By: Rabbi Yitzchak Blau  | 

Torah Umammon

Torah Umadda takes different forms each with its own challenges. For Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, it involves serious study of the great works of literature. Others, wary of the exposure to heretical material and foreign ideologies, focus more on the religious benefits of science. While this seems a safer field of inquiry, the presence of today’s rabid scientific atheists reveals a far more complex equation: The materialism and determinism of much of science work against a religious worldview. A third approach basically rejects Torah Umadda but still appreciates how a college education enables a livelihood. As we shall see, this approach too has dangers; indeed, no ideology comes risk-free.

On the one hand, Hazal certainly value earning a salary supporting one’s family.  A father must teach his son a trade and people without professions are liable to engage in theft and deceit (Kiddushin 29a). Furthermore, the significant cost of today’s Modern Orthodox lifestyle including yeshiva tuition, summer camps and neighborhoods with expensive housing generates pressure to earn an even higher salary. Thus, we value an education enabling the material means necessary for an observant way of life.

However, let us take note of another side of the coin. The Sy Syms School of Business has steadily grown more dominant in the larger Yeshiva University culture.  In 2017, enrollment in Sy Syms grew larger than that of Yeshiva College for the first time. Moreover, the business school consistently cut down on non-business requirements. They recently announced a shift from an English writing requirement to one that teaches “business writing, presentations and professionalism.” Syms students have fewer Jewish studies obligations than their Yeshiva College counterparts and they need not ever take a class in Bible, Jewish history or Jewish philosophy. In summation, more YU undergraduates study marketing, accounting and finance and those who enroll in Syms experience more of an “all business, all the time” education.

What are the potential implications of this transformation? As a generality, business schools emphasize making a lot of money, and that can become life’s paramount ideal. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a good deal of cheating goes on in Sy Syms examinations. While we could suggest multiple explanations for this problem (multiple-choice exams lend themselves to copying), one wonders if a get-ahead-at-all-costs atmosphere impacted on the students.

Secondly, the pragmatic mode of thinking crowds out idealism. Many students feel the need to spend every summer in internships advancing their future careers rather than participating in chesed-based programs. HASC and Yachad retain their popularity but what has replaced YUSSR, Achi, and Techiya? Admittedly, students in some fields truly need an internship after junior year, but the summer after sophomore semesters should remain open for more idealistic pursuits. We need a culture that promotes ideals divorced from the financial bottom line.

Finally, the business-centered approach creates a much too narrow educational focus. Writing courses teaching sensitivity to language enhance the students’ ability to study Torah on a much deeper level and to express themselves with greater precision and power. Even if Goldman Sachs does not care much about this loss, serious religious Jews should. Syms undergrads may study Gemara in an impressive fashion each morning but current requirements discourage those students from taking a Tanakh or Jewish philosophy class with Rav Shalom Carmy and experiencing the profundity and inspiration of our tradition.  

Perhaps this brief essay does not adequately acknowledge the intense financial pressures involved for contemporary college students. Even so, majoring in business may not be the royal road crucial for a lucrative career. Students can major in literature and history and still get a business job. Potential employers may like the broader skillset such students bring to the table. More importantly, why should the business school endeavor not incorporate exposure to Tanakh and writing courses?

None of this reflects an attack on Dean Wasserman who is, by all accounts, a very fine and idealistic person. However, good people also make mistakes and do not always foresee the impact of their decisions.    

Majoring in business does not generate a safe haven from religious difficulties nor does it even protect us from the influences of foreign cultures. The entire pragmatic turn at YU actually reflects a broader trend in the Western world where college students flee from the humanities towards the sciences and business. We would hope that those of a religious bent could resist the larger materialistic zeitgeist.

Photo Caption: The Sy Syms School of Business has steadily grown more dominant in the larger Yeshiva University culture.

Photo Credit: The Commentator