By: Rabbi Yitzchak Blau  | 

The Ghost of Torah UMadda: English Literature at YU

I entered Yeshiva College in 1987 with the advantage of knowing I wanted to be an educator and not having to worry about a GPA necessary for graduate school; thus, I could happily take the most demanding and rewarding courses. Furthermore, the ideology of my shiur rebbe in Israel, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, very much resonated with me. R. Lichtenstein was the most articulate spokesperson for the religious benefits of a good humanistic education.

The explicitly systematic discussions of Gentile thinkers often reveal to us the hidden wealth implicit in our writings. The Gentiles, furthermore, have their own wisdom, even of a moral and philosophical nature. Who can fail to be inspired by the ethical idealism of Plato, the passionate fervor of Augustine, or the visionary grandeur of Milton? Who can remain unenlightened by the lucidity of Aristotle, the profundity of Shakespeare, or the incisiveness of Newman? ...To deny that many fields have been better cultivated by non-Jewish than by Jewish writers is to be stubbornly and unnecessarily chauvinistic. There is nothing in our medieval poetry to rival Dante and nothing in our modern literature to compare with Kant and we would do well to admit it. We have our own genius and we have bent it to the noblest of pursuits, the development of Torah. But we cannot be expected to do everything. (Leaves of Faith I:94) 

My own life experience confirmed this position and I was fortunate to have two outstanding teachers, Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Dr. Will Lee, who exposed me to the classics of the western canon. I took Dr. Lee six times which included courses in Victorian Literature (Carlyle, Arnold, Browning, etc.), Modern Poetry (Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Eliot) and two survey courses (Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Donne, Dryden, Pope). In addition, I took an excellent course in Romantic Poetry (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats) with Judith Rosen and a Milton course with Manfred Weidhorn. The classics we read paid ample dividends. 

Now I will not over-romanticize and say that all English majors came with such idealistic motivations. One group simply sought a high GPA on the road to law school. However, I had enough like-minded friends (Chanoch Waxman, David Glatt, Ronnie Ziegler, Dov Fogel, Benjie Samuels) to ensure that the classroom discussion was invariably of a strong caliber.

In the more than thirty years since my graduation, I have continued to draw insight and inspiration from the great works of literature. Wordsworth’s poem on the benefits of structure and limitation (“Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room”), Victor Hugo’s depiction of Jean Valjean endangering himself by returning to save an innocent man despite many obstacles on the way, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov preferring to “return the ticket” rather than having one child suffer are only a small sample of the plots, scenes and lines that continue to animate my thinking. The closing lines of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” offer another excellent example.

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I convey this passion for literature to my students and some have even chosen to study the humanities at YU. However, a look at the course catalog for the YC English department for the Spring 2023 semester indicates how things have changed since my time there. Oddly enough for a small department, there is one course titled “Literary Hauntings: Hamlet to Henry James” and another called “The Monstrous.” With all due respect to Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, I do not think enough great literature exists in this genre for one course, let alone two. Furthermore, an intense focus on the ghost scenes in Hamlet diverts attention from the play’s best features.

An emphasis on movies is even more paramount. Three courses have “film” in the title (Approaches to Film, Books on Books Films on Films and Face to Face: Complex Modern Identities in Contemporary Film). Another three incorporate movies in the curriculum (Spoiler Alert: Modern Storytelling Across Genre, Diaspora Literature and Parisian Views). No classes exist focusing exclusively on the great works of the Western canon. Even if one finds the study of movies incredibly absorbing and deep, the lack of balance is striking.

I would like to preemptively counter three potential defenses of this semester’s menu. Interest in the humanities has declined across the entire Western World and English departments do what they can to increase attractiveness and stay afloat. At YU, this argument fails. I know several Orayta and Gush graduates eager to study the classics in depth and I imagine that other yeshivot must produce at least some similarly minded fellows. The current offerings actually scare these students away from English classes.

Perhaps some will argue that analysis of modern media such as television and movies proves just as insightful and rewarding as Samuel Johnson and Leo Tolstoy. I categorically deny this (see my article “Modern Orthodox Arguments against Television” in “Tradition’ 44:2 Summer 2011). But even if true, surely some courses should be available for those who do prefer Shakespeare. It is, after all, an English Department and not Media Studies.

It may be that course selection reflects the expertise of the given professors; indeed, instructors should teach what they know well and are passionate about. If so, the department clearly needs another voice. The simplest starting point would be to ask Will Lee to come back and teach a course each semester. Double the standard salary or find some other incentive if need be, but convince him to return and fill a gaping educational hole.
In the past two years, I have now written criticisms of YC moving Hebrew classes online, of the dominance of Sy Syms, and of the English department abandoning the canon, and I worry that I have become the angry prophet. In my defense, let me state that the criticisms come from a place of profoundly caring. I view YU as an incredibly important institution and see Torah UMadda as a major value. Due to the potential idealism of its student body, YC could have a superior humanities environment to the Ivies where wokeism and pragmatism get in the way of learning. Giving up the ghost of encountering the great writing of the broader world means an impoverishment of Modern Orthodoxy.

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Photo Caption: A collection of classic books

Photo Credit: The Literary Lifestyle