YU’s Religious Identity: A Model for our Communities

There has been much discussion of late about whether YU is an institution with one unified set of values, and if so, who gets to decide precisely what that is?  There are many stakeholders and thought leaders, and while they agree on much, there are certainly issues on which they disagree.  My son is a semicha student at YU and he told me that a friend told him that YU doesn’t really stand for core values.

Do the YU Roshei Yeshiva and administration truly agree about a unified vision of YU?  What are the values of the institution?  Does it stand for Torah U’Madda?  Well, then, why do so many students enroll at the Sy Syms School of Business where their liberal arts education is so limited?  Do all or a majority of the Roshei Yeshiva truly stand for Torah U’Madda, and if so, what does that look like for them?  There are some Roshei Yeshiva at YU who do not seem to subscribe to the values of Torah U’Madda.  Do all or a majority of the Roshei Yeshiva recite Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut?  Do they treat this as a holiday?  What is YU’s view of the state of Israel?  YU seems to be a faceless institution without an identity and everyone who attends YU takes what he or she wants from it, but it doesn’t stand for any core values because there is so much debate and division within the institution.

This is an important question, not just because I am a proud alumnus of YU and I care very deeply about YU as the flagship institution of the modern orthodox community, but it is an important question for our communities, as well.  My son and I discussed this question extensively, and the following is how we approach this question.

We believe that YU does try to articulate a hashkafa, or a set of core values.  During his 2017 investiture speech, President Ari Berman articulated five core Torah values of Yeshiva University, what he termed the “Five Torot.”  Additionally, President Berman recently wrote a book which currently is in draft form, entitled, “A Life of Faith, Meaning and Purpose:  Nineteen Letters to our Students.”  This book also articulates YU’s core Torah values.  The challenge with articulated Torah values in YU is the tension between the administration and the Roshei Yeshiva.  President Berman is a first-rate talmid chacham and he excels in communicating values to the broader world.

However, President Berman is not viewed as the spiritual leader of the YU community as are some of the Roshei Yeshiva.  As such, there is no consensus around his articulated philosophy in the same way as if some of the Roshei Yeshiva would articulate a similar philosophy.  It is a tension that YU has lived with in the past and will continue to live with.  Perfection is the enemy of the good and we should be proud of the attempts at articulating a YU-vision and constantly evaluating, applying and re-evaluating and re-applying the vision as new situations emerge.  This is what Chazal mean when they say that Torah is not a museum piece but it is “divrei Elokim chayim” – the living words of God.  We constantly engage the world and evaluate and sharpen our understanding of Torah as new situations arise.

Additionally, we wouldn’t say that YU has no identity because there are different Roshei Yeshiva with different viewpoints who may not agree with some aspects of some of President Berman’s articulated core values.  YU does have an identity, an identity that centers around core values that President Berman and other Roshei Yeshiva have articulated, around embracing the world in all of its complexity through the prism of Torah, around religious Zionism and around Torah U’Madda.  Additionally, YU’s unique identity is that it provides the opportunity for every student to engage in those aspects of its values that most resonate with that student.  Due to limitations of time, it may be challenging for most students to deeply engage in every aspect of YU’s vision. As such, some YU Roshei Yeshiva may advocate limiting advanced secular studies courses in favor of more Torah study while other Roshei Yeshiva may disagree.

Therefore, some students may pursue an intensive liberal arts education while other students may study about how to engage the business world through the prism of Torah.  Additionally, for some students, social justice projects may resonate with them whereas for other students a kumsitz and the study of Kabbalistic literature may resonate with them.  What’s so beautiful about this identity is that it is one where, yes, we have red lines, but it is also one where we recognize the diversity of humanity and the diversity of different Torah perspectives and we celebrate that diversity under one roof.   We can articulate our core values and at the same time make allowance for those who may not think like us but want to live in the vibrant educational and religiously engaging culture of our institution.  I may recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut and you may not recite Hallel then and I believe that I am correct but I still respect you and your halachic position even if I believe that you are incorrect.

I actually think that this complicated, confusing, hard to articulate identity can be somewhat of a recipe for our shul communities.  A major difference between a shul community and YU is that a shul generally has one spiritual leader and YU has many different spiritual leaders so it is easier in some sense to articulate a singular vision in a shul community than in YU.  However, I think that there is beauty in diversity.  There is beauty in having a shul community that articulates visions and values but includes others who may disagree with certain core values and yet still want to be part of that shul community.  May we all strive to articulate our values but celebrate those who thoughtfully may disagree with us but still wish to be part of our religious community.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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