Od Lo Avdah Tikvatenu: A New Solution to the Humanities Crisis
“What are you gonna do with a Jewish studies major?”
When I tell people that I am majoring in Jewish studies, they retort with a wide array of comments. Whether it is asking if I aspire to be “professionally unemployed” or if I plan on condemning myself to the rabbinate (maybe, but that’s a different conversation), people have said it all. Sometimes, I add that I used to be an English major, which leaves them looking even more confused.
While years ago, majoring in the humanities was very prevalent, if not mainstream among college students, this has drastically changed. Whether they are more compelled to study vocational fields, dissuaded by the shift to the left in academia, bored by the prose of Shakespeare or left dissatisfied by the areas of focus in a humanities education, university students around the country are instead majoring in disciplines like business, computer science, and biology.
Even Yeshiva University, the champion of Torah UMadda and learning texts for their own sake, is not immune to this widespread decline. In 2017, the enrollment in Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business surpassed that of Yeshiva College, where the humanities are studied. This shift has not developed quietly. A cursory examination of The Commentator’s website often presents dissenters expressing their dissatisfaction with the university — whether it be the essential closure of the Hebrew department, reduction of humanities requirements for Sy Syms or selection of courses offered by the English department.
Yet is this also the case in American Jewish high schools? Since students do not have as much autonomy in class choice and primarily must follow required courses, it is difficult to gauge the exact interest level in studying the humanities. Still, perhaps the proliferation of STEM classes in high schools reveals at the very least a shift in emphasis.
However, there remains one bright spot for the humanities in Jewish circles: the Tikvah Fund. This past summer, I had the privilege of working as a resident advisor and teacher’s assistant on the Jewish educational think tank’s “Tikvah Scholars Program,” based at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Spanning ten days in August, the program hosted nearly seventy Jewish students from around the country — ranging from typical New York Modern Orthodox yeshivas to public schools with only a handful of Jews — and we all studied important essays, classical texts and Jewish philosophy. And this was during their summer vacation!
The program was powerful for several reasons. Most prominently, it demonstrated that many Jewish high school students, irrespective of background, are still interested in discussing ideas — whether it be in philosophy, economics or literature. In the “Jewish Ideas” class I was in, taught by the senior director of Tikvah, Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, students with little experience in traditional Jewish texts carefully examined chapters in the Torah and demonstrated how what they perhaps previously viewed as childhood stories — like the creation of the world, Tower of Babel and Abraham’s journey — actually construct sophisticated ideologies. We also read and conversed about essays by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel and debated topics like the source of morality, religious self-transcendence and the importance of ritual.
The students studied broader topics as well. Other classes focused on Zionist history, the writings of George Orwell, economic theory and the trajectory of conservatism.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the program, though, was how so many students strengthened their connection to Judaism. After five hours of seminar a day, nearly ten students attended a Talmud shiur that I gave on the topic of mitzvot asei she’hazeman gerama (positive-time bound commandments). While some of these students were already passionate learners in Modern Orthodox high schools, some had little to no background in Talmud or even Hebrew. One fellow was the only Jew in his North Carolina public school, and two girls from Paris, who are not offered Talmud classes in their school, were interested in learning it for the first time.
While there was a variety of religious denominations and prayer options amongst the students, there were a few moments of ritual unity. Whatever one’s Shabbat observance was at home, everyone publicly kept Shabbat on the program. We all davened a musical kabbalat Shabbat together in the Orthodox minyan, sang zemirot and heard divrei Torah throughout meals, played Settlers of Catan and closed out Shabbat with a beautiful havdalah and the customary “Sha-Sha-Shavua Tov.” Some students even fully observed Shabbat for the first time and expressed interest in continuing in the future.
Students also strengthened their Jewish identities in other ways as well. One participant from southern California mentioned that he will begin to wear a Kippah to school everyday and another from Massachusetts expressed strong interest in taking a gap year in Israel.
It is worth mentioning that while the program was primarily run by Orthodox people and rabbis, there was never any push towards Orthodoxy or attempts at kiruv. In fact, Tikvah’s approach, while certainly acknowledging the significance of Jewish ritual, focuses its efforts on Jewish ideas and the effect they can have with our lives.
Tikvah’s influence, though, transcends the high school level. They have numerous programs and fellowships for middle schoolers, gap year participants, college students, postgraduates, and adults as well, some of which I have been fortunate enough to partake in. These seminars range from one-off lectures, several-part series and semester-long courses, and all can be taken in concomitance to the existing work one has. Some of the seminars I have taken on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and different educational responses to the Holocaust have been the most enlightening classes I have ever taken, and specifically because these classes were purely volitional and not part of any school curriculum, I discovered my passion for reading works of the humanities.
Given the current state of the humanities in institutions around the country, Tikvah’s model of education is perhaps the future for interested students in institutions that focus in different areas. As schools move away from core classes in subjects like English and history, it is incumbent upon the students to independently pursue the topics that pique their interests. If your school no longer offers classes on the political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, go and take classes with the Catherine Project. If you desire to study Jewish philosophy but are too swamped with your computer science classes, get involved with Tikvah and see what they have to offer. As one rabbi once remarked to me in the name of Rav Lichtenstein zt”l, even if our institutions do not offer the Torah UMadda as we envision, this does not absolve us of our responsibility to become complex religious thinkers with a well-rounded education.
In my own life, I have taken those words pretty seriously, especially since I arrived at Yeshiva University. While I am grateful to the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought for supplying numerous enriching courses, I was left unsatiated. Already last year, with the help of some friends, we started a Tikvah Chapter at YU, where nearly every other week, ten to fifteen of us ate dinner together and discussed different philosophy readings. This semester alone, our chapter looks forward to participating in at least six sessions led by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau on the essays of Cynthia Ozick and Rabbi Gottlieb on the thought of Michael Wyschogrod.
While it is sometimes easier to cheaply express cynicism and polemicize with naysayers about the state of the humanities, this often distracts us from taking initiative and actually engaging with the valuable content we are supposedly passionate about. Opportunities outside of our typical academic requirements like Tikvah, though, allow us to remove ourselves from these perennial debates and return to learning for its own sake. The only question is whether you will come join us this semester.
To join the Tikvah Chapter at Yeshiva University click here.
Joshua Shapiro is the Senior Opinions Editor for The Commentator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Caption: A decline in the study of the humanities at institutions is forcing many students to discover new educational forums.
Photo Credit: Unsplash