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My Conversation with YU President Richard Joel

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.

Watch the speech here: YouTube
Read more on the YU Blog


18 Comments
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  • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

    So Richard Joel is passing off TIDE as his new shleimos? sounds about right…

    If you were impressed with RJ you would have really loved Rabbi Lamm

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I love Rabbi Lamm’s writing. My father had a Friday night dinner at his house once. One of his greatest experiences.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509509604 Shlomo Pill

    “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.”

    I find this particularly interesting; it may represent a reconceptualization of the MO hashkafic ideal to something very much akin to TIDE. To me the notion that TuM is not a hashkafa in and of itself, but an approach to dealing with a particular set of issues (the relationship between Torah learning and practice and the methods and conclusions of Western academics), which is only a subset of a larger hashkafa. Hashkafa is weltanshauug – a complete world view; TuM is not that, but properly considered is a valuable tool for answering questions that need to be dealt with by any true hashkafa/weltanshauug.

    I need to think on this, but I sense that the potential in rethinking the role of TuM in this way is really interesting and exciting, perhaps an important philosophical turn that reveals unarticulated but deeply sensed ways in which TuM fails to do what we think it should, and that allows us to think about TuM in a more limited way that allows us to use it to do what is can actually accomplish.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I agree. And I think President Joel was addressing this head-on.

  • hmaryles

    Great interview. I had the same opportunity, but had to pass it up because of time constraints and other commitments. I am a big fan of YU and of President Joel. I think he’s doing a wonderful job. But like you, I wish YU (and Stern) would open up branches in other parts of the world. Like right here in Chicago.

  • http://twitter.com/bukin86 Yitzchak Bukingolts

    ” 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. ” — quite a bold statement for someone so young to make! What is your definition of “engaging the world”??

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Cool your jets, man.

      I have already addressed this several times. Perhaps this is the best formulation: http://finkorswim.com/2011/11/21/there-is-no-tent/

      The idea is that our Torah leaders have ALWAYS been engaged in the outside world unless they were precluded from engagement by persecution.

      Engaging in the world means making a living, understanding God’s world through the lenses or science, history, and sociology, and using every opportunity to make a kiddush Hashem by example to the rest of the world.

      • http://twitter.com/bukin86 Yitzchak Bukingolts

        do you have a source for that definition of understanding Gd’s world or is that something you believe to justify the way you want to live? Why can’t engaging mean seeing Gd’s world only through the lenses of torah and being a normal human being with great middos when needing to interact with the world at large?

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          I have no idea what you are saying.

          • Holy Hyrax

            You know exactly what he is saying. He is basically describing a kollel bochur. That engaging the world is not what the rabbis of old did (i.e. working, learning the sciences, etc etc), but instead what Jews today have discovered it to mean which is doing nothing but sitting in a kollel.

            • MarkSoFla

              @f585888a75facbd65dfcf169b2ef7365:disqus I don’t think @twitter-604379806:disqus is saying that. In fact, he registered for college this very morning!

  • NeilSHarris

    Yes, I think what he is describing, ”
    The new approach is Shleimus, the complete person” is exactly RSRH’s ideal person, the “Mensch-Yisrael” (see Horev).

  • Machshavos

    “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.”

    1. On perception from the right, I think many on the right have more issue with gender-mixing than the stuff he spoke of (quality of Torah study).

    2. About YCT being the new whipping boy of the right, this seems undoubtedly true. One who reads the Yated’s coverage of YCT can see that the Yated is almost building YU up a little bit as it tries ripping YCT down.

  • B. Parnas

    Perhaps a subtle issue facing the community of Yisroel is how to include less intellectually passionate people and lower socioeconomic people in the the Community, tent or no tent. At least, this is an issue in the US. People who cannot afford to live in the affluent areas within walking distance of shuls, people who are not built for professional school, graduate school, or who are not fortunate to have a large income from an entrepreneurial enterprise. People who do not want to live on charity and want to be respected for their hard and honest work, whatever it is, and have access to a welcoming rabbi who actually cares about and understands their lives and the lives or other “common” folk.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Absolutely. People need to find a home within the community. I think Baltimore is particularly good at this. I know my shul in Venice specializes in this as well.

  • MarkSoFla

    He responded that the economic realities are making YU a more attractive option.

    If he really said it this way, then it’s a ridiculous statement. Charedim that want to escape the cycle of poverty that is generally (maybe “often” is a better word, in Israel, it’s definitely “generally”) forced upon them by lack of education, they are hardly likely to turn to YU for a few reasons:
    1. YU is VERY expensive (from their website, about $45k all in).
    2. The environment at YU is not considered wholesome enough (for example, unfiltered Internet access in libraries, etc).
    3. For someone with no useful education at all, a lesser school may be more practical.
    4. There exist more wholesome schools (Lander) that are less expensive to boot.
    5. If they are willing to endure a less wholesome place, they may as well pick something like Queens College or Brooklyn College, both closer to home and less expensive (by a lot).
    6. Going to YU is a sort of validation of what YU stands for.
    7. Going to YU means learning at YU; In their community it is far more preferable to learn by their own people (after all, they still want to teach their own hashkafa, and their own Rabbeim also need the work) and go to college separately (at night exclusively, or with a few day classes mixed in).

  • onlyajew

    I wanted to comment on this issue as a black sheep of a family dug in deep in the Yeshivish world and as a parent of esentially three sons in YU (one in a YU affiliated in Israel 2 in YU in New York). I am very well aware of how the right views YU and for those who want to make the claim that they scoff at YU strictly based on it’s gender laxities, you truly have no idea what you are talking about. Is that a factor of their derision? Certainly so-is it the underlying basis of their disdain? No even close. To be fair, I do think that most of them are just spouting of the gobbly-gook that they recieved from their own Rabbeim who of course knew not what THEY were talking about, but even more to the point, if you ask them, they would argue that the scholarship at YU is inferior. Unbeknownst to them, it could certainly be argued that there are more talmedeii chachomim giving shuir each day under their roof that most any other yeshiva in America. The amount of Torah scholarship that permeates their halls is astounding. That being said, I wanted to address the TuM issue. I do not think what PRJ said is new. I think if you study the writings of the Rav or even listen to his talmidim, the TuM approach has always been Shleymus, but just as the right has/had been hijacked by its mouthy “chassidim” who misrepresent what their haskafa is actually about, so to has TuM been hijacked by those who misrepresent its core philosophy and values. It is quite clear that when most people think of the term “modern orthodox” it has been represented to mean ‘less orthodox” and nothing could be further from the truth. However, what has been represented in teh culuture at large is a de-emphasizing of Torah Study and religious practice and therein lies the rub. Shleymous has always been the goal, it has just needed some repackaging and I hope that as more students of YU become more prominent in the Torah world (being that they are getting most of the Rabbi jobs available due to their preparedness for today’s world) that idea will change in time. I do not believe the yeshivish world can ever acknowledge the YU paradigm as an alternative to their current structure simply because it would be an acknowledgement of their own failure to prepare the majority of their students for life after Yeshiva.

    • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

      > I do not believe the yeshivish world can ever acknowledge the YU
      paradigm as an alternative to their current structure simply because it would
      be an acknowledgement of their own failure to prepare the majority of their
      students for life after Yeshiva.

      Close. The
      yeshivish world can ever acknowledge the YU paradigm as an alternative to their
      current structure simply because it would be conceding that would be acceptable
      for the majority of their students to have a life after Yeshiva. (As
      opposed to the current ideal of life-long kollel.)