Reflections on a Godless Yeshiva

“I’m not going to Yeshiva University to learn Gemara.” Four and a half years ago, I spoke these words to Rabbi Ezra Schwartz as he asked me which shiur I would like to attend in Yeshiva University’s Mazer Yeshiva Program. 

I didn’t say these words because I hated Gemara; I enjoyed my days in the Beit Medrash of Kerem B’Yavneh, I loved my shiur, and I loved my chavrutas. I said this because Talmud study seemed empty to me, because out of all the possible candidates for the gift of God and purpose for existence, legal texts seemed the most unlikely, if only because they wear their meaning on their sleeves. But I also knew that Yeshiva University had a strong focus on “Jewish Studies” that extended far beyond Talmud, and I had much to learn in that vein. I wished to learn arguments for God’s existence that went beyond the vacuous “proofs” of Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery™” seminar, understand theological perspectives on Jewish History and Jewish Philosophy, and consider either arguments against the Documentary Hypothesis or approaches to reconciling Judaism with a composite text. I didn’t want to “know what to answer to the apikores”; I wanted to know how to respond to the voice within myself, the voice that every man should possess, that demands to know whether he is doing the right thing. That I never saw these issues adequately addressed in a Yeshiva University setting and that I repeatedly had to explain my motives to its administrators should amply demonstrate my lack of success.

My bechina with Rabbi Schwartz ended badly. That isn’t to say I performed poorly on his Gemara test; there was barely a test at all, as Rabbi Schwartz seemed to have predetermined that I could attend any shiur I wished. It went badly in that I allowed myself to be convinced that I was best off attending any shiur in the morning at all. We justified this on the grounds that a shiur focused on halacha might tell me something about the nature of psak that, while not a core issue, interested me, and on the premise that I’d be better off learning Bible in the afternoon anyways. Upon arriving at YU, I quickly found out that Rabbi Willig’s shiur was the same type of blatt shiur I had attended for the past six years, and I decided to find another program of study. I spoke to Roshei Yeshiva, Bible professors, administrators and the incoming dean of RIETS, and all matter-of-factly informed me that there was nothing for me to learn at IBC and that Yeshiva University had no place for a strong student who wanted to learn something besides Gemara.

To be fair, it’s not as if Isaac Breuer College could ever have offered me what I was looking for. I cared about the “metas” of Judaism, not merely its details. I didn’t want to learn about the content of a given Talmudic discussion but about the details behind it. What significance did the sages ascribe to the biblical texts they cited in support of their positions? To what extent were they bound to tradition and where did they innovate? Did they amend the Mishnah based on legitimate textual differences or simply as a “deus ex machina” when their positions were otherwise rendered untenable by the existing system? I didn’t care about the content of halachic works as much as I cared about what went into them. Did the authors defer to authority and did the system itself require that deference? How innovative was the system and how well grounded? I obviously cared about who wrote the books of the Bible, their backgrounds, motivations and intentions. Most of all, I cared about Jewish philosophy: not about the specific thought of any flawed Jewish thinker, but whether anything could be salvaged from those thoughts, and whether any coherent Jewish philosophy existed. And I cared about whether any God existed to give those questions meaning.

A few Rabbis tried to help me accomplish my goals while in YU. One Rosh Yeshiva was most accommodating. He allowed me to remain enrolled in his shiur while pursuing my own program of study, provided I took an occasional test on Gemara bekiut. When my ideas had run out, and I could no longer offer a coherent plan, he reluctantly proffered another suggestion, one I later received from Dean Rabbi Yona Reiss: Switch to “Rabbi X’s” shiur. Rabbi X’s shiur, I quickly learned, functioned as an “Ir Miklat” (City of Refuge) for students who wished to hide from the morning programs and their requirements. I never sought that specific refuge; a student with basic Talmud skills can sail through any number of shiurim with minimal effort, and I chose one that fit my schedule (it turns out that this approach is regrettably quite popular). But nothing hurt me so much as the suggestion that, having come to YU solely because I cared about Judaism and Jewish learning, that I should spend the time devoted to Judaism hiding from the gaze of the administration.

(As an aside, there is no greater insult to a rabbi or professor than to attend a class and make it clear by your actions or attitude that you have no interest in the material being taught. By contrast, I have audited many classes in Yeshiva University, and I cannot recall a professor who wasn’t delighted to have another engaged student in his or her class. I deeply regret whatever pain I may have caused my Rebbi of the last two years, but I regret even more the perpetuation of this system that pushed me to whittle away hours of every morning on something in which I could find no meaning, when I had so much to learn.)

I could never come to grips with the apathy I felt at Yeshiva, from students and rabbis, about the many questions I expected them to grapple with: the question of God foremost, but also questions about the Bible, about Midrash, Talmud, Halacha and Minhagim. How could they consider themselves religious people when they lived with their heads in the ground? A friend suggested that this was not truly apathy; many people simply never think to question their beliefs. I can best respond with an allegory.

There once was a child, riding upon his father’s shoulders. Whenever the child asked for something, it was handed up to him. Finally he came upon a stranger and asked him, “Have you seen my father?” There is more to this parable, cited by Rashi in Exodus, but this is enough for our purposes.

This parable was originally taught about the generation of Hebrews who wandered through the wilderness, but it seems far more appropriate when applied to the present day. The child bumped along, enjoying all manners of sweets but never knowing where they were coming from. Likewise, we, who have never directly encountered God, behold a world around us, perfect or imperfect, ideally suited for life or merely sufficiently suited for it, and cannot but marvel at its complexity. Even were we such polymaths that we could understand all of existence from a few fundamental laws and the Big Bang, we would still have to wonder at the source of those constants, like the child on his father’s shoulders.

However, the conclusion of the story is even more profound, and more damning for those who have never questioned whether their god is real. The boy, floating in the air and receiving his every desire, does not ask where his food is coming from or what is carrying him. He has a more pressing question on his mind: “Where is my father?” What possible problem could distract a child searching for his parents? What force could stop a worried mother from searching for her son? And, to complete the analogy, what could stop a religious person from searching for the Alpha and Omega of his existence? We recite twice a day that “you shall love the Lord your god with all your mind, soul and wealth.” Where is that love when we refuse to even look for God? Where are those minds? If I can expect this curiosity from even the smallest child, why shouldn’t I expect of it of college students and rabbis?

If there are any minds among the Yeshiva University faculty that have dared to seek out God, those were the minds of its professors, not its rabbis. I recall attending an honors luncheon featuring a highly educated Rosh Yeshiva discussing Torah U-Madda. At the end of the talk, the Honors program director, Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, quoted a physicist saying that it is easy to be a theist and easy to be an atheist, because each can be complacent in thinking that they “knowing” the truth, but the agnostic must constantly struggle to weigh the t the many forms of evidence for and against God’s existence. I expected the rabbi to lash out in response.

“How dare you,” I expected him to exclaim, “insinuate that we do not worry whether there is a God? Are we so arrogant as to imagine that we have certain knowledge of a truth that has escaped seven billion, saints and geniuses among them? Or are we simply so apathetic that we don’t care whether God exists?” But instead he simply acknowledged Professor Cwilich’s point and went on to list some of the mundane questions that did bother him. I realized then that if there was one person standing before me worth calling a man of God, it was Gabriel Cwilich, physicist and thinker, not the Rosh Yeshiva.

Every department in Yeshiva College has its thinkers, Jewish Studies no less so than any other. But its professors are muzzled. Bible professors cannot even engage in serious discussion of the Bible’s composition, let alone its consistency or supposed value. I can name one member of Yeshiva’s faculty who I might consider a theologian, who teaches philosophy and a variant of the Ontological Argument for God, but YU cannot simply be Yeshivat Rabbeinu David Johnson.

So what then? It is time for Yeshiva to seek out those students who have arranged with their Roshei Yeshiva to skip shiur (or better, that they should raise their own voices) and find out what they were looking for when they came to Yeshiva University. It is time to go to every student who attends his program only because he has no alternatives and find out what he was hoping to learn. And when the Yeshiva finally comes to understand that many students care about more than dry Talmud study and have no interest in fulfilling the Jewish Studies core in the morning by taking its weakest courses, it will adapt. It will not stop teaching Talmud but it will finally begin to teach Judaism as well.

In recent years we have seen some strides in the effort to bring religion to Yeshiva University. Four years ago, Yeshiva students started a magazine of Jewish thought, which on occasion included Jewish philosophy and theology. But the hand of the censor, in the guise of the administration and worried editors, made it increasingly difficult to publish thoughtful pieces in that forum, and the project has recently faltered. And now we have this Beacon, free of the censor, publishing Jesse Shore’s impassioned plea for rationality and Doni Weiner’s exploration of theodicy by means of putting God on trial. I’ve been impressed by the willingness of the Beacon to explore difficult issues and I hope it succeeds as “a voice crying in the wilderness. ‘Open a path for God!’”

However, periodicals alone cannot transform Yeshiva University and the world it impacts. The students themselves must do so by refusing to simply move from one failed program to another, by refusing to accept a simple exemption from shiur, and by refusing to live with the status quo. They must insist that the study of Judaism is Torah, and that they need to learn. The administration, in turn, must heed the voices of the students who are truly passionate about Judaism, and work to further their passion and their learning (preferably by breaking down the barriers between the various Jewish Studies programs, putting their Rabbonim and professors to their best use, and filling in what gaps still exist). Over a hundred years ago, the students of RIETS demanded classes in English and public speaking so that they could teach their congregants and the common man. It’s long past time that we gave them and every student to enter the walls of Yeshiva University the material to teach, the ability to answer questions, and the sophistication to do so properly.