounds. None of these safeguards is a quick fix or guarantee, but together, they provide firm ground on which we can all engage in the complex interactions of freedom and moral responsibility which constitute our university at its best.

I’ve written this essay for four main reasons: to argue that YU should allow students the maximum possible freedom of expression while relying on halachic standards to evaluate and wherever necessary criticize what they express; to object to the ad hoc, hasty non-procedures which led up to the confiscation and censorship of Kol; to defend student editors and authors who acted with integrity and in good faith; and to express my own conviction that the greatness and uniqueness of Yeshiva University derive from our struggling to inhabit simultaneously the world of the yeshiva and the world of the modern American university. 

Dr. Lee is an Assistant Professor of English at Yeshiva College 

Photo Caption: The Commentator archives
Photo Credit: The Commentator