By: Joshua Shapiro and Ned Krasnopolsky  | 

Yehi Shalom B’Cheileikh: Celebrating Rabbi Carmy’s 50 Years of Teaching at YU

One encounters many constants in Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library. Whether it be Rabbi Baruch Simon’s endless supply of sefarim or computer science students fretting about their workload, the fifth floor, like many places in YU, has its own unique character. However, well before R. Simon’s sefarim reserved their wooden tables and a computer science major existed, one humble rabbi, philosopher, Bible scholar, intellectual historian, author, lover of poetry, bibliophile and avid baseball fan situated himself on the corner of Amsterdam and West 185th St. Remarkably, despite decades of innumerable institutional changes — four presidents, the establishment of new schools, drastic curricular and departmental evolutions and a charming refurbishment of the very library space he most commonly occupies — Rabbi Shalom Carmy remains in the same spot, still accomplishing much of what he initially set out to do at the start of his teaching career more than 50 years ago.

Having spent his adolescence in Israel, R. Carmy first arrived at Yeshiva College as an undergraduate in the late 1960s. As a young student, it was by no means a “foregone conclusion” that he would remain within the fold of Orthodoxy. His primary concern then was whether Judaism could accommodate the full breadth of human wisdom. However, through years of formative Jewish and secular studies with his rebbeim, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Aharon Lichtenstein, he learned that Judaism was indeed “capacious enough,” and not only committed himself to “Orthodoxy, to yirat shamayim [and] religious truth” but to a lifetime of educating others in those pursuits as well. 

In 1973, after graduating from Yeshiva College with a degree in Philosophy (as well as his fair share of English courses with long-time writing professor, the Reb, R. Moshe Wohlgelernter), R. Carmy began teaching at YC. At this time, which coincided with the end of the Yom Kippur War, some Jewish communal leaders became very involved in efforts to bolster Christian support for the State of Israel. This was especially true of R. Carmy’s mentor and former undergraduate teacher, R. Walter Wurzburger, whose absences from YU opened the door for the former to serve as a substitute Political Philosophy instructor. The next fall, while still in semikha, R. Carmy was officially hired to teach Jeremiah and Trei Asar within the Bible department (the latter of which is still offered this coming fall), and he was later appointed to teach General Philosophy and Intellectual Jewish history at both YC and Stern. Motivated by "the opportunity to foster religious thought, particularly in a time when serious religious reflection is scarce in our community, when religious thought is foreign to general culture,” R. Carmy has been teaching ever since.

However, R. Carmy’s intellectual contributions to the Jewish community and the general world go far beyond the confines of the classroom. For decades, his highly perceptive essays have appeared in the RCA’s Journal of Jewish Thought, Tradition, for which he served as editor-in-chief from 2005-2019. Some key essays involve the meaning of prayer, Tanakh and Talmud methodology, attitudes toward divine providence, the thought of R. Soloveitchik and the place of the humanities in religious life. He also worked directly with R. Soloveitchik to prepare the latter's writings on prayer for publication in what would later become Worship of the Heart. Outside the immediate Jewish world, R. Carmy has additionally published many articles in his column Litvak at Large in First Things.

Still, in R. Carmy’s view, his greatest contributions have been in the classroom. For years, he has enjoyed teaching a wide variety of courses, the goal of which — as he always makes sure to include on his syllabi — is his and his students’ “growth as thinking religious individuals.” In the field of Tanakh, in addition to the more commonly studied books like Genesis or Exodus, R. Carmy also teaches more obscure texts like Job, many of the minor prophets and Ezekiel. He describes his approach to the Tanakh as “literary-theological,” meaning that he is concerned with how the Tanakh chooses to formulate its religious message. While modern academic scholarship is often more focused on the interplay between the Bible and ancient history, R. Carmy uniquely fuses classical parshanut with a modern, acute literary sensibility to produce creative interpretations that frequently engage with the inner lives of biblical characters.

In philosophy, many of R. Carmy’s classes focus on broad (and ambitious) topics such as “Suffering and Evil” or “Repentance and Forgiveness,” which unabashedly incorporate important literature from both the Jewish and Western traditions. Other courses are centered on the thought and literary corpus of a specific figure, such as R. Soloveitchik, R. Kook, or Maharal. With their emphasis on the human and religious experience, these courses mark a departure from many contemporary philosophy departments, which often prioritize more analytical schools of thought. R. Carmy’s interest in lived human experience, as opposed to more abstract types of speculation, relates to a key insight that he learned from R. Soloveitchik: the value of the individual. A true appreciation of that value, he stresses, requires the cultivation of a rich inner life. Only then can we treat ourselves and our fellow human beings seriously. 

All of R. Carmy’s courses reflect his broader educational outlook of seeking truth from whoever says it and finding enduring value in the study of thinkers who, despite their differing methods, share his religious concerns. R. Carmy does not deny that his assumptions are not always shared by earlier thinkers. Nonetheless, he finds ways to make works such as Rambam’s highly abstract Guide for the Perplexed and Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael meaningful to his students. And while it is at times necessary to appropriate sources for the modern reader, R. Carmy remains aware of the risk of presentism — the uncritical acceptance of contemporary ideas. As he puts it in the title of his 2012 essay on the study of the humanities, religious life is aided by the awareness that “as we are now is not the only way to be.” That awareness, he mentioned separately, is nourished by “spending time with thinkers of different periods and orientations, both in Torah and other areas.”

Reflecting on the contemporary state of thinking Orthodoxy, Rabbi Carmy is generally optimistic: “According to myth, 50 years ago, everyone's life revolved around the Rav's shiur, after which they all majored in philosophy, ended the day with Wordsworth or Milton, and sight-read classical music in the dark. Yet if you compare the best of that era with the best today, there is no decline in terms of what counts.” While many people feel as if YU has departed from the so-called “golden age,” R. Carmy emphasizes that the best students today are just as impressive in their engagements with traditional learning, “academic” Jewish studies and liberal arts as well as in terms of their overall “willingness to apply [their] talents for the benefit of individual and communal yirat shamayim.” However, R. Carmy has also written of his disappointment concerning the state of serious Tanakh study in the United States. Frivolous ”divrei Torah” are no substitute for thought-out, creative engagements with the peshat of the Tanakh and its commentaries.

For R. Carmy, that kind of creative engagement means working ideas out on one’s own within the context of what he affectionately calls the mishpacha halomedet the learning family. “Having a good set of notes is not a substitute for thinking and reading on your own, and maintaining an ongoing connection with your friends and the friends who are your teachers,” he notes. At the end of the day, “it's always about reading more carefully and thinking more accurately.” As one dedicated student put it, “R. Carmy encourages us to critically engage with the material at hand and deeply reflect on its implications for our religious lives and thought. Despite his unquestioned familiarity with the texts we learn, his excitement upon hearing our ideas and evoking moments of clarity is apparent and inspiring.”

Given his appreciation for his students, it is no surprise that, when asked about his overall reflections on 50 years of teaching, R. Carmy simply commented that “if the Ribbono shel Olam gives you students, the least you can do is try to love them.”

While a long tenure in any position invariably leads to some change, R. Carmy continues to create a classroom environment that is both relentless in its search for truth and aimed at tangible religious growth. His classroom is no ivory tower — he directs students to “bring everything you have to your study and bring your study to your life.” While the jury is still out on many of the current students, what is evident from 50 years of devoted teaching is that R. Carmy has indeed brought everything he has to his study and his study to his life, leaving a profoundly meaningful impact on so many along the way.


Photo credit: Uriel Sussman
Photo caption: Rabbi Shalom Carmy sitting with two students on the subway.