Jewish Studies — A Talmid’s Testimonial
I’d like to tell you a story, dear reader. It’s a story of sincerity, a perhaps naïve optimism and my personal religious growth at Yeshiva University.
A deeply cynical author once wrote that a cynic “knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” Errors and criticisms are unfortunately always easier and, in a sense, safer, to point out than something’s intrinsic importance. The Commentator’s recent editorial, which was assented to unanimously by their editorial board, forcefully and cogently criticized the administration’s recent decisions regarding the restructuring of YU’s Jewish Studies.
I was surprised to find in the piece, however, not a single direct argument for the value of these classes. Instead, the editorial simply assumed their worth and just focused on policy critiques and historical comparisons, which, granted, certainly have their place in this discussion.
In this article, I come to offer something different. It is more vulnerable and personal, but I think that it actually bears immense relevance to any discussion about the role of Jewish Studies courses in a YU student’s religious and academic education, namely, my individual, and admittedly anecdotal, experience. My story, optimistically, should mirror those of many of my fellow students. I believe it, in fact, does. So, here are some specific, concrete examples of how YU’s Jewish Studies classes have been deeply valuable to my own religious development.
Biblical Hebrew (Rabbi Jeremy Wieder)
Before this class, Tanach was a sealed book to me. Graduating at the age of 17, the New York yeshiva day school system left me unable to precisely read and translate a moderately difficult pasuk. I'm not here to comment on curricular or communal failures — I'm simply stating my own situation. My Hebrew certainly developed a lot over my time in Israel: I studied at Har Etzion (Gush), a hesder yeshiva. Still, I never reached a state of comfortability with, let alone mastery over, the intricate language of Tanach.
This class changed everything for me. It was taught by Rabbi Wieder, who in addition to being a RIETS rosh yeshiva, is also an expert linguist and grammarian. He spent two semesters building our foundational Hebrew language skills, our grammatical sensitivities, and our toolbox of textual approaches.
I exited that class with a different relationship to Torah she-b’chtav. I felt like I could study any pasuk, in a precise, sophisticated, and ultimately more meaningful manner. I could raise grammatical questions, notice textual ambiguities and converse with the great commentators of our tradition who, to put it bluntly, had a far greater sensitivity to the Divine Word than I ever could have understood prior.
Biblical poetry, especially that of Tehillim, had never spoken to me. The “sweet singer of Israel’s” poems were always framed in a clear hierarchy: which do I skip if I come late to shul?
Our class spent dozens of hours combing meticulously through the chapters of p’sukei d'zimrah, word by word, verse by verse. For my efforts, my davening became richer, much more contemplative, and, in short, the songs finally sung for me.
Medieval Jewish History (Dr. Chaviva Levin)
This whirlwind tour of Jewish history from 500 - 1500 CE through Babylon, Israel, Spain, France, Ashkenaz, and Egypt blew me away. Although not as overtly "religious" as a Tanach class, I found that Dr. Levin’s course deeply enriched my Jewish identity and perspective. Specifically, this class encouraged reflection on my life as an Orthodox Jew in 2021 with its (presumably) uniquely modern challenges, and yet also as a part of a Torah tradition, stretching for millenia, to which “there is nothing new under the sun.”
A few features of the course especially stood out to me. First, we focused on primary sources (partially) drawn from writings and responsa of geonim and rishonim. Second, we balanced the discussion of broader historical trends with specific deep dives into the personalities of momentous figures of these times, such as Saadya Gaon, Rambam and Yehuda HaLevi. And last, Dr. Levin made a conscious effort to emphasize the communities and eras in which Jews actually flourished, subverting the pessimistic historical view of the exilic Jew as eternally persecuted. This class gave me a richer context and a sharper sense of proportion for framing our own community's triumphs and trials.
Malbim and Modernity (Rabbi Dov Lerner)
Before this class, I saw Malbim as just another verbose, highly technical and extremely thorough commentator. I left this class with a profound appreciation for how a deeply traditional thinker can find new answers to modern questions from the ancient words of Tanach.
Through a masterful summary of Enlightenment intellectual thought and its critical challenges to Orthodox Jewry, Rabbi Lerner set the stage. That era’s Jewish thinkers’ writings, especially Malbim's, became much clearer once I understood what dire problems they were trying to solve. This intellectual contextualization, however, did not cheapen or reduce their thought to mere reactions. Rather, it reflected the extent of a true leader's incredible sensitivity to their community's religious needs, and their extreme, creative efforts to serve them.
Honestly, this class got me totally hooked on Malbim. I admit it. I suspect I may even end up writing my Honor’s thesis on Malbim's commentary to Shir ha-Shirim: he has profound, and incredibly relevant insights into Judaism's "holiest of holies." I have found it moving how Malbim explains not just what it means to love God, but also how to even authentically speak about loving God.
How did we get here? A quick recap: YU announced a major restructuring of much of its Jewish Studies. Then, the Commentator wrote an editorial entitled, “President Berman, What Happened to Being the ‘World’s Premier Jewish Educational Institution’?”, criticizing the administration for this decision. Now, I wrote this article illustrating how valuable my Jewish studies classes have been to me, on both a personal and religious level. Why am I sharing this all with you?
Listen — every Jewish organization must work constantly to solve the age-old question of the Gemara: Kesef minalan? Pragmatic sacrifices are an unfortunate, but frequently necessary part of running any operation as complex as YU. This is part of the reason why I am not interested in commanding administrators to rebalance their priorities. I was not privy to all the balance sheets and financial pressures that led to YU’s Jewish Studies’ recent adjustments, and so I abstain from judgment.
I share these stories, instead, for my fellow students. There are profound religious opportunities in YU’s Jewish Studies Department that I sincerely believe many more students should capitalize on. I’ve shared just a few of the more obvious intellectual and emotional spiritual impacts these courses have had on my life. There are other, subtler, perhaps even ineffable, gains to be had as well from a sophisticated yet reverent encounter with Tanach, Jewish history, and Jewish thought.
I would be delighted for more students to experience the meaningful courses in, and to share in my (now rather public) enthusiasm for, YU’s Jewish Studies. I firmly believe that by cultivating a culture of positivity, by appreciating the astounding, once-in-a-lifetime resources available and consequently, to quote Rabbi Shalom Carmy, “growing as thinking religious people,” we could elevate both ourselves and Yeshiva University to new heights.
Do you have any thoughts or comments? I'd love to hear them: please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Caption: Yeshiva University’s logo
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University