By: Yosef Lemel  | 

The Editor Responds: Blinded in Illusory ‘Brightness’

Last week, I published an editorial outlining certain flaws of the university administration’s handling of the return to campus and current academic shortcomings. The editorial received a letter to the editor from a student who seemed troubled about the conclusions I came to. The response overgeneralizes and mischaracterizes the essence of my argument; a clarification, therefore, is necessary. 

The response alleges that I criticized “the efforts of administration [sic], Rebbeim and staff regarding this year’s ‘unique’ fall semester.” However, the author fails to offer specific examples of this “criticism.” Indeed, there is nary a mention of rebbeim — nevermind their efforts — in my editorial, yet the author of the response felt the need to suggest that I tarnished “years of high-level Torah and academic learning from some of the most intelligent minds of this generation,” words that shouldn’t have been expressed lightly. 

I, in fact, did not happen to state my views on the university’s handling of the “Torah” half of Torah Umadda. If the author of the response would like a clarification of my views on that subject instead of assuming it, well here ‘tis: I actually believe the roshei yeshiva, by and large, have done an excellent job providing their talmidim with a high-class Torah education while balancing the rigors and obstacles of these trying times. There are many in-person shiurim, in-person chavrusas, Friday night tisches and even shiur hikes — I had the pleasure of going on one last week; this is one of the areas, at least for the men in YP, that Yeshiva University has mostly succeeded in accommodating. 

My editorial, however, was very clear about Madda, the long-neglected child of Yeshiva that it still plays lip-service to. I wrote, “The university must incentivize professors to come and teach in-person classes … or else Madda will, of necessity, be sacrificed; otherwise, current and prospective students will question the value of higher education.” I believe that Yeshiva is currently prioritizing Torah to the exclusion of Madda, whereas the mission of this institution is to accomplish an “interdigitation” — as Rabbi Lamm would put it — of those two concepts. This is a point that can be — and indeed has been by intellectual giants greater than I — debated on its own merits, but the response to my editorial simply strawman’s my argument into being an attack on the roshei yeshiva, when it was anything but that. My complaint centered around the lack of in-person secular classes and concretely demonstrated how this academic abyss deleteriously affects students’ college experience. 

The author also attempts to mischaracterize my argument into saying that “YU’s legacy … will be completely undermined because of an uncontrollable virus.” In reality, the most direct reference in the editorial regarding the impact and link of YU’s actions upon its legacy is this: “Miscommunication in general, I fear, will deleteriously impact the legacy of this institution, all the more so during this unfortunate and uncertain time.” This is a point I think most level headed individuals would agree with, and it certainly falls far short of the strawman presented in the response. I never said that the legacy of Yeshiva will be “completely undermined,” but it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that it will be impacted — hopefully positively, though I remain skeptical — by the university’s handling of the virus.

Notwithstanding the flawed quibbles about how I’m attacking the roshei yeshiva or presenting a nightmarish scenario, the response to my editorial seems to misunderstand the fundamental role of criticism. The author of the response may be having a wonderful experience, but there are other students at Yeshiva with different priorities. We are not a uniform and homogenous student body. To cite an example of an academic shortcoming that does not personally affect me, the YU Observer recently published an editorial describing the cancellation of Talmud courses on the Beren campus. For women who want to experience the breadth of the Talmudic sea, this regression is nothing short of disheartening and disappointing.

It is easy for students who are not affected by a change like this to sit back and, with the wave of a hand, discount this example, and the many examples cited in my editorial, as singular “unfortunate experiences.” I think the better and more realistic mode of action would be for us to collectively figure out what’s going well, what’s going poorly and what could be fixed; sitting back in complacency and accepting current affairs as an ideal, while blinding oneself in some sort of illusory light, will inevitably lead towards a reduction in student power and expression. The author of the response is entitled to believe that all is “bright” and dandy for himself, but I think it would be callous of him to ignore the troubles other students are facing in these uncertain times and to brush aside genuine, constructive criticism of the status quo. 

Yeshiva is not “brighter than ever.” Nor is it darker than ever. Yet, it’s pretty dim. I hope and anticipate that Yeshiva will survive the current health crisis and that it will endure through its many other troubles. Indeed, I pray that, lo and behold, the spring may burst with brightness and all misfortunes will come to an end, but a utopian portrayal of the university’s current situation seems self-illusory at best, and a poor imitation of Orwellian propaganda at worst.