Being far removed from my alma mater, it is difficult for me to truly have a sense of what happens on campus anymore and second-hand reports fail to adequately capture the full zeitgeist of the community. The most recent controversy around Yeshiva University involves a forum on “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” and the expected. The topic of homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism has long been a controversial issue, one which we discussed years ago in “Lonely Men of Faith, but it is still considered taboo in certain Orthodox circles. Case in point, following said forum R. Meir Twersky responded with a public diatribe lambasting the entire event and its participants. This forum and the aftermath are helpfully recounted in great detail on Curious Jew’s blog. Since I did not attend the event nor did I hear R. Twersky’s statements firsthand I will not address either specifically. However, that such a controversy exists demonstrates that even after 123 YU is still struggling with its own identity as a “Yeshiva”, “University”, and a representative if not champion for “Modern Orthodoxy.”
The issue at hand is of course determining the boundaries for acceptable discourse. Engaging in academic discussions often necessitates challenging established religious assumptions and conventions. For one example, biblical criticism assumes the bible was authored by men whereas the entire religion of Judaism is dependent on the premise of divine authorship. In a Yeshiva setting, such academic questions or assumptions could not be admitted into any discussion.
But the world of academia is no less insulated from its own ideological dogmatism. A 2007 documentary Indoctrinate U describes the intimidation and suppression of views not in line with the prevailing (typically liberal) politics of the day. (This movie is worth watching in its entirety – Part 1 begins here). Even the “hard sciences” are not immune. The recent “climategate” scandal exposed bias and data manipulation in the debate over climate change – where opposition had been derided as “climate change skeptics“.
And of course if Yeshiva University aims to define or even represent Modern Orthodoxy, then it must consider the world beyond both the ivory towers of academia and the hallowed walls of the beit midrash. Given the diverse range of ideologies within global Orthodoxy, this alone appears to be a near impossible task.
Thus the real challenge for Yeshiva University is therefore not merely one of “academic freedom” but one of self-identity. This question is clearly not simply academic (no pun intended here), but rather it would define the boundaries for appropriate discourse on campus. A discussion on “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” – would certainly fall within the academic and cultural worlds, even if rejected by the Yeshiva. Ironically, YU had officially cited “ academic freedom” to justify statements by roshei yeshiva for making statements tolerable in the yeshiva, but inexcusable in academia or parts of the Orthodox world.
If YU does not wish to pigeonhole itself by any of the above definitions, then perhaps there is an alternative solution – the expansion of discourse in all spheres. Instead of repeatedly engaging in the same arguments of what may be spoken and who has the right to speak, but provide a forum and environment for where even diametrically opposing viewpoints may be discussed, debated, and defended civilly on the merits of one’s argument.
I suggest that such an intellectual culture would ultimately improve the Yeshiva, the University, and of course, Yeshiva University.