By: Ariel Kahan  | 

Practical Workplace Halacha For YC

How would one characterize the relationship between the Torah aspect of Yeshiva University and everything else it offers? Torah Umadda? Torah U’mammon? Torah Uparnassah

This question is at the forefront of much debate amongst YU students and faculty. In fact, several Commentator articles over the past few years have bemoaned YU’s supposed lack of intellectual exploration in the classroom in favor of more career-driven initiatives, while others have defended YU’s practical approach to educating its students.

I identify with both perspectives, and I think that is true of many YU students. On the one hand, there is an unbelievable intrinsic value in learning for the sake of learning. A traditional education is something that is to be cherished and valued for its own sake, and I think most of us feel that obtaining a classical and well-rounded educational experience is enriching and fulfilling. On the other hand, there is immense pressure to make a good living in our community and shaping a curriculum to achieve that goal and to appeal to students who are focused on their future career prospects is fully understandable.

However, not everything needs to be so black and white all the time. There can be some classes that do both. They can have the ability to satisfy a quest for knowledge as well as to provide valuable professional and life skills.

Practical Workplace Halacha is an example of such a class. While it may be more “practical” in intention, as it equips students with the skills to function as observant Jews in the workplace, it also offers intellectual pleasure and an opportunity to explore critical value judgments for observant Jews functioning in the broader world. Many YU students have mentioned this (to me or my peers) as a class that they would love to and be excited to take. 

Unfortunately, not every YU student can take this class. Practical Workplace Halacha, which is a Sy Syms requirement, is restricted to Sy Syms students — but it should be required for YC students as well. And if not required, there is no excuse for it not to be offered as an elective.

Starting with the obvious. Students in YC are also going into the workplace. Will political science students who are aspiring lawyers or consultants never have to attend a business lunch in a non-kosher restaurant? Will computer science students not have to tell their bosses that they cannot work on Shabbat or Chagim? This in and of itself is a reason to make Practical Workplace Halacha a YC requirement. 

The shift from YU to the “real world” is drastic and is a thought that occupies the minds of many YU students. Many (perhaps most) students who have gone to YU come from similar backgrounds in which they have been fully educated in Orthodox institutions, and have rarely ventured into the secular world. They hear adults at the Shabbat table discussing stories and scenarios from work and wonder with curiosity, and perhaps some insecurity. They sit at their makom in Yeshiva and ponder what their life will look like when their makom turns into a desk in a workplace. YU students want answers and guidance and pay the money to get it. 

YU prides itself on being the preeminent “flagship Jewish University.” Operating under the Torah Umadda mantra and the Five Torot, one thing has always been its mission: that the lessons and values we learn from our Jewish studies should be taken out into the world. 

This can only be accomplished if we are educated and trained in a way that provides this opportunity. The Judaic studies classes that non-Syms students are required to take, such as Bible or Jewish Philosophy, are of course important in developing a sophisticated understanding of Jewish thought and values, but they don’t by themselves inform the undergraduate population on how to interact with the world at large. There are more fundamental, practical, halachic Jewish values that every Jewish young professional should be well informed on.

Of course, if this class is also required, it will make it harder for students to graduate from YU in three years. Students already work hard to finish YU on time, often overloading their semesters or even taking summer courses to achieve this goal; it is not ideal to add to the stress.

Nonetheless, the requirement of Practical Workplace Halacha is surely more important than many other classes that YC students are required to take to graduate. While I am not saying it is easy, this class should be put in the place of one of the YC Secular CORE. Which one? I have plenty of suggestions. Alternatively, there are 12 credits required (for Jewish COREs), with at least one class required in Jewish Thought and Philosophy (JTP), Jewish History (JHI) and Bible (BIB). Even if one took each of these in three-credit courses, there would still be room for one more.

I am not questioning the importance of a strong classical education or demeaning the value of the YC CORE. Both of these things are important and provide students with opportunities to grow intellectually in college. 

But YU is not any college. YU prides itself on being a flagship Jewish institution. Students stretch their bank accounts to pay for a unique experience catering to their needs as observant Jews. They are paying to have one CORE that they could have gotten at a secular college to be replaced with a class that can provide them with a service they will implement for the rest of their lives.

It is odd that YU has not jumped on the opportunity to offer this class to all students. After all, YU is spending a lot of time and money in court arguing that they are a religious institution. Would a true religious institution choose only to educate half of its students on how to implement their religious observance in the workplace? 

Recently, there has been an initiative from Undergraduate Torah Studies (UTS) to give sessions during lunchtime on these topics. While this is highly commendable and important, four lunchtime sessions are not a substitute for a full semester of this course. First of all, many students have prior commitments during lunch, which could include shiur, meetings or personal obligations. Second, in terms of pure time, four days of one-hour sessions don't compare to 15 or so sessions of one and a half hours. 

On behalf of the students of YC, we are looking for our prized institution to provide us with the guidance that we need as the future of Klal Yisroel.