Contrary to popular belief, I did not attend Yeshiva University. I’ve only been there four times in my life. Once for a concert, twice for a video job, and once for the Seforim Sale in 2001 (I bought a Tzidkas HaTzadik and a fancy Mesillas Yesharim). But as I have evolved through my adult years, I have come to learn that I share a considerable amount with YU in many respects.
This is not entirely surprising as the Yeshivas that I attended are not that far off from YU in terms of their overall worldview. With the recent shifts to the right across orthodox Judaism, YU is now very near the style of Judaism in which I was raised.
I was offered the opportunity to interview President Joel as a follow up to his State of the University address which was masterfully delivered at YU last night. President Joel is even better on the phone than he is behind the podium and I really enjoyed our conversation. We discussed a variety of topics that are of interest to the readers of this blog and while I didn’t transcribe every word of our conversation, I did take notes. What follows is a synopsis of the more compelling parts of our conversation.
What jumped out at me during the State of the University Address was President Joel’s use of the term Modern Orthodox L’Chatchila. I too have discussed this topic and am a firm believer that the most perfect Jew is one who is passionate about Torah and scholarship in Torah while being engaged in the outside world. In our conversation, President Joel expanded on this by explaining that Torah U’Mada can be a very sterile approach. The new approach is Shleimus, the complete person. The idea is that Torah is not supposed to be practiced in an Ir Miklat (city of refuge), it is supposed to be a launching pad. While Torah U’Mada is part of that philosophy, it became associated with certain apologetics. The modified approach is that Torah U’Mada is an aspiration, not one specific approach for those who can’t hack more insular versions of orthodoxy.
This relates to the idea of the Big Tent that President Joel spoke of. There has to be a place for as many people as possible to fit under the tent. In his words, Jews are better at division than multiplication. It’s a cute line, but also rings true. Although, in my opinion There is No Tent.
We also discussed the basic dichotomy of insularity vs. engagement. President Joel echoed my thoughts when he described the history of Ashkenazi Jewry. We didn’t have the option of engagement for most of those years. Our ideal was simply to survive. Survival meant physical and spiritual survival. But President Joel said that the Torah wants us to thrive, not merely survive. Thriving means to engage. There are risks to engagement. The tightrope is difficult to walk. But the view from that tightrope is supremely grand. He compared it to the seven branched menorah with the six lights on the sides pointing toward the middle.
President Joel acknowledged that there are people who leave modern Orthodoxy just like there are people who leave more insular groups. It’s not a solution as much as an alternative. But the main factors according to President Joel are not philosophy or worldview. The main factors are the home, education, and as he puts it – mazel. In many respects, society is antithetical to Torah and its values. We need passion and intellectual Judaism to survive that threat.
I told President Joel that even where I come from, the leftmost edge of the yeshiva world, YU is usually a topic of derision. I asked President Joel if he had a message for those on the right that look askance at YU. He began his response by making it very clear that they have respect for the entire Jewish community. To the right and to the left. He invited anyone to come to the Beis Medrash and see that it is comparable to any great yeshiva throughout the world. He said you’ll find 600 guys learning lishma at night seder. The Roshei Yeshiva are all very significant Torah scholars. They also have degrees. 60% have Masters and 20% have a Ph.D. He volunteered that they don’t treat Gemara like a college course. Torah is Torah and it is primary. He offered anyone who wants to see it in person to come and wear a mask if they want. But they will see that despite some hashkafic differences, YU is mehadrin when it comes to commitment to Torah learning.
My follow up question was whether YU was doing or considering doing “kiruv” on the charedim to try and engage charedim and bring more charedim to YU. He responded that the economic realities are making YU a more attractive option. People need to earn a living now more than ever before and YU gives young people a chance to continue their learning and lay the foundation for a parnassah. Additionally, YUTorah.org gets 75,000 hits a month. Whenever he meets charedim people tell him they love YUTorah.org. Through Torah there is more of a connection than ever before. To borrow a term, YUTorah.org is like the YU Trojan Horse into the charedi world. President Joel is in contact with charedi leaders but he gets the sense that there is not much interest on their part. But he noted that there are fewer attacks against YU these days. I think that might have to do with the new charedi whipping boy YCT. But President Joel ended this part of our conversation by reiterating that he really believes Eilu v’Eilu applies here. He would love for recruitment to go to more charedi high schools and they have started to do that a little bit. The big tent includes the right and the left.
Our last two topics were more specific. I asked President Joel about Orthopraxy and those leaving Chasidic Judaism. First Orthopraxy. President Joel was very familiar with the phenomenon but began by saying that Orthopraxy is better than nothing. Mitoch shelo lishma, bah lishmah. He believes that the Education School is dealing with this on a broad scale. Passionless Judaism is a huge challenge. But he felt that there is plenty of passion at YU. President Joel led the first night of slichos with 1000 people in attendance. When he began with Ashrei Yoshvei Veisecha, the roar of the people joining him in prayer was very inspiring. There is a richness of passion at YU and he believes that this is helpful in avoiding Orthopraxy. But in the end, Judaism is more about deed than creed and the primary concern is with mitzvah not emunah. Certainly Judaism cannot be transmitted without spirituality and God, it must be linked with the Divine to thrive, but our focus is on action, not belief. But there is very little that is specifically targeting Orthopraxy and Atheism at YU and President Joel said the point was well taken and perhaps should be addressed more directly.
Finally we got to the ex-Chasids. I told him about my friends in real life and online that left chasidic Judaism. For a lot them, the Chasidic world was a very fragile bubble and once that bubble burst, the only place to go was out. Out meant, out of orthodox Judaism entirely. Personally, I think that many ex-Chasids would be very happy and very successful modern Orthodox Jews. But there is no track from Chasidic insularity to YU. I asked if YU could somehow market itself as an attractive alternative to insular life in the Chasidic world and perhaps provide a soft landing for ex-Chasids. He agreed that this was a great idea, but said that there is nothing like that happening right now. He did say that when Dr. Pelcovitz speaks to charedim and chasidic Jews he always says that he is a professor at YU. The idea is to present YU to them in a way that they may acknowledge its existence positively. This is a tiny step, but an important one. Professor Joel invited me to email him about this idea and discuss it further. I look forward to that opportunity and hope to make good on my suggestion in Can Judaism Survive the Internet?.
I had a wonderful time talking with President Joel and I hope to continue our conversation in the future. Thank you President Joel for your time and the opportunity to get to know YU on a personal level.