By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

Strengthening our Jewish Core

This past semester, I took the class “Texts, Contexts, and Traditions” with Dr. Moshe Bernstein. The course, which is essentially identical to the previously required “Intro to Bible” course, surveyed various background aspects of the Bible and its interpretation. In this class, we discussed topics such as the nature of Qeri u’Ketiv [words that are read differently from how they are written], the different Targumim [Aramaic translations], and the characteristic styles of biblical commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam and Ramban. In this class, we explored and discovered the utility of broad background knowledge when engaging with our sacred texts. Sometimes there were novel challenges, but as long as it has been around, biblical commentary has engaged in answering new questions, in forming the novel explanations of the era. The class enabled meaningful exploration of new topics within Judaism in what I felt was a traditionally sensitive manner.

Unfortunately, from conversations I’ve had, it seems to me that many religiously serious Yeshiva College students, who display deep conviction towards Judaism and Torah study, view the Jewish core as a hindrance, something that must be gotten over with, not something that can benefit their religious lives. A good friend of mine summarized the issue effectively, noting that when he came back from Israel, he had planned to take the Jewish requirements early, to continue his learning, but ultimately chose to wait, to avoid the perceived heresy. Similarly, as I was writing this article, I heard a student complain about the Bible department here, essentially saying it's all kefira [heresy].

Now, it is certainly the case that dialogue about the roles and limits of academic Jewish studies at YU have existed well before now, from a January 2008 Observer article by Olivia Wiznitzer arguing for teaching the documentary hypothesis in Stern to a March 2013 Kol haMevaser article, titled “Shut Down the Bible Department,” arguing that the Bible department is detrimental to religious growth. However, my goal is not to argue about where the limits should lie, or what sorts of fringe classes should or shouldn’t be offered, but to argue that alterations and additions should be made towards providing meaningful Jewish Studies classes for those students who see the current course offerings as themselves on or past the fringe.

I think it would be agreed that the Yeshiva College Jewish core — and I speak of Yeshiva College alone here, based on my impression that Stern and Syms are very different in their Jewish requirements and that the points I make are therefore not pertinent — should be one that enhances one's Judaism, as opposed to what seems for many to be an afterthought at best. Given the seeming failure on this front, revisions should be considered.

If our liberal arts core in YC is viewed as vanity and vapid breath, I don’t feel that would be too big a deal. However, for the Jewish core to be popularly viewed as in conflict with Judaism is something that demands attention.

While the question of why such course offerings are beneficial could be asked, and I could wax poetic, as I did in the opening, stating soliloquy after soliloquy in their defense, I don’t believe this is a relevant question. The Jewish core is unlikely to be removed anytime soon, and it is this pre-existing core we must work with. Thus, we reach the central question I want to explore: How can the Jewish core be improved? Many of the ideas I suggest are half-baked brainstorms, possibilities I think have potential, but need work to evaluate and engage with. It is my hope these can be expanded on.

One administrative option, based on a suggestion from the responses to that 2013 Kol haMevaser article, would be to offer a course engaging in presenting Jewish approaches to many issues of academic study. As an example, this semester Rabbi Hayyim Angel is offering an IBC course on modern issues in biblical interpretation. A course like this open to all Wilf students seems like it could help dispel many of the fears around incorporating academic methods within a traditional framework of Talmud Torah [Torah learning], in much the same way I have been informed Professor Ari Bergman’s academic Talmud classes do for that subject.

Another option would be to offer classes that are more explicitly theologically framed. Here, I admit that some classes could no longer be academic in nature, and some clever thinking would be required to find a way to circumvent that issue. Nonetheless, I think an option, perhaps available in the 1:05–2:45 slot on Tuesday and Thursday, when many YP students take their Jewish core classes, for a more theologically focused Tanakh, Jewish History, or Jewish Philosophy, perhaps even offering something like a halakha class, which are offered as Jewish Studies classes on Beren Campus, would allow the Jewish core to be at least partially edifying for those concerned students.

Building upon this, I think a change of focus in some classes could be productive. Perhaps offering more skill-based classes could help not only in removing discomfort but demonstrating the value a university framework could provide towards traditional religious study. One of the issues I have seen in traditional Yeshiva study is that skills are generally expected to be picked up by assimilation and not taught explicitly. While some students are able to grasp these skills, many others don’t. Having fully academic classes that delve into useful skills, such as “reading Tosafot” or “understanding Brisker lomdus” could show the value a university classroom format can offer even to those primarily focused on traditional learning.

I have no pretension that this article will solve the problem I raised. My goal is to open a conversation, to give dissatisfied students some possible seeds that could sprout productive discussion. I have tried to suggest changes that seem likely to be within the range of what would make sense for a Jewish liberal arts college, while also being beneficial toward the problem at hand. It will take more popular effort, especially from those who themselves have these complaints and are therefore most qualified to voice their desires, to reach viable solutions.

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Photo Caption: Glueck Beit Midrash

Photo Credit: Jonathan Levin / The Commentator