By: Seffi Jonas  | 

Torah and Madda or Torah With Madda?

I generally oppose any criticism of YU. This is an institution for Jews, and as such, it demands our defense. I usually contend that YU should be praised loudly, even when it’s undeserving, because YU’s success and good name are necessary for the advancement of the Jewish people. Now, however, YU must be taken to task for losing its way.

This week, YU President Rabbi Ari Berman took an elevator ride in Belfer Hall with a group of students, including me, who were leaving a class for which we all ostensibly read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Rabbi Berman wanted to discuss Frankenstein, which proved awkward because most of the students seemingly hadn’t read the book. More awkward though was that Rabbi Berman wanted to discuss Frankenstein as it related to Jewish thought. He must not have realized that YU’s general studies professors do not engage Jewish thought with great rigor. If Rabbi Berman thinks the most important points of Frankenstein relate to Jewish thought then he should insist professors teach it in a way that incorporates Jewish thought.

At YU, the rabbis I’ve encountered believe in the school motto, Torah Umadda, and they constantly strive to show how Judaism is compatible with and enriched by secular studies. However, many general studies professors don’t seem to share that attitude. While YU’s rabbis espouse Torah Umadda, certain professors find the Torah aspect of YU an irrelevant or even destructive force. Some professors seemingly suspect that any good word spoken about Orthodox Jews is either an error or a lie. Orthodox Jews did not fight for civil rights, I heard one professor say; we must be confusing them with enlightened Reform Jews. Orthodox Jews do not believe in feminism or incorporate women into religion, an English professor insisted; Wilf students cannot even learn together with Beren students! I saw a YU marketplace thread on which numerous students commented that a YU department chair has made repeated antisemitic remarks. I’ve had to sit through assigned movies that implied that the Israeli Defence Force, in which I served, is a genocidal, imperialistic and evil force. Some of the humanities departments seem so gripped with radical, secular leftism, so wholly antithetical to Judaism, that they cannot accept a good word about religion and Orthodox Jews.

I am not mentioning this often thinly-veiled antisemitism because I am on a crusade against these particular professors. Rather, I believe their presence on campus is only a symptom of a more systemic problem. I also don’t mean to claim most or even many professors dislike Jews; that is obviously not the case. My issue is the total disconnect between the Torah and madda aspects of YU. That closeted antisemites and opponents of religion teach here is just a particularly pronounced reminder that Judaism at YU vanishes each afternoon.

Yeshiva University used to attract elite students because of its unique character. Some of the best and brightest would turn down acceptances from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many other great schools because YU was the only place that had both Torah and madda. Now, thank G-d, campuses around the country have Chabads and Hillels, and quite frankly YU is often less creative, inspiring and attractive than Chabad on Campus. Chabad treats Judaism as something that needs to be loved and spread to all areas and all aspects of life. To me, YU treats Judaism as something that must be spread only to morning classes.

I grant that students here are probably more likely to marry Jews and have Jewish children than at other universities, but YU’s emphasis on secular studies outweighs its emphasis on religious studies. The rabbis are great, but they are caught in an institution that systematically beats down their good work in the afternoons. Secular knowledge should enhance Judaism, but at YU the two often seem to be in competition. And I think secularism is winning.

The rabbis appear completely powerless when it comes to secular subjects. What some rabbis object to downstairs in the beit midrash is encouraged upstairs in the lecture halls. If Yeshiva University is too afraid to encourage religion in secular classes, then the dream of Modern Orthodoxy is treading on thin ice.

Yeshiva University administrators can easily choose to improve this institution by taking control of their hiring and their goals. Professors with beliefs antithetical to Judaism belong at Hunter College, not YU. Professors with a distaste for Israel belong at Columbia. Rabbis need to have some level of oversight when it comes to secular studies. If students who oppose religion and YU’s values loudly object, so be it. As it stands, YU’s apparent core values do not come through in any meaningful way. At least not after morning classes.

There should be religious aspects of secular classes. Instead of showing up to biology class and being told that everything Jews believe is wrong, I want to be taught how Jewish wisdom supports and aligns with modern science. Rabbis should head secular departments and teach some secular subjects. Would Rabbi Benjamin Blech not be an exceptional English professor? Would Rabbi Mordechai Cohen not make a top-notch far eastern history teacher? Rabbi Mordechai Becher knows as much history as any other professor at YU. Why is he relegated to the morning? 

We need many more professors like Professor David Lavinsky, who often incorporates Judaism into discussions; he is presently teaching a class called “Milton and Religion,” together with Rabbi Dov Lerner. Let that class, that professor and that rabbi serve as models. Wouldn’t “The Source,” “Exodus” and “Altneuland” be more relevant to our lives and values than “Eureka” and “Slaughterhouse Five”? Learning about Judaism in secular classes would make both the Torah and madda aspects of YU more interesting, effective and exciting. It might even attract more students who are accepted to Ivy League universities. It would definitely make YU unique. YU would be a better university. And as a bonus, Rabbi Berman won’t think we’re all idiots when he tries discussing Judaism and Frankenstein with us. We might teach each other instead.

The fact is that many classes here are boring because they are irrelevant. Most students do not thirst for knowledge about subjects they are required to take. But, if the courses incorporated Jewish thought and history, I believe students would be much more inspired to attend and participate. The secular subjects would not just be for credits and grades, they would strengthen our deepest beliefs. YU might become one of the only colleges in the country where students consistently learn. YU could easily become elite.

Yeshiva University’s administrators are supposed to have values, principles and courage. What and where are their principles? Religion and Judaism are losing the battle at Yeshiva University. I call on YU rabbis to say to the administration, as I am saying now, that YU must be a place for Jewish values and education to thrive. Separating the two principles of the school will lead to its becoming a watered down, merely socially Orthodox institution. Uniting them might place us among the most vaunted learning institutions in the country. The administration must take control and prioritize its values, mission and role in shaping the Jewish future.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University