Last Sunday I had the opportunity to attend Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s fourth Chag Hasemikha and extend best wishes to all the new musmakhim, especially
roommate Rabbi Yonah. This was the first time I attended a non-Yeshiva University Chag Hasemikha, and throughout the proceedings we could not help but compare the two ceremonies especially having attended my own Chag Hasemikha just last year. What I found particularly striking was the contrasting emphasis and tone of the ceremony, with YU celebrating the institution and YCT highlighting the individuals.
The differences in tone may be partially attributed to simple logistics. It is much easier for YCT individualize all of its musmakhim when there are only nine graduates. On the other hand YU’s last Chag Hasemikha included over 180 musmakhim – over twenty times YCT’s graduating class. Not only does this limit the attending YU can give to its individual graduates, but factoring in friends and family, it would be impossible for YU to emulate YCT’s intimate, personable atmosphere.
Still, the dual symbols of institution and individual were repeated throughout both ceremonies. YU’s four hour plus Chag included honoring contributors to the Yeshiva and multiple speeches on the importance of YU in the Jewish world and our duty as musmakhim to spread the Yeshiva’s message. YCT’s Chag lasted just under two hours in which the musmakhim were commended on their unique abilities and encouraged to share their individuality with the Jewish community.
YCT musmakhim received a personal commendation from one of their educating rabbis, including a formal declaration granting heter hora’ah and rav u’manhig. YU musmakhim shook hands and posed for a picture with R. Lamm, R. Charlop, and President Richard Joel. As a graduating gift YCT musmakhim received a shofar symbolizing the unique voice of each musmakh, YU musmakhim received a sefer of a Soloveitchik’s shiurim (I forget who offhand) in another reinforcement of the tradition of the Yeshiva.
Even the publication material is revealing in that in its program YCT published included a short biography of each musmakh listing their personal, educational and Rabbinic accomplishments, while YU’s nine page program (PDF) neglected to even list the musmakhim’s names, printing instead the RIETS Administration, Board of Trustees, Officers of the Board of Trustees, a listing of RIETS divisions, previous award recipients, and a small advertisement for the Yeshiva University Museum.
What I find particularly interesting in all this is how well the tone of the Chagei Hasemikha reflect the overall attitudes of the respective institutions and their approaches to Jewish leadership. In this dichotomy, YU represents the traditional establishment where participation and benefits are predicated on group affiliation and conformity. For most of the YU population Judaism is based on following the approved status quo and adaptive innovations are generally discouraged. On the other hand, YCT promotes what it calls “Open Orthodoxy,” an empowering slogan allowing for people to independently incorporate the myriad of opinions and possibilities in the broadest definition of “Orthodox Judaism.”
Ten years ago, Eric S. Raymond famously characterized hierarchical corporate software development as a Cathedral and the democratic Open Source model as a Bazaar. While the analogy to YU/YCT is not perfect – YU is not as parochial and YCT is not quite open source Judaism – I do find the comparisons striking not only in terms of the general ideologies, but to the extent in which their ideologies permeate the institutional culture.
not having been to any previous hhag hasemikha at any institution, i wasn’t quite sure what to expect; i did read Labrab’s comparison of last year, and i agree with what both of you said — it’s all about the individuals; their strengths, their accomplishments, their journeys, their futures.
do you think YU could (assuming they wanted to) be more individualistic if they did it every year, instead of lumping four years of musmakhim together?
i also wonder if there’s anything ideologically-positive from YU’s perspective about how they do it; meaning, if you were to show this comparison to someone there, would they say “well, sure it’s institutional, and more individual attention might be good, BUT we do it this way because [of some value]… and therefore our way is better”?
I thought about how the four vs. one year schedule would impact things. YCT doesn’t really have the option of a delayed Chag Hasemikha. They’re new, need the exposure, and just don’t have enough students to warrant delaying every four years. I’m not sure how YU’s system really started, but they do make the point of *not* treating the Chag like a normal graduation. I think this too is representative of the overall mentality where the Institution of Ordination overrides individual accomplishments which you’d find in a graduation.
I should point out however that one of the things I recalled from my Chag was the renewed sense of camaraderie, which was no doubt the result of reconnecting with people after several years. YCT is small enough – even with alumni – that the entire Yeshiva can be considered one big chevra such that reconnecting is not as much of an issue. It will be interesting to see how YCT decides to grow over the years and what affects its growth will have on its culture.
Having read his essays, I’m curious why you are choosing not to take Eric Raymond’s point further when it comes to the future of orthodox Judaism and the rabbinate.
what’s this from, then?
That’s a supplemental PR pamphlet. I think there was some add which listed the names as well, but my point was that there was no mentioning in the actual Chag Hasemikha program.
It’s a YU problem. I thought exactly the same after my (our?) YC graduation: we had a keynote by Rabbi Dr. Lamm, pointless speeches, honorary degrees granted to… (anyone remember?), and minimal mention of or meaningful participation by the undergrads whose graduation it was meant to be. The key to understanding the Lamm-Sokol administration at YU (and I doubt it has changed much) is that everything revolved around glorifying the administration in the eyes of major ($1m+) donors. You and I were just extras in that show.
Actually our BA graduation was more blatant in its institutionalism. Not only did R. Lamm speak, but he did so in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of his own valedictory address when he graduated Yeshiva University. However, the policy of YU at that time denied the valedictorian the right to speak at that very graduation. Not coincidentally, one professor remarked that the 1999 graduation was the worst behaved he’d seen in his tenure.
In fairness, my Chag was the first under Richard Joel (whose son also participated in the Chag) and he wasn’t in there long enough to institute sweeping institutional changes. What will be interesting is how the next Chag will look when he will have had over four years to change the culture.