By: Yehuda Dov Reiss  | 

We Feel Threatened, Too: The Universal Danger of YU’s Continued Ambiguity

For years, I eagerly anticipated joining the ranks of the YU undergraduate student body. I yearned for the day when I would be privileged to learn from YU’s many outstanding roshei yeshiva and explore countless fascinating subjects and courses with YU’s stellar faculty. I could not imagine being anywhere but YU; perhaps no other place in the world better offers both uncompromising Torah learning and values while confronting and engaging with the complexities, challenges and ideas of the modern world. I see this as an important and noble ideal deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, and YU is uniquely suited to help properly implement that ideal and equip its students to do likewise. 

While YU was a dream come true for me, I was deeply saddened to discover how many students did not share my positivity. It was a revelation to me that many students, across the full breadth of the ideological spectrum, felt highly frustrated, or, more accurately, apathetic towards YU and what it stood for. I myself, being part of a vibrant and involved YU family, naturally have a different perspective. I see the balanced and nuanced, yet firm, Torah values YU embodies and I believe that YU will remain committed to those values. But as the weeks and months pass, I am beginning to see more and more how other students confronted with the ambiguous messages YU currently sends, especially regarding contentious issues such as addressing LGBT matters, would lack confidence in YU’s strength and integrity, and I recognize the danger that this poses to YU’s long-term viability.

While YU’s policies have more or less remained firmly committed to Torah values, the communication of that commitment has been far less clear, thus estranging much of the student body and causing YU to appear, across the board, as ideologically weak. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of this phenomenon is the recent statement by President Ari Berman’s committee (previously led by former Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Josh Joseph) to address LGBT issues in our community. While there was nothing in the statement that I disagreed with –– as I have written previously, I strongly agree that these issues must be dealt with the utmost sensitivity, love and nuance and am glad to see the administration taking action to promote that –– the statement failed to unambiguously affirm where Orthodoxy draws a red line, namely, that acting on homosexual urges are strictly forbidden, and that any blurring of this line, in theory or in practice, will not be tolerated. 

The statement did include the following clause:

The message of Torah on this issue is nuanced, both accepting each individual with love and affirming its timeless prescriptions. While students will of course socialize in gatherings they see fit, forming a new club as requested under the auspices of YU will cloud this nuanced message.

However, this statement is too ambiguous for an issue that is so important to the entire YU community, avoiding any explanation on what this “message of Torah” is while simultaneously underplaying how essential that message is to dealing with these issues. I have heard multiple concerns that the statement represents YU’s fear to openly affirm their commitment to halakha or condemn those who oppose it, and even those who demand a more progressive approach have criticized the ambiguity of this statement. It can be argued that in a theoretical world, such an explicit affirmation would be out of place and should be taken for granted, but public reaction and the social context surrounding it clearly indicates that we do not live in such a world. This is ultimately just one manifestation of a growing unrest across the entire YU community as a result of YU’s failure to firmly and explicitly articulate its positions, making it appear incapable of addressing the challenges that plague it. 

There is little room to wonder why YU has taken the approach it has. One reason could be that the university leadership does not want to cause unnecessary polarization or alienate any segment of its broad-spectrum community. This is very understandable. We do not want to push people away, and it’s tempting to use words that won’t offend anyone too much, while adhering firmly to Torah values on a practical level and hoping for an organic imbibement of these values and a stronger community. There is something wonderful and idyllic in assuming a model where the students, inspired by the larger, more abstract values of YU and the resources within its community, ultimately come together and formulate a clear and idealistic plan for Orthodoxy on their own. Yet practically, this approach makes an important assumption that is highly questionable. 

The fact is that polarization is already happening in the YU community –– it’s inevitable. While I think that even the battling moral forces within YU ultimately agree about far more than that with which they disagree about, there is ultimately a fundamental dispute about where to draw the line that is not going away and is only becoming exacerbated as elements of the secular and religious worlds continue to shift to opposite extremes. This is an issue that the students need to hear YU address, or they will, as they have begun to do, abandon the YU community for communities that take a far more liberal or stringent approach towards Jewish law. The ambiguity is not preventing polarization; it is feeding it as students feel that the YU world is ill-equipped to pave a path for the Orthodoxy of tomorrow. On the other hand, a firmer and more explicit infrastructure of values will cause many more people both from within and outside the community to gain a greater respect for YU and help it continue to maintain and attract a larger following.

There is another, perhaps primary, reason that YU has taken the road of ambiguity. The reason is the courts. It is no secret that YU, as officially a non-sectarian institution, must cloud aspects of its religious character to continue to receive government funding. Especially with an impending lawsuit by members of the Pride Alliance, YU may feel that sending a message that plays down aspects of halakha that clash with certain progressive sensibilities will help it continue to win the court’s favor. The administration may feel that if the choice comes between the financial viability of YU in the future or less ambiguous communication about values while largely preserving the implementation of those values, then it may very well make sense to choose ambiguity. While I would question whether making the undergraduate schools more sectarian should really be off the table, that is a battle many have fought and I don’t expect to win in an article for the school newspaper. 

However, I think that the administration needs to carefully consider just how much they’re losing with their ambiguity. Is it worth estranging so many students and faculty members? Is it worth compromising on the future of YU’s vision? Surely whatever edge is gained in court with ambiguity is not worth the sacrifice of so much of what YU’s fighting for. Instead, YU should pursue other avenues to help ensure victory in court. And if YU still can’t win in such a case and simultaneously remain non-sectarian, I wonder whether it will truly be any more viable in carrying out its mission than if it lost government funding.

YU is widely perceived as one of the most influential and authoritative voices for Centrist Orthodoxy. A broad community depends upon it for guidance; YU cannot simply expect the students to ultimately rise up and forge an ideal future on their own. In order to build tomorrow today, Yeshiva University must first build today, today.

As previously noted, most of the difficult issues YU has to navigate require extensive nuance and sensitivity, and I think that on a practical level the administration has been pretty good at doing that. At the same time, a strong message of abandonment is being felt by much of the student body as they contrast the strong voices of some with the apologetic-sounding or nonexistent voice of the YU administration. I have heard numerous faculty members and administrators question the continued viability of the YU model within a framework that refuses to clearly distinguish itself from the way other originally religiously-oriented universities have gone, such as Yale and Harvard. This sense of frustration can clearly be felt by the lack of confidence or pride that so many students feel in their institution or its vision, as well as the relatively small size of our community sandwiched between a booming right and a boisterous left. 

I believe YU has vision, and I believe that vision is fundamental to the future of Orthodox Judaism. I believe that, but fewer and fewer people share that belief, and if YU fails to emerge with a decisive voice, I fear that the vision will become a fading dream. I urge the administration to carefully reconsider how it responds to the difficult challenges of the community it represents, and recognize the awesome responsibility that lies in its hands. 

Photo caption: President Berman addressing YU students
Photo credit: Yeshiva University