By: Nadav Heller  | 

The Banned Book: Academic Talmud at YU

For the first time in nearly a decade, RIETS Press will be publishing a new edition of Beit Yitzchak, a Hebrew collection of articles written by rebbeim (teachers) and talmidim (students)  at YU about gemara and halacha. I am fortunate enough to be one of the editors and writers for this edition, and I am proud of the quality Torah scholarship we will soon be publishing. Most of the editing was smooth sailing — we harangued rebbeim for writing commitments, we edited yeshivish grammar, we made a Google Drive with at least a hundred folders — it was great. Several months in, however, we hit a little hiccup. While reviewing some content edits, a co-editor warned me to “be careful. We don’t want another lamed alef (31) situation …” I didn’t know what he meant — “What’s a lamed alef situation?” At the time, I could not have known that it would take me several months, interviews and late nights to uncover the answer to that question.

In March of 2000, YU published a rather unconventional edition of the Beit Yitzchak journal. The volume was issued around eight months late and bore the wrong publication year, lacked a tribute page thanking the sponsors and featured only about half as many articles as previous volumes. None of these flaws, however, were the source of the controversy surrounding this volume. An article by student authors Eliyahu Stern and Meir Katz kicked up dust when it took an academic approach to talmudic study and quoted a number of untraditional rabbinic scholars. This deviation led several roshei yeshiva to publicly denounce the edition. 

Rav Schachter rebuked the article and its authors particularly sharply, stating that “they’ve lost all tradition and should be ashamed of themselves. They are stealing money from the Yeshiva; this is not what they’re being paid to print.” He further expressed regret over contributing to that issue of Beit Yitzchak at all, claiming, “Had I known such an article would be in there, I would never have written anything for them.” As forthright as these statements may seem, Eliyahu Stern assured me that they were “merely the tip of the iceberg.” As an example, he cited a speech delivered by one of YU’s Torah lecturers (maggidei shiur) in the beit midrash comparing the authors to Nadav and Avihu, who were incinerated after bringing a foreign offering.

It seems that some of this tension came as a result of unclear expectations on the part of the administration and rabbinic faculty. In a recent conversation with this author, Rav Schachter reiterated, “It was a big chutzpah. If you want to write about that, go write in a different journal. You’re not gonna be publishing about chemistry and physics in Beis Yitzchak, it’s a different discipline. It’s not what Beis Yitzchak is about.” Unfortunately, these unequivocal red lines were not shared with the editors of the edition. “The editors were given no training or instructions; we were not told how to solicit articles, rules for acceptance, or anything else,” said Dr. Aaron Koller, now a professor of Near Eastern Studies at YU. “These were Torah articles that used tools that could be used in academic studies, but … we did feel that this was on the ‘Torah side’ of the dichotomy. They weren’t trying to get tenure — it was lehagdil torah uleha’adirah (to grow and exalt the Torah). Where would this go if not in the Beit Yitzchak?”

Another exacerbating factor may have been existing tensions surrounding academic Talmud study at YU. For several years prior, Stern and a cohort of other students traveled to other campuses to study Talmud with professors like Berachyahu Lifshitz and Shamma Friedman. “We wanted something on the daf. Read the daf and explain it. To run away from the Talmud with the rishonim (medieval commentators) is creating a rickety house of cards … we wanted to really understand the foundations of the Gemara itself,” said Stern. When they brought these methods into the beit midrash, there was some discomfort. Many felt (and still feel) that the beit midrash is a place meant for consecrated, traditional study, and that academic dissection of chronological layers and textual variants is better left for the library, or even nowhere at all.

In 1999, Dr. Barry Wimpfheimer, then a semicha (rabbinical) student at RIETS, experienced this discomfort firsthand. Wimpfheimer had written an article for Beit Yitzchak vol. 30 that was rejected for questionable content. “I didn’t think it would be controversial. It wasn’t critical, it was about rishonim … the editor rejected my piece because it was ‘kefirah’ (heresy). He couldn’t articulate his rejection, but he felt the roshei yeshiva would not be okay with it.” When the editors of the 31st edition took over, they reached out to Wimpfheimer and asked to publish his rejected article. “I told them that I’d allow them to publish it as long as they left it as is.” The editors initially accepted his condition, but later reneged on their agreement. “By the time they published it, they had gotten nervous, and printed it without the introduction.” Even before the publication of the 31st edition many students and rebbeim regarded these innovations with suspicion and did not feel comfortable allowing them a voice in the beit midrash.

Wimpfheimer and Stern both felt that nobody granted their studies or their published pieces intellectual seriousness because they broke with tradition. “What was going on with both of our articles was more of a reputational thing than an objection to actual content,” concluded Wimpfheimer. When I asked Stern to review some of the article’s technical claims, he expressed joyous surprise. “You read it! You actually read it! … the only thing that disappointed me was them not reading it. I wanted to discuss the issues. I was proud of the hard work — the months — I put into this piece.”

Many students never had the opportunity to read it. Typically, a box of Beit Yitzchak journals would be placed on the bimah (dais) and left there for days, even weeks, so that students could leave cash and take a copy. When a box was sold out, they brought out the next one. “In my memory, the box was out for a day, and then it was gone.” Many fewer copies than usual were disseminated among the student body. “For a long time, it was hard to get your hands on one,” said Wimpfheimer.

At the renowned Seforim Sale of that year, the stakes were significantly escalated. On the night before the sale’s opening, eleven boxes of the publication went missing. According to Sales Manager Amichai Erdfard, the books were “mistakenly left in the freight elevator and taken by Facilities.” In context, what might have been perceived as an unfortunate but innocent error took on tones of malice. Furthermore, the MYP/RIETS administration refused to bankroll the considerable cost of printing because the edition failed to pay tribute to its donors. Those inclined to view the administration unfavorably found yet more fuel for conspiratorial claims.

To this day, it’s difficult to find copies of this edition. Though the beit midrash has a collection of Beit Yitzchak journals, this slim volume was not to be found. I had to venture up to the musty and elevator-less sixth floor of Gottesman Library to locate it. I couldn’t help but wonder whether its absence was a simple oversight or a more pointed signifier of current attitudes at the yeshiva/university. Have the rabble-rousers who campaigned for the acceptance of academic Talmud all graduated or moved elsewhere? Are YU’s attitudes toward non-traditional modes of study and those who espouse them different now than they were twenty years ago?

It’s hard to know. Yeshiva College (with the help of Bernard Revel Graduate School) has a small but stalwart Talmud department that embraces many of the methods and figures that were excoriated in this Beit Yitzchak episode. Dr. Ari Bergmann, a student of Weiss-Halivni and professor in YC’s Talmud department, spoke openly about the importance of allowing academic Talmud into the beit midrash in an interview with Dovid Bashevkin.

“I think the academic Talmud is extremely important to allow the Yeshiva traditional learning to evolve … there was a hesitation, in the beginning, because they thought that this will come to clash with the tradition and devalue the text … just the opposite, quite the opposite,” he said. “If you have the right ideas, and the right religious background and underpinnings … you just see a way how to evolve Talmudic study to the next level. It’s extremely important.”

This is a far cry from the original reactions of the roshei yeshiva. And yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the attitudes of the student body or rabbinic faculty mirror these developments. In a 2021 Commentator article about academic Talmud, one student noted that “many have an instinctual aversion to anything with the word ‘academic’ in it, and perhaps to the idea of academic Talmud in particular.” This rings true for anyone who has spent time in YU’s Glueck Beit Midrash. The walls resound with quotations from medieval commentators or Charedi scholars, but it is not often that you would catch a student examining girsa’ot (textual variants) or consulting Lieberman’s writings in the course of his studies. One student joked to me that he leaves the beit midrash and goes to the library to study for Dr. Bergmann’s class.

I do not personally have an opinion on the religious value of academic Talmud study. I’ve heard both sides and found them both compelling and, alternately, not. I do strongly feel, however, that the Torah is not served by stifling voices we’d prefer not to entertain. At the end of the day, the Beit Yitzchak staff redacted that student’s article to reflect traditional presentation, and at the time I thought that was the right decision. 

But as I write this article, I sit across from an elevator in Belfer Hall that is emblazoned with a tribute to Torat Emet™. Printed against a hideously garish orange backdrop it demands more of me than adherence to tradition. It reads: “We believe in truth, and humanity’s ability to discover it.” The discovery of truth occurs in an even-handed arena in which ideas are freely exchanged, and it is up to our students to determine what they think that truth is. Our university is predicated upon our faith in their ability to do so. It is my hope that Yeshiva University is and will continue to be a place where that exchange is possible, and where many different voices can be heard in and outside the beit midrash. Wish us way more than luck.


Photo Caption: A copy of Beit Yitzchak lamed alef

Photo Credit: Nadav Heller