By: Doniel Weinreich  | 

Intro to Bible Offerings and Enrollment Plummet Following Requirement Changes; Future Uncertain

Bible: Text, Context and Tradition — commonly known by its former title “Intro to Bible” — is not being offered in the Spring 2020 semester. This marks just the second semester since Fall 2003 (the earliest semester data is available on MyYU) in which there are no Intro to Bible classes being offered, the other being Spring 2019. In the single Intro to Bible class offered in Fall 2019, only one student was enrolled. The last semester in which more than a single student took Intro to Bible was Fall 2018, during which 83 students were enrolled in five Intro to Bible classes.

Intro to Bible features a curriculum composed primarily of sources from Chazal and rishonim, geared towards understanding the development and canonization of the Masoretic Text, the methodologies of various traditional commentators, and the ancient Near East context of biblical texts.

For decades, Intro to Bible has been a required course for men at YU and a prerequisite for all other Bible classes. It has often been considered the linchpin of a Torah Umadda education and part of the “bridge” between traditional Torah learning and collegiate studies. The course has also frequently been attacked by traditionalists who deem its content and tone religiously problematic, sometimes provoking disputes between religious factions at YU.

Past years have featured at least five Intro to Bible classes offered in the fall semester and slightly fewer in the spring, taught by many different professors. Usually, at least one is offered exclusively within the Isaac Breuer College (IBC). Intro to Bible classes have frequently been overtallied, with most semesters having over 100 students enrolled in the course. Before the 2017-2018 academic year, the average fall semester had 199 students enrolled in eight classes, and the average spring had 99 students enrolled in four. The peak was in Fall 2008, when 309 students were enrolled in 12 classes.

Some of the decline can be explained by falling enrollment. At the peak in Fall 2008, there were 1218 male undergraduates, whereas there were only 1029 this past fall. However, a significant portion of the decline can also be attributed to recent changes in the Jewish Studies requirements for men at YU.

In 2015, all of the traditional academic Jewish Studies requirements were made optional for men in the Sy Syms School of Business, who could now instead opt to take a series of three new courses on Jewish Values in the Contemporary World and one course on Business and Jewish Law. Enrollment in Intro to Bible has been on a downward trend ever since, tracking with a corresponding decline in YC enrollment from 599 students in Fall 2015 to 466 students in Fall 2019.

Last semester, the Jewish Studies requirement for Yeshiva College also underwent changes, among which was the elimination of Intro to Bible as a requirement and as a prerequisite for taking other Bible classes. Dr. Aaron Koller, head of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies, justified the change, claiming — with sadness — that students in Yeshiva College no longer consider the topics raised in such Jewish Studies classes essential to their Modern Orthodox identity and that the department has failed to transmit this vision. He also noted that the changes allow greater flexibility and for more topics to be taught, which “will lead to more overall enjoyment on the part of  the students.”

Professor Koller’s view was challenged by Professor Moshe Bernstein — a fixture of the Bible department for more than 40 years. According to Bernstein, the changes were driven by “the self-delusive administrative misconception” that changing the college requirements will counter declining enrollment and it yielded to students who want to finish their education quicker and with more convenience. He claimed that the decision was made under administrative pressure and without proper forethought, it undermines the place of Bible atop the hierarchy of Jewish Studies and it is “but one more manifestation of a watering-down of the Yeshiva College liberal arts education.” Bernstein also insinuated that the change was a betrayal of YU’s distinct mission and a dereliction of its responsibility to mold the next generation of Orthodox thinkers.

When asked about the status of Intro to Bible, Professor Koller explained that a significant short-term decline was expected given the elimination of the requirement and the fact that many interested students  — especially upperclassmen — have already taken the course. Koller said that the department currently “absolutely intend[s] to continue offering [Intro to Bible]” and that he thinks it’s “a fantastic course.” While the department has not yet determined exactly how often the course will be taught in the future or the rotation of professors who will teach it, Koller hopes that one class could be filled each semester. However, he noted that since it is no longer a requirement, the course would be reevaluated and possibly subject to elimination if there is a persistent lack of interest  — similarly to any other elective course.

Currently, there is one Bible: Text, Context and Tradition class listed among the course offerings for Fall 2020.

Photo Caption: Over the past 17 years, enrollment in Intro to Bible has been on the decline. 
Photo Credit: Doniel Weinreich