Are YU’s Five Torot Just a Gimmick? They Don’t Need To Be.
If you have ever spoken to President Ari Berman, you have heard about the Five Torot. Highlighted during his 2017 investiture speech, the Five Torot are said to be Yeshiva University’s “five core Torah values” — truth, life, infinite human worth, compassion and redemption, corresponding to emet, chaim, adam, chesed and zion, respectively. Yet, with the Five Torot’s high promises, it begs the question: Are they just a gimmick?
People need not walk far in Midtown or Washington Heights to see the rainbow-colored banners spread across YU’s once-naked buildings, proclaiming to be the university’s “moral compass” and “guide toward a better future.” Over the past weeks, six-foot signs have popped up all around campus, including the library, residence halls and building lobbies. Just last week, Wilf Campus saw a crane plaster six solid-colored squares along the Amsterdam Avenue side of Rubin Hall, with five of them containing one of the Five Torot. This overbearing marketing makes it hard not to get cynical.
Slogans are easy. They’re catchy, memorable and hardly require any commitment. The difficult part is taking the form and giving it content, and more than four years since President Berman first mentioned the Five Torot, that seems to be the struggle.
As they currently stand, the Five Torot are an abstract talking point. Notwithstanding an occasional social media advertisement by YU or a speech by President Berman, the Five Torot play no role in campus life. On the off chance someone gives these Torah values a closer thought, they are left with lingering questions: What do the Five Torot mean for the YU community? How does YU demonstrate that these are its values? Do roshei yeshiva even agree that these are YU’s values?
We admit that questions and critiques are always the easy part of any initiative (even one four years in the making). There are many ways for President Berman to make the Five Torot into something meaningful, but the following three are a good place to start:
First, use them to spearhead new initiatives. Simply declaring that YU believes humanity’s purpose is to “transform our world for the better and move history forward,” as in Torat Adam, is easy to say in a vacuum and, thus, means nothing. Instead, it needs to be concretized in real-world action. Take, for example, President Berman’s conversation with Sheikh Mohammad Al-Issa. That event was an opportunity to highlight such an idea, demonstrating how the university engages in interfaith work to bridge religious divides and move Jewish-Muslim relations forward. In that same vein, YU can organize rallies and advocacy trips to address critical issues, such as the Uighur genocide in Xinjiang, China, as Rabbi Yosef Blau did several years ago. Involving students, faculty and rebbeim can strengthen this even further.
Second, connect them to academics. Sadly, it’s an open secret that Torah Umadda is a dying element of the YU experience. Once the hallmark of our institution, this term has become the cynic’s favorite line and an idea alien to the average student’s experience. With the Five Torot, however, that can change. Introducing the Five Torot into the classroom can connect academics to a more holistic Torah view. Torat Emet, for example, notes that people of faith “believe the act of discovery is sacred, whether in the realm of philosophy, physics, economics or the study of the human mind.” Offering seminars or programs that directly synergize discovery and sanctity can encourage students to follow suit; Torat Emet is just one example of this. Aside from potentially transforming students’ academic experience, this approach has the added benefit of reviving Torah Umadda.
Third, make them religious. There are many values to be found in Torah, so selecting five to form the pillars of our institution seems a bit arbitrary. Naturally, it leaves us to wonder: What makes the Five Torot special? If they are nothing more than mere talking points for a Jewish institution, then the Five Torot don’t need much depth, but if they are to be the bedrock of Yeshiva University, they must be rooted in authentic Jewish thought. Explaining and illustrating how the Five Torot are integral to religious living — such as tefillah, talmud Torah and halakha — cannot be overemphasized. Torah Umadda was not pioneered by President Emeritus Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l overnight, and if the Five Torot are to be anything religiously meaningful, they won’t be either.
We still await to see what President Berman plans to do with the Five Torot. As to the question of whether the Five Torot are just a gimmick, that remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is that they don’t need to be. For now, all we can do is wait for President Berman to answer the questions he posed more than four years ago: “What is Yeshiva University? What does it stand for?”
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