Lacking a functional laptop, I’ve been working on a computer at the Hillel. I never thought I’d say this about YU, but their public computing system is far superior. Knowing it’s possible for YU to get some things right makes the politics all the more frustrating.
It’s far too easy to find faults in YU. Anyone can complain, but fewer offer plausible suggestions for improvement. On my mind today, specifically, is the YU smikha honors program.
YU’s rabbinics program, offers financial fellowships for students accepted into one of the honors programs. Most (perhaps all) of these programs require students to enroll in R. Hershel Schachter’s kollel, whereas the kollel is optional for other rabbincal students.
Similar to a “directed study” class, members of the kollel independently study talmud during the afternoon and are tested periodically. Failure to take or pass one of these tests will result in a delay in ordination.1
I recently had a conversation with someone who participated in this kollel and was somewhat critical of the testing system. According to this person, the tests are not so much on the talmud being studied as they are on R. Schachter’s thinking. If one is accustomed to R. Schachter’s derekh ha-limud system of learning, then these tests will not be unsual. However, the majority of rabbincal students have no prior experience studying with R. Schachter and would most likely be accustomed to a different system of learning. Since the honors program is contingent on the Kollel, the ramification is that in order for a rabbinical student to be elligible for an honors fellowship, he must eventually re-train himself to think like R. Schachter. This structure unnecesarilly restricts those talented rabbinical students who are not part of R. Schachter’system, especially since the kollel members are not actually taught by R. Schachter.2
I am not going to suggest modifying the kollel, but I do think YU has the resources to offer an alternative program for talented rabbincal students. Instead of testing the kollel students from a specific system, let the students develop as they have been trained. This can easily be accomplished by requiring these students to produce an article based on their learning of the year or of an important contemporary issue. Perhaps these articles could be published in a specialized kollel journal3 which would not only help fundraising, but it’s topics could contribute to the Jewish community at large. Therefore, rabbinical students who are so inclined may participate in the honors program with the intellectual freedom to develop their minds and the obligation to contribute to the Jewish community.
In my first-year class’s meeting with R. Lamm, someone asked the then-president why YU offers so many choices for smikha co-requisites and which one was “better.” Students can get an MA in education, social work, Judaic studies, or learn in kollel. What should a student do? R. Lamm sarcastically commiserated that YU has different options for different types of students. If YU is serious about its role in the Orthodox world, it cannot afford to allienate potential talent. It might be time for yet another option.
1. I personally did not participate in this kollel, opting for the M.A. from Revel instead. I am basing my assessments on the descriptions that I have heard from other people. The fundamental descriptions have been fairly consistent. If I am incorrect, let me know.
2. I am not evaluating R. Schachter’s system. I am merely acknowledging that there are other systems of learning, even within YU. For example, R. Tendler, R. Ben-Haim, R. Katz, and R. Weider all have unique styles of learning, none of which are R. Shachter’s.
3. Unlike “Beis Yitzchak,” this should be more accessible to the Jewish community, and the writing would be of a much higher caliber.