Brandishing the slogan of “Torah U’Madda,” Yeshiva University promotes some form of synthesis between Jewish religious and secular culture. While the term Torah U’Madda is generic, in the context of YU it generally refers to its dual curriculum, combining the religious and secular subject matters in one university as opposed to having them be necessarily in conflict. But beyond the distinction of Torah U’Madda in subject matters, I noticed this past week two instances of Torah U’Madda in the nature of discourse itself.
A few days ago, we covered YU’s medical ethics conference which included R. Schachter and R. Tendler offering their conflicting opinions on brain death in Jewish law. At two points during the conference R. Kenneth Brander attempted to mitigate the conflict by commending YU for its commitment academic integrity. Instead of suppressing or ignoring one side of the debate, YU provided the forum for two controversial and drastically divergent opinions, which for R. Brander is the definition of intellectual honesty.
Then we found Hirhurim’s reference to this Commentator interview with R. Schachter and Yeshiva College Dean David Srolovitz on YU’s curriculum. R. Schachter argues that some courses are “uncomfortable” for many students, and instead of risking losing them to other colleges YU should not force the exposure of these courses on its students.
When I was a student, Torah u-Madda under Dr. Belkin did not mean as much as it does today. Rabbi Belkin wanted to provide a more available yeshiva and college and environment than City College. What’s wrong if a student treats college as a trade school? Just let him. We should make him feel comfortable. You won’t be changing the nature of the college. That’s the question: should you accept such a student whose head is screwed on differently because he believes in Torah u-Parnasa – I don’t think you need to reject him for that. Why should we chase away students? They are coming to this school and participating in this college. We do not need to keep on emphasizing that we are Torah u-Madda and not Torah u-Parnasa. We should allow all students to feel comfortable in attending YU.
As Dean Srolovitz notes, most of these upsetting classes are optional. Regarding R. Schachter’s opposition to Chaucer, Dean Srolovitz responds:
A student does not necessarily have to take Chaucer but to not be able to offer Chaucer to our students would be a problem. For a student to choose not to take it is not a problem. But, it is part of the canon of a liberal arts education.
For Dean Srolovitz, the student has the option of which courses to take. If someone finds one class to be objectionable, it is easily possible to organize the schedule accordingly. In the interest of academic integrity, the point is not even to force exposure, but to allow students the choice to develop their own curriculum.
However, according to R. Schachter even allowing such choice is problematic, but rather YU should regulate the content of what is being taught as well.
It would be a good idea when you have a course where certain things from the Gospels are taught, that a religious Jew should teach it, as opposed to a Christian minister or a non observant Jew.
Though ideally, the New Testament and other subjects should not be taught at all.
I personally feel that [courses in the New Testament] is a problem that it is offered. The deans have always said that Dr. Revel had it and Dr. Belkin had it and I think that it wasn’t right since day number one. But at least we should make the school comfortable for students who are not interested in taking these things in classes
Fifty percent [of art classes] they can teach but I don’t understand how they can teach the other half – it’s avodah zara and gilui arayot (licentiousness). There was a professor here years ago who claimed that there was a difference between nakedness and nudity – I think they both do not belong here. I find it very offensive that such a thing is even offered.
We should notify the teachers that this is a Jewish institution and they therefore have to be careful not to teach literature which is inappropriate or avodah zara. I was once asked how we should teach literature and I said “It’s not easy. You have to pick out the things that are Kosher.”
Even worse, the very presence of such classes may give the impression that they are “approved” and students may inadvertently take “problematic” classes.
It has been the tradition here since time immemorial that many types of courses are offered at the college. The problem is that many students come in and think that many courses are approved by the rabbis. They don’t realize that none of the courses are approved by the rabbis. Students return from Israel and don’t realize whether a course is questionable.
I see these questions come up every year where students come over to me complaining how they took a problematic Bible course with such and such a professor … or complaining about a sociology course.
For R. Schachter, academic freedom and open discourse is not a priority of Yeshiva University, in the sense that instructors at Yeshiva University ought to be limited as to what they are allowed to teach. As an Orthodox institution, we would expect Jewish law to take a priority. As Dean Srolovitz said, “I think that it’s important for us and the Yeshiva community to figure out how to simultaneously respect academic freedom as well as the halakha on these issues – where we can.”
But even within this context, R. Schachter does not allow for the disagreement as to what is and is not halakhically permitted to teach but declares classes generically “questionable.” As we noted some time ago, the Talmud advocates and necessitates many areas of secular learning, including comparative religion (B. San 17a). The very definition of what is and is not halakhically problematic can be debated just as easily as one’s position on brain death.
Furthermore, regarding “questionable” ideas, R. Schachter prefers to have courses expunged as opposed to responding to their content. Instead of addressing the arguments and evidence of biblical criticism, it would be better to ignore them completely. In contrast, R. Tendler, advocated exposing students to as much “heresy” as possible to allow the Roshei Yeshiva the chance to give their responses. Academic freedom does not necessitate agreement with a position, and indeed there are passionate disagreements in all fields.
Ironically, R. Schachter himself has repeatedly enjoyed the security of academic freedom. At the conference on brain death, R. Tendler argued that R. Schachter was not only incorrect but deliberately ignored or manipulated inconvenient sources. Yet despite R. Tendler’s argument – which if true would certainly call into question”intellectual honesty” – and R. Tendler’s PhD in Biology, R. Brander repeated that R. Schachter was entitled to have his say. Two years ago, when several of R. Schachter’s controversial remarks became public the Jewish Week affirmed, “Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University, was unavailable for comment. In the past he has cited academic freedom as a reason for not publicly criticizing faculty.”
The problem of academic freedom is that, in theory, it holds people accountable to their statements. People need to answer critics and defend their positions. This ethic is often seen as contradictory to religious value where we ought to dogmatically follow the statements of our Rabbis, or the expectation of the Rabbis to be followed dogmatically.
But in reality, Jewish law is based on open debate and argumentation. While there are some necessary limits to the discussion, the Talmudic sages welcomed and in some cases even preferred such challenges (B. Bava Metzia 84a).
Those who are most confident in their positions may find repeated questioning to be a nuisance, but they should also have no intellectual difficulty rebutting criticisms. Furthermore, someone one who is passionately committed to his position should appreciate the opportunity to convince a skeptic based not on the charisma of the person but on the merits of the arguments. On the other hand, repeated refusals to defend one’s argument can usually be interpreted as a weakness of one’s position. Outright suppression of opposition would obviously be another matter entirely.
And while I can understand the desire to protect the student’s spiritual growth, I find it disconcerting if someone’s faith is so weak or the hashkafa so baseless that a college class would be considered that threatening.
Furthermore, if the student’s faith is based on false premises or assumptions, then it would be an obligation of Rabbis to correct such mistakes and help the student refine and mature his ideas. If anything, these are people who are most in need of the empowerment that academic freedom provides.
Thank you for your excellent post. Statements need to be challenged. You do it in a gentlemanly way. Keep up the good work.
“And while I can understand the desire to protect the student’s spiritual growth, I find it disconcerting if someone’s faith is so weak or the hashkafa so baseless that a college class would be considered that threatening.”
Be it disconcerting, it is still an indisputable fact that many Jews have left and leave Orthodoxy because of what they learn in college classes.
Gil: Your point, while 100% accurate, highlights a flaw in the day school system, not the college curriculum.
(Of course, that’s not an excuse for an institution holding itself out to the public as Orthodox offering classes that contractict Torah hashkofos. I fail to see the problem with R’ Shachter pushing an Orthodox agenda at an obstensibley Orthodox college.)
Tzvee – Thanks
Gil – Possibly, but at Yeshiva University one would think that there are enough people with whom to speak to address religious concerns. I think a large part of the problem is that there isn’t any dialogue in discussing “problematic” topics.
Furthermore, if college is such a risk then I would think it would be a good idea to address in the educational system why such classes would be so threatening. If college kids still have the elementary school hashkafa then yes, they would be more susceptible to having juvenile myths debunked.
Clearly there is a problem somewhere. Ignoring it will not help.
Meredith – The problem is not in the University having a religious or academic philosophy. Secular universities have their “derech” and people either go along with it or find another school. The point of this post was in discussing the pretense of “academic freedom” and how it is being used selectively. Even your assumption of “orthodox hashkafos” is a bit loaded since what those are is also a matter of debate, and just because they are contradictory does not necessarily mean they should be ignored. As Ex-Roommate Yossi once said, he knows of no one who because of reading Nietzsche suddenly decided that there is no God.
Josh: My comment was more in response to Gil, than anything else.
Also, you (probably erroneously) quoted me far out of context. I wrote “Torah hashkofos” (emphasis added), not “Orthodox hashkofos”, and did so precisely to avoid the topic of “My Orthodoxy vs. ____’s Orthodoxy.” Elu v’elu. While I agree that there are clearly forces looking to limit the academic freedom at YC, I don’t see any particular problem with that. Again, this is an institution holding itself out to the tuition paying public as Orthodox.
Unfortunately it is often the case that the more “ultra” one moves in the spectrum of Orthodoxy, the less openness is found when dealing with ideas that are outside the tightly defined spectrum of what is “frumme machshove.” Often this attitude exists because those charged with providing a basic hashkafic foundation (family, school, shul) do not do so adequately.
Specific to your last comment, Rabbi Yuter, I would disagree: secular schools do not have a “derech” per se (or at least mine didn’t… (only senseless violence these days – a Columbine-like shooting at my former junior college yesterday in Montreal. One young woman dead, 19 people injured :-(
The “kilkulim” that I have seen when people are exposed to secular schooling came from lowering of personal standards of halachic observance, the community condoning non-halachic practices, etc. etc. Not from classroom topics. Hey, I learned about evolution and still believe in Bereishis (and no less, I am pursuing advanced studies in cell biology). Perhaps that is due to my two years in yeshiva… but I’d also like to think that my hashkafic base was set up well enough to not be swayed out of a halachic lifestyle by learning about Darwin (or Mills, Calvin, or Kierkegaard, for that matter).
Excellent post. Thanks.
“For R. Schachter, academic freedom and open discourse is not a priority of Yeshiva University, in the sense that instructors at Yeshiva University ought to be limited as to what they are allowed to teach.”
That is not necessarily true. All Universities have to balance academic freedom with their mission statement. R. Schachter just wants to make sure that the default position and curriculum is “kosher.” Take NYU for example. Noone would argue that they dont value academic freedom. Yet try to go to the Bobst library and check out Perfidy (Ben Hecht). They have removed it from the stacks and placed it with other anarchy and subversive books. Why? Because academic freedom doesnt mean anything goes. R. Schechter just wants to make sure that the religiously subversive material is sectioned off and only available and available only during certain hours and only in small doses. (That metaphor didnt work so well but you get the point)
“Furthermore, regarding “questionable” ideas, R. Schachter prefers to have courses expunged as opposed to responding to their content. Instead of addressing the arguments and evidence of biblical criticism, it would be better to ignore them completely.”
The way R. Schachter sees it, the content of these books are assur to read. (Either arayos or avoda zara) That is a question of fact. If it is true, and he believes it is, the discussion ends.
Also, this idea isnt unique to R. Schachter or evidence of any rightward tilt in RIETS. R. Lichtenstein has made similar arguments.
Gavi – By a “derech” I mean that they have their own educational philosophies. Some are known for emphasizing interdisciplinary studies, others are known as “great books” institutions. Regarding your other comment I’m not saying that there aren’t cultural issues at secular universities – in fact I wrote about that aspect some time ago. Here I’m mostly addressing the perceived threat of ideas rather than cultural influences.
Jacob – I agree that not everything can go, and referenced the Pluraism Equation to that effect. Academic freedom is not the same as hefkerut but at least have a discussion as to what is and is not assur or have some form of explicit criteria defining the limits and the justification for those limits.
In these areas the topics are just dismissed as “problematic” or “questionable” without any justification or evidence explaining why they might actually be assur. There is no real argument against them and so there cannot be any real defense. I can make a case myself for why simply reading avoda zara is not halakhically problematic or why even certain art pictures might not be considered assur to view. You can think I’m wrong on these issues, but academic freedom would require the case to be heard.
That R. Schachter is advocating his halakhic opinion is fine as well, but the point is that his argument in both content and form is one contradicts the principles of academic freedom – from which he has directly benefited.
I was surprised that the panel discussion (at least as transcribed by the Commentator) did not elaborate much on R. Schachter’s comment that courses covering “certain things from the Gospels” optimally should be taught by “a religious Jew.”
This comment appears to be a restatement of a view I heard a lot about during my time at YU — i.e., that YC ought to function in part as a sort of clinic providing impressionable undergrads with intellectual “inoculation” against potentially dangerous ideas and information by administering them only in carefully controlled (inert?) doses in a “safe” envrionment.
This argument seems to assume that a religious Jew would frame the text/ideas being studied in a way that would render them somehow less dangerous. I see a certain logic to this argument, although one could also argue that if this type of “inoculation” is actually necessary, then it probably needs to precede college by quite a few years.
Okay Josh, let’s hear your comprehensive solution to the problem inherent in a Yeshiva University.
NYU Bobst Tamiment Main Collection HV6535.I75 H43
can’t take it out but you can read it in the library.