Even though I did not attend the school, if there is one institution that most reflects my worldview, it is Yeshiva University (YU). While our Hashkafos may not be identical, YU’s Hashkafos are by far the closest to my own. Not that there aren’t some problems at YU. There are. No institution is ideal. Not YU and not BMG (Lakewood). Although their problems are certainly not the same — they all have problems that need to be overcome. But that is beyond the scope of this post.
The reason YU is my Hashkafic home is because it stands for Torah U’Madda. Which in a very general sense means that they support and value both the study of Torah and of worldly knowledge — placing the greater importance on Torah.
To illustrate this fact, I was recently told of an anecdote about YU”s president, Richard Joel. He was a scholar-in-residence one Shabbos in a popular West Rogers Park Shul in Chicago. A while back — the Lakewood trained Rav, there, Rabbi Zev Cohen coined the phrase ‘Torah is the Ikkar’ — meaning that the main thing (in life) is Torah. He repeats that phrase to his congregants at every opportunity.
Having been informed of this, Richard Joel began one of his addresses that Shabbos with the following line. ‘In YU we have a saying, ‘Torah is the Ikkar’. That drew a bit of approving laughter. The point, obviously, is that at YU, Torah is indeed the Ikkar. But Mada is a not too distant second which is to be valued and studied. That is indeed YU’s motto. And it is mine.
Richard Joel has recently announced his retirement. It will be taking effect at the end of his current term in 2018.
So the speculation begins. Who will replace him? Joel’s tenure has not been without controversy. He was chosen despite the fact that he was not as learned in Torah as his predecessors. There was a lot of criticism about that at the time. But the YU board felt that they needed someone at the helm that could raise money. They believed Richard Joel was that man. When he took office. YU was in the black. They had a surplus of funds.
That was due to Joel’s immediate predecessor, Dr. Norman Lamm who took over a deficit budget and turned it into a surplus. Dr. Lamm’s Torah credentials and academic credentials were equally impressive. He had written many essays and books on Torah and on Jewish thought. It was his work on Torah U’Madda that actually crystallized my own views on the matter. Although there was some controversy during his tenure including some disagreements with Rav Soloveitchik, I believe he was the last great leader of YU.
Richard Joel has not fared so well. His trust in Bernie Madoff cost YU tens of millions of dollars. YU went from a surplus to a deficit under his tenure. I’m not sure he can be entirely blamed for that. A lot of wealthy investors trusted Madoff and lost all of their money. But the fact is that it was under his watch that it happened. So bad is their financial situation that they had to sell off their prestigious Einstein Medical School.
So… who should the board now turn to?
Before I get into that, it is important to recognize some realities about Modern Orthodoxy. There was a time where YU hosted the entire spectrum of the Modern Orhtodox world. One could find in their faculty Rabbis Joseph and Ahron Soloveitchik; Aaron Rakeffet; Aharon Lichtenstein; Hershel Shachter as well as Rabbis Saul Berman and Avi Weiss.
But when Rabbi Weiss left to found Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), that changed things. He felt that YU had moved to far to the right which he believed was hampering Modern Orthodoxy’s appeal to the left. Now there is a split. YCT represents the left and his newly minted denomination, Open Orthodoxy (OO). YU by default is now basically a Centrist Yeshiva. I lament the fact that this happened. But it has and there is no turning back.
With YCT representing the left, YU must represent the center. Richard Joel has been true to YU’s identity and has courageously stood with the RCA in its views on OO and YCT.
Now… back to who should replace Richard Joel. In my view, it has to be someone that represent the values of Centrist Orthodoxy. It should be someone that has credentials in both Torah and Madda. And last but not least — someone with the ability to raise money. Lots of it. I want to see YU flourish. The only way that is going to happen is if they get someone with all 3 credentials.
An article in Tablet Magazine by Yair Rosenberg suggested a few names. Two of them resonated with me. One was my good friend and former Chicagoan, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. He is Rav Ahron’s grandson and he certainly fills the first 2 qualifications and perhaps even the 3rd. My only reservation with him is his relative youth and inexperience as a leader. He has that potential. But I don’t think he’s there yet. Perhaps a future term. Besides, I think he is better suited for another role at YU as successor to his great uncle, Rav Soloveitchik. He is not of course in that league. But I do think he is in the best position to eventually assume that kind of leadership role.
That leaves Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I believe that he is the man for the job — even at age 67. His Hashkafos are Centrist and he has the same kind of Torah U’Madda credentials as did Dr. Lamm. He will lend the kind of prestige to YU that it hasn’t had in a long time. It is therefore my belief that he will be able to generate the funds YU so desperately needs.
Unfortunately,as Yair Rosenberg notes, he probably doesn’t want the job. But if I were a member of the YU board, I would do whatever it takes to get him. Whatever it costs them will be more than made up by the prestige and leadership Lord Sacks would provide.