By: Hannah Pollak  | 

What Do Some of YU's Torah Leaders Think of the Five Torot?

It is probably hard to find a YU student who has heard about the five core Torah values (the “Five Torot”) and does not have an opinion about them. It is probably even harder to find a student who has never found him or herself in a (perhaps heated) discussion about the Five Torot and their legitimacy. Many students are cynical about the fact that a Jewish institution and its president can choose specific values seemingly at random. Why five? Why these five? Perhaps there should be fewer? Why not more? Some argue that yes, the Torah might speak about the Ten Commandments, the Mishnah about the three pillars of the world and the Talmud about foundational mitzvot; but who are the Jews of today to say that certain values are more essential than others? Some say that YU, as a part of the larger Jewish community, should not have its own set of values. Rather, we should all join the Jewish people as a whole and subscribe to the core Torah values of the Torah community, whatever they are. 

Yet many students are supportive, or at least not critical, of the core Torah values. While they acknowledge that the specific values are not divinely chosen nor inspired, they were thought out by President Ari Berman. Described in his biography as “an active and erudite spokesman for the Jewish community,” he is certainly entitled and capable of thinking about the core values of Judaism, at least from his own perspective. Furthermore, they say that there is nothing wrong with a Jewish institution having a mission statement. Indeed, as Rabbi Berman likes to say, we all started at Har Sinai (roughly represented in the value of Emet) and we are all heading towards redemption (alluded to in the value of Tziyon). But still, due to nuanced and yet significant diversity within the Torah community, different individuals and organizations will find different statements to embrace our shared mission.

While students often talk about their opinions on this matter, the opinions of YU’s rabbinic leadership on the matter are not as well known. Perhaps some have spoken privately to a YU rosh yeshiva about his opinion of the five core Torah values, but until this past August, I personally had not heard of any rosh yeshiva addressing the Five Torot publicly or on a recorded shiur online. Moreover, when discussing this matter with my peers, I also don’t recall anyone referencing the view of one of the roshei yeshiva. Thus, it was surprising for me to hear two YU leaders address this issue in the same week. During the first week of class of the Fall semester, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz and Rabbi Menachem Penner spoke to students on Wilf Campus, and on that occasion, they both alluded to and relatively embraced the core Torah values. 

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz is the director of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) Semikha program and the rabbi of Beis HaKnesses of North Woodmere. During the first week of classes of the Fall semester, Rabbi Lebowitz delivered a sichas mussar on Wilf Campus, where he shared with the students five eitzos (pieces of advice) to thrive specifically in a yeshiva like Yeshiva University. His third piece of advice was about taking advantage of the opportunity of having a rebbe and deepening one’s connection with him. However, in this context, he also stressed the importance of learning from other rebbeim. He emphasized the tremendous merit—in his words, “uncommon gifts”—YU students have to learn in the beis medrash with some of the greatest poskim of the generation. On a more general note, he asked the students not to be so quick to disregard ideas or other people, because he warned, “an attitude of bittul [cynicism and cancelation] does not enhance your middos tovos.” 

At around minute 24, he asked the listeners that the “next time instead of making a snide remark of the five core Torah values, maybe pay attention to what does the president mean by them. How does he identify and formulate the goals of our Yeshiva?” He included a clear endorsement and praise of President Berman: “You know like many of you guys admire the Kollel Elyon guys because they are the strongest guys in learning and they are the guys who seem to be matzliach [successful]? When I was a talmid in the Yeshiva, that was Rabbi Berman. He was the  Kollel Elyon guy, who then became a rebbe, who was one of the most matzliach guys in the Yeshiva. And that’s before thirty years of accomplishment, that earned him to be the president of the Yeshiva.” Rabbi Lebowitz then returned to the issue of the core values, asking, “Maybe he has something in mind? Maybe it’s not just off the wall? Or maybe just on the wall? Maybe there is something there? Don’t be mevatel [canceling or disregarding] things.” 

During the second week of class, he delivered a similar statement on Beren Campus. Towards the end of the first episode of the “Teshuva Talks” series, Beren Campus Rabbi Azi Fine asked Rabbi Lebowitz about teshuva concerning misguided beliefs or paradigms hitting the Jewish community today. His answer was the lack of genuine Torah values. At that moment he was not apparently referring to YU’s Five Torot. However, right after that he rhetorically asked the audience if they had heard about Torah values by any chance. He said, “Having real Torah values is so essential to being a good Jew. I happen to be a huge fan, with all the cynicism and the jokes and whatever, and the Purim shpiels, and everything else; I’m a huge fan of the president’s five core Torah values.” He then proceeded to justify his support explaining that what the President has “done is that he said when we look at the world, we look at the world through Torah. And so much of what we do, we’re just wearing the wrong glasses. We’re looking at the world through a perspective, through a value system that the Tanna’im never heard of; the Ammora’im never heard of.” This answer was a more developed and explicit shout-out of his appreciation for the Five Torot. Furthermore, after the talk was over, I approached Rabbi Lebowitz to tell him that I was writing this article based on what he had said earlier at the sichas mussar. When we spoke he emphasized that he was a huge fan of Rabbi Berman. He also added that he thinks that the recently published draft of “A Life of Faith, Meaning and Purpose: Nineteen Letters to Our Students,” Rabbi Berman’s elaborate presentation of YU’s cornerstone values, is amazing. 

Rabbi Lebowitz was not the only one to endorse the Five Torot. Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of RIETS and the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Holliswood in Queens, also implicitly endorsed the Torot during the opening week of the Fall Zman. At this year’s annual “Pesichas Hazman Kennes” Rabbi Penner spoke about taking advantage of everything the Yeshiva has to offer. “Understand, use this time to figure out what’s important to you. You may have seen in one or two places around the campus, these core Torah values; hiding behind doors, things like that,” he said. “You know what? We need to have core values. We have to know what it is that we believe and what is important.” However, he did not imply that YU’s five core Torah values are the core values every student should have. “Do those five things resonate with you? Get to know what they are!” he emphasized. “What’s more important is that you leave Yeshiva University understanding what your values are. If you leave without values, without core things that you believe in, then we’ve failed; then you’ve failed.”
The message here is pretty clear. While our roshei yeshiva did not definitively state that the five core Torah values are the absolute truth, they certainly implied that there is something valid and worth pondering in them. While it’s easy to disregard and tempting to be cynical, our leaders are asking us to be thinking human beings, to learn from and value what others have to contribute instead of being dismissive.

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Photo Caption: Students, faculty and roshei yeshiva listening to President Berman in the Glueck Beit Midrash

Photo Credit: YUNews