Keep YU Discourse Open

Promoting an honest and open Modern Orthodoxy 


Yeshiva University is no longer a place for open conversation about Judaism, despite its being the largest Jewish college in the country. According to an article in the Jewish Star, four YU senior officers cancelled a student-organized lecture last month because it featured Rabbi Ethan Tucker, one of the heads of the egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar in New York and an active proponent of gender equality in Judaism—stances that conflict with YU’s policies.


According to the Star, YU’s administration opposed the event on the grounds that the school is “Centrist Orthodox” and would not host clergy from different denominations. Leaders of the student group Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understandings, which organized the event, countered that the administration was being inconsistent because far-right Orthodox speakers had lectured at the school.


Whether the administration is abiding by its own rule is beside the point. The larger problem here is that such a rule exists at all. YU students are adults, and should be able to conduct discussion on their own terms–especially about issues of Jewish law and philosophy. These students engage with issues confronting the Modern Orthodox world on a daily basis, from gender equality to the place of homosexuals in the community. It would be unfair to their intellectual development and counterproductive to YU’s goals if the school means to educate a group of students committed to honest engagement with Jewish tradition and the Jewish world.




IT wasn’t always this way. Yeshiva University’s students, in recent years, have been at the forefront of the discourse on the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. In 2008, YU students formed a “Tolerance Club” that serves in part as a support group for gay students, and last year hosted a panel on “Being Gay at Yeshiva University.” YU alumni have acted as leaders of Jewish Queer Youth, a New York-based organization for queer Orthodox Jews.


These actions made YU the central forum for an important conversation going on in the Jewish world, and it was to the school’s credit that one of its administrators moderated the panel on Orthodox homosexuals. Unfortunately, due to the enforcement of this policy to host only “Centrist Orthodox” speakers, YU can no longer serve as that forum. 


This is bad for Jewish discourse in general and YU in particular for two reasons. First, because of this rule YU can no longer live up to its billing as an institution of Modern Orthodoxy. A defining feature of Modern Orthodoxy—and supposedly a central tenet of YU’s mission—is the interaction of Torah U’Madda, translated literally as “Torah and Science,” This principle urges that Modern Orthodox Jews live in and engage both the religious and secular worldsForbidding students from discussing religiously controversial issues will render them unable to confront important parts of the contemporary secular world–including but certainly not limited to feminism and gender equality. 


Even worse, this policy prevents these students from reaching their potential as Torah scholars. Rigorous questioning is the defining feature of Jewish textual study and Jewish tradition has always encouraged—even demanded—philosophical discussion. Such questioning appears throughout the Bible and makes up much of the text of the Talmud, and often involves serious challenges to our basic beliefs and practices. With this policy, the YU administration denies students that tradition. They may read and debate the legalistic arguments set forth in the tractates of the Talmud, but they face limits in honestly confronting the issues of their own day. Modern Orthodoxy may have answers to many of the challenges posed by other Jewish denominations and philosophies, but with this policy YU is forbidding students even from asking the questions.


YU may be attempting to keep its students in the bubble of what it calls “Centrist Orthodoxy,” but sooner or later students who want to know more about the rest of the Jewish community will leave that space. Intellectually curious Jews, whether students or not, will seek out challenging conversations about Judaism and will confront ideas not compatible with what they learned in yeshiva. YU has the chance to allow students to wrestle with those ideas in a familiar setting, encouraging their academic growth and fostering an honest Modern Orthodoxy. As it is, however, the administration’s policy on outside speakers stunts the intellectual growth of its students and fails to encourage thoughtful Jewish discourse.

One Older Response to “Keep YU Discourse Open”

  1. m
    December 1, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    It would be interesting to know who the YU officials were. They should not be allowed to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

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