By: Ari Wasserman  | 

Rabbi Blau, the Dean is Way Ahead of You

I recently asked my students to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their use of smartphones and the internet. Question No. 11 was as follows: “Did your parents model for you how to use technology?” One of the students responded: “They just told me not to post anything until I thought about it for at least a day. I think it's great advice, although I don't really post anything.”

The concept of waiting a day is not only to have a “cooling-off period” so as to not have regrets after posting, but to also check into the underlying facts and assumptions before posting. Had Rabbi Yitzchak Blau spent even a fraction of a day before publishing his opinion piece in The Commentator to inquire as to the current status of the Jewish studies program implemented by Dean Wasserman in the Sy Syms School of Business, he would have posted an article commending the dean on his overhaul of the Sy Syms Torah curriculum. (FYI – I wrote this response, had a world-famous posek review it for halachic concerns, revised it accordingly, sat on it for a day, and only then submitted it for publication.)

In his article published by The Commentator on May 1, Rabbi Yitzchak Blau raised some important points regarding the dangers of an overly focused business program. Chazal tell us in a number of places that the quest for wealth is one of the main desires of man, and should it not be tempered, it almost inevitably becomes an insatiable, all-consuming drive. As will become evident shortly, Rabbi Blau’s concerns have already been addressed by Dean Wasserman and Sy Syms.

Why am I writing a response to Rabbi Blau? I teach the largest class in Sy Syms called Practical Workplace Halacha (PWH), which happens to be one of the Jewish Values courses implemented by Dean Wasserman two years ago. In each of the semesters I have taught the course, there have been over 80 students in my section. Additional sections are taught each semester by Rabbi Daniel Rapp. This course is a requirement for graduation. What’s covered in the class? How to make a lot of money? How to disregard ethics and values in order to be financially successful? Obviously not.

PWH is a Jewish law class (hence the “Halacha” in its name). There are 13 topics covered in the course, including: honesty in interviewing and while in school; Kiddush Hashem in the workplace; making time to learn daily; learning how to compute tzedakah; dina d’malchusa dina and paying taxes.

By the way, the second largest class in Sy Syms — which happens to be a Sy Syms Jewish Values class as well — debuted this past semester with around fifty students: Designing Your Jewish Life. The class covers how to design your life to maximize your chances of “success.” Success is not defined as financial success, as you can tell from the topics covered, all of which are taught through the eyes of Chazal: what to look for in a spouse, career and community in which to live; balancing work, religious and home life; how hard to work (effort and bitachon); fiscal responsibility; community involvement; and how to measure your life and success.

Rabbi Blau, I (and I am sure Dean Wasserman) am happy to engage in a discussion with you on whether it’s more important to have classes in Sy Syms like PWH, Designing Your Jewish Life, Jewish Public Policy and the like, on the one hand, or writing and Tanakh. But, that was not what your opinion piece was about. It incorrectly claimed that Sy Syms is now devoid of Torah, with a singular focus on financial gain. You obviously were not aware of the Jewish Values Curriculum, which is one of the — but by far not the only — significant accomplishments of Dean Wasserman in the short time he has been with Sy Syms.

I will just highlight the view of the Mishnah Berurah when it comes to what to learn when being kovea ittim la’Torah. The Mishnah Berurah relates to two levels, depending on how much time every individual has to learn (Orach Chaim 155:1, Mishnah Berurah 3 and 9).

He writes that laymen, “who only learn three or four hours a day(!)” will not fulfill their obligation by learning only Gemara. They should make a point of also studying halachic works. However, one who has only a short time to learn every day should concentrate on Halacha, so that he will acquire the practical knowledge he needs to fulfill the mitzvos and avoid transgressions. An important place to begin is with practical Halacha.

When someone emailed me a link to your opinion piece, I in turn emailed Dean Wasserman a link to your biography and asked, “Is this the Rabbi Blau who wrote that piece, laden with misinformation?” He responded as follows: “The big problem for me wasn’t the misinformation but his motzi shem rah on our students.”

Rabbi Blau, even if your “anecdotal evidence” were correct “that a good deal of cheating goes on in Sy Syms examinations,” where’s the heter to speak lashon harah? Fortunately, that information is not correct, but that leaves anyone making such claims with having violated the more severe prohibition of motzi shem rah about thousands of students, in a very public forum. 

Should anyone have future concerns about Sy Syms, it would be advisable to approach Dean Wasserman directly (certainly in advance of any publications), as required by the halachos of lashon hara. One of the dean’s life passions is personal and communal improvement, primarily through requesting feedback from others. He has impressed that upon the professors in Sy Syms (including myself), who now receive (and act upon) written student feedback through mid-semester and post-semester surveys.  

Two more points before I close:

First, apparently Rabbi Blau has not had the privilege to get to know Dean Wasserman. I have. I am his younger brother. Dean Wasserman personifies the values that Rabbi Blau claims that Dean Wasserman has removed from Sy Syms. Numerous students have commented to me that they are inspired by the amount of time Dean Wasserman spends in the YU beit midrash early in the morning and at night. When it comes to ethics and Jewish values, it should suffice to quote from the book Making it Work (Practical Workplace Halachah), which includes some stories about Dean Wasserman.

While visiting my brother in Boston, I needed to print out a few pages of material for the next leg of my trip, but his home printer was out of toner. I asked about company policy at Harvard, where he was then employed as a professor: Would it be legitimate to do the printing there? He told me that, while many staff members routinely used office printers and the like for personal purposes, he personally avoided it. Instead, he drove me to Kinko’s.

As a professor at Harvard Business School, my brother received a $5,000 annual technology allowance. One year, he submitted a reimbursement for only $240, the cost of a new monitor for his computer. He had not needed anything else, and did not feel right spending more of the allowance on items that were not genuinely necessary. The next year he truly outdid himself, spending nothing at all.

Second, I just want to make sure that nobody reading this makes the fallacious assumption that Dean Wasserman is engaging in nepotism by hiring his brother. I don’t take pay for teaching Torah. Teaching PWH is 100% teaching Torah, nothing less. I gain nothing financially while spending hundreds of hours on the courses and my students.

Rabbi Blau, now that you have the correct set of facts, in addition to a retraction, I hope you will leverage your writing skills (learned at YU when studying for your undergraduate English Literature degree) to pen a letter asking why the Sy Syms Jewish Values Curriculum has not been rolled out to all of YU. I think even the liberal arts majors would benefit from such courses.

Photo Caption: Belfer Hall on Wilf Campus

Photo Credit: The Commentator