The secular college debate is what Dr. Lee might call a ?chestnut? ? one of those belabored topics like the death penalty, gun control, or the failures of Jewish dating life. Rarely will new information come along which will force a reevaluation of one?s positions. However, every now and then something will happen: an event, or in this case a publication, which for some reason has a significant impact on a community.
Recently, two graduate students wrote an essay warning orthodox parents of the dangers pervasive in secular colleges. (I do not know when/where it was initially published ? I came across the RCA link accidentally). Gil Perl, a
PhD candidate in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Yaakov Weinstein, a PhD Candidate in nuclear engineering at MIT, specify harmful “Onslaught of Ideas” (e.g. biblical criticism) and "Sexual Temptation" to which unsuspecting Modern Orthodox students will be exposed.
In a Jewish Week article covering the reactions to the essay, many considered the manifesto to be “alarmist.” And included the requisite range of opinions from those who agreed and disagreed with the authors. Even new YU President Richard Joel specifically disagreed with the negative portrayal of Hillel, an organization which he led as president for several years. (Although he did not address secular colleges vs. YU). Others have been more explicit in condemning this piece as Orthodox’s typically sheltering response to challenges. Blogger Dr. Manhattan used the metaphor of a cocoon mentality. Conservative Rabbi Alan Mittleman similarly criticized the authors and their reactionary culture as “Fretful Orthodoxy.”
As a YU graduate and musmach now attending a secular college (one not known for its Jewish community), I see that the authors write not from paranoia, but from concern. Before elaborating on this point, we have to take a step back to see the real purpose of the offending essay.
First, reread the title: “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses.” The intended audience is not the global Jewish community (although it would be naive of the authors not think it wouldn’t get out), but specifically to Modern Orthodox (MO) parents of college age students. Many parents and some MO yeshivas believe the ideal is to send their children to Ivy League or other moderately prestigious colleges. YU is to be avoided at all costs. Presumably, parents want their children to remain Jewish, preferably observant. Then they must assume that the Jewish life on the typical secular college campus is sufficient to maintain their child?s Jewish life. The authors aim is to debunk this myth; not only is the secular campus life insufficient to maintain one?s Jewish life, but it may aversly affect whatever religion they do have.
Going to Penn does not condemn someone to hell any more than going to YU guarentees a spot in heaven. From my experience with typical yeshiva high-school students, I would say that 90% of them would do better at YU than elsewhere. That leaves 10% who will either do well elsewhere or perhaps better than they would at YU. The authors are not writing for them, but for the parents of the 15% or so who do have the choice and have a misconception about the reality of a secular campus.
While observance is not guaranteed at YU, nor is apostasy assured at secular colleges, it is undoubtedly easier for one to maintain and certainly to augment their Judaism at YU. Even ignoring the educational elements of shiur and the core requirements, compare anything from accessibility of kosher meals to minyanim.
College guys are lazy. The default would be not to do something. Even at YU students struggle to attend their ubiquitous minyanim. Many of them don?t have to leave their dorms ? just head downstairs ? imagine if they had to leave their apartments and get on a bus to get to a minyan. For the seriously committed, these inconveniences will not matter, and for the seriously secular, YU won?t change anything. But what about those in the middle who could go either way? This is the contention of the authors ? they are talking to the parents of the middle majority.
I do not think it?s as simple to call this debate cocoon vs. non-cocoon. One of the authors himself studies in the Near Eastern Languages dept at Harvard where he is undoubtedly exposed to heresy the likes of which even MJ?s students haven?t seen.
The authors themselves argue that it might be preferable to teach bible-criticism at a younger age. But they are not interested right now in changing the yeshiva educational system, only in assuming it is a given and working from there. They did not necessarily advocate YU as the Answer. In fact, they did offer suggestions as to how one may attend secular college and maintain their Jewish identity e.g. live at home.
YU is hardly the panacea for Jewish education. I mentioned earlier that 10% might do better elsewhere. YU can be intellectually, religously, and emotionally stifiling. Classes are limited, shiurim myopic (depending on the shiur), and there is the excessive pressure to get married by the time one turns 20. There are certianly people who would rebel against YU and would do much better at a secular college. I do not think the authors would deny this, but again, I think they are writing for the majority.
When discussing issues of Modern Orthodoxy?s future, it?s important not to look at the ideal, but the reality. As much as the yeshiva system could use an overhaul, it?s not going to happen in the near future. Ideally, we might like to expose high-school students to bible criticism, but the reality is that many lack the intelligence or interest to take it seriously. Just like ideally we wouldn?t want sex or drugs in the yeshivot, but that doesn?t change the reality. There is certainly a generation gap in that parents probably do not have a good idea of what their children are doing and certainly not what is going on in secular colleges.
The authors? sanctimony did not help their cause and I’m certain it helped unify the opposition. Secular college isn’t inherently evil. There are many advantages and opportunites, none of which were discussed. With both secular colleges and YU there are risks to one’s religious observance, and these risks must be evaluated carefully and honestly. There is however one prerequisite:
Modern Orthodoxy needs a complete reality check.