By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

Letter to the Editor: The Academy and the Yeshiva Need Not Conflict

To the Editor:

A recent Commentator article on Torah Umadda, in which the author posited that YU had abandoned its motto and lost its way, surprised me on several fronts. This response is not meant to be comprehensive, but to focus on two main points.

First, the author’s characterization of supposed anti-religious and antisemitic attitudes among professors seemed odd. Although I am not privy to the exact details, is it anti-religious to comment that Orthodox participation in the civil rights movement was lackluster or that Orthodoxy has an issue with sexism? Is criticism of Israel’s wartime actions antisemitic? As a religious student here who thinks Orthodoxy largely failed to join the fight for civil rights, who feels that sexism remains prevalent in the Orthodox community and who is uncomfortable with many of Israel’s aggressive actions, am I the radical secularist antisemite the author wants kept away? While I hesitate to judge the author without more information, it seems that he conflates reasonable criticism with an attack on his beliefs. 

Second, a main point of the article is that there is a conflict between YU’s morning Judaic studies and afternoon secular studies. The author suggests that the appropriate response is for rabbis to rise up and reshape YU’s secular departments as they see fit, freeing us from the challenges of biology and the dangers of literature. If, indeed, the two halves of YU are engaged in battle, this notion makes sense. What this dramatic presentation hides is that there need not be any war. We can and should let each side exist in its own sphere. 

The driving force of the academy is to question the status quo, reexamine evidence and come to bold new conclusions. The driving force of the yeshiva is to continue a venerable tradition, project it into our times and try to live by it. To me, the challenge of Torah Umadda is to combine these two realms without compromising either. One aspect of this is extending the meaning derived from the yeshiva into the world of the academy and broader culture. Another aspect is expressed by incorporating the best of academic methodology into our analyses of Torah and Gemara without replacing the existing methods, and by examining the best ideas the world puts forward through a Jewish lens. Within this approach, where we can choose how the two realms interact, there is no reason that we should fear or shy away from the best modern society offers. There is no reason the ethical propositions posited in “Frankenstein” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” should have any less relevance to Judaism than the ideas of “Altneuland” and “The Source.” 

With this characterization established, I would like to address the general question of finding further meaning in our Judaism through academic methodology, even in our most sacred scriptures. In my experience with such topics, such as in Ancient Near Eastern studies, I have found that the academy offers an additional path toward relating to and finding meaning in the Torah. Such methods, when taught responsibly as I have seen done in YU, should not be controversial. We are accepting of many approaches: the rational and mystical, the Sepharadi and Ashkenazi, the Litvish and Chassidish. Our sages tell us (Shabbat 88b) that one verse can be understood in many different ways. Is it so hard to respect the academic method as another way to connect to God?