Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Shackled Minds and Jewish Studies

I read Jeremy Stern's latest article in The Commentator, entitled "Sexism and Jewish Studies," with great interest.

His point? Yeshiva University appears to have expanded its academic approach to the Bible, utilizing modern sources, contemporary scholars, source criticism and biblical criticism. Stern, on the other hand, appears to be lagging behind, advocating for the traditional approach of utilizing medieval scholarly commentaries to the exclusion of more modern techniques.

He writes:

    It is time for Stern - its students and its administrators - to realize that the traditional study of Jewish texts does contend with other academic pursuits such as psychology or English literature. Rabbi Dr. Efraim Kanarfogel, who chairs the Stern Jewish Studies department and is a well respected academic and an exemplar of Torah u-Madda, has recently promoted more rigorous course offerings. However, it seems that other university administrators who impact Stern's academic nature have yet to realize this critical distinction, holding the women's college back from proceeding to greater heights.

    The Stern student body has been complacently silent on this issue. It is time for them to speak up, because it is they, first and foremost, who are losing out. The administration's inaction to advance Stern's academic Jewish Studies gives the women of Stern no right to follow submissively.

Ah! How I agree with him.

However, I think he may have an overly rosy view of what my fellow Stern students desire out of their education.

It is my unfortunate belief that many Stern students, perhaps even the majority of them, do not want a rigorous academic approach to the Bible.

I believe that they find the idea of such an approach to be scary. It is frightening; it borders upon heresy. It leads into the unknown. Perhaps they'll end up abandoning God. Perhaps they'll end up doubting ideas that were at one point firmly established in their minds, pounded there by ever-determined teachers. Perhaps they'll end up...thinking?

I find myself in a very strange position at Stern. On the one hand, I enjoy Judaic Studies enough to be able to be part of the more right-wing group, the ones who are knowledgeable in different textual sources and commentaries. On the other hand, my approach to life allows me to attend movies or read books that frighten or disturb members of that sect, which means I can at times cross over to the left-wing group. At this point in time, I have been fortunate to meet four or five others in a similar position to myself, but I do not think it is the norm. I may be mistaken. In fact, I hope to be mistaken.

The few courses that we have now come under attack, and Jeremy hopes to allow more of them? Dr. David Shatz taught a philosophy course in Science and Religion, I believe (not the one he's teaching this semester, but formerly), and apparently caused much outrage. I hear English class being referred to as Avodah Zara class. I hear people yammer on and on about the kefirah in their psychology class. And I notice that even in Rabbi Mordechai Cohen's Honors class, where he brilliantly presents the advantages to understanding source criticism, citing Rabbi Mordechai Breuer's approach, not everyone is enamored...

First comes understanding, and then comes desire. Before my fellow students could ever desire such courses, they would need to understand why they are not wrong or problematic, which means that one would have to make a speech, or give a course, proving that idea from the medieval sources that they trust. This is how all persuasion works with such people: one must prove this from the sources they do accept. Once one has successfully accomplished that, perhaps then we can get to the point where people want the more advanced, thought-provoking courses. I do not think the Stern student body has been "complacently silent" so much as the right-wing students do not want such courses, while the left-wing students do not much care, as their purpose here is generally not (although sometimes it is) to pursue academic Biblical studies.

Everyone is imprisoned by their mind-forged manacles, to cite Blake. We simply do not all share the same prison...or perhaps we have been lucky enough, or have been aided by others, in breaking the chains that bind us. The issue at hand is not one of sexism so much as freeing the mind. Once one has accomplished that, perhaps we can then advance the Judaic Studies department, allowing people to feel unthreatened by the worlds of interpretation open to us through assorted biblical scholars, or even through reading the text as one would literature. These approaches, novel as they may be to some, can aid us- if we are able to let them.


Anonymous said...

Jeremy Stern and all of the others must realize that for the vast majority of frum people who care about Torah, the reason that they care so much about learning Torah is because they want to make a connection with Hashem. Cutting edge academic findings based on rigorous scholarly method, while not (in my opinion) inherently heretical or inimical to this, simply will not fulfill the religious and spiritual needs of the Torah-driven oilam.

How many frum Jews are pursuing the highest levels of academic Judaic studies? How many graduates does revel prduce? Very few. Simply put, you can make a big case that Torah for its spiritual value is necessary for every jewish individual, but you'd have to struggle harder to make a case that the academia of Judaic studies is equally relevent.

I say this after having taken advanced-level academic Judaic studies classes at Stern. I read academic Jewish studies articles and blogs. I find it all interesting.

But I can see how the people who choose to study that which is more religiously significant--and to study in the tried-and-true methods of the olam haTorah through the centuries--are not really missing out on anything essential. Hey, not everyone in the world is going to study academic history or literature or linguistics.

Does academic Judaic studies have a level of importance above these subjects? Is it inherently limudei kodesh?

Marc said...

would either of you care to subimt your comments as opinion pieces in the next issue of commie? I think both of your perspectives are highly valuable and truly reflect the core divide over the issue.

If interested feel free to contact me:

As a side point, while I sympathize with Jackies approach such talmud torah while admirable does not deserve a degree. Such learning should be encouraged, in your new beit midrash especially (eventually), but this time does not translate into credit hours.

Jeremy said...

Chana, thanks for taking up my column in your blog. I feel truly honored.

As I mentioned in the article, the YC JS department is seemingly working off of the belief that if you build it they will come. There are currently very few JS majors, at least that I know of, certainly compared to some of the much larger departments such as Psychology and Economics. Adding what may be 6 new full-time tenure-tracked faculty members to the department as of this fall is huge, and unprecedented. So, where will all the students come from to fill the new courses?

The university administration (as per, for example, my meeting with Dr. Mort Lowengrub, VP of Academic Affairs) feels that YC should have a premier JS department, period. It's not a matter of student demand. They expect that a world-class department will attract quality students, and I agree with them. This is why I wrote my column, because it leaves Stern in the dust, and in an even worse mess than IBC (whereas IBC students cannot major in their sub-par or non-academic JS classes from the morning, SCW students can).

You may ask why it is my business. To be honest, as a YC student, it isn't really. But as a member of the YU community, it is. I think an underlying problem at Stern is that the major voices of the student body contest administrative policies, but do not contest the administration. The Observer, for example, in my opinion, goes after simple, specific problems , without challenging the larger picture and the fundamental issues. That's my call to the student body, to challenge the administration itself, the structure of the curriculum, the values which are stressed - and those that are not - in the SCW educational experience.

I hope this helps clarify.

Thanks Marc for responding to Jackie. I'd just like to stress that, as a semikha student who intends on completing semikha (how novel!) in RIETS and work within the field of Jewish education, I fully appreciate and am deeply engaged in traditional Torah study. Nevertheless, "learning," or at least how it plays out in our undergraduate schools, is generally unacademic and does not warrant an academic degree. As a college and not a yeshiva, SCW must award degrees based upon academic fields of study, just like Math and History. Judaic studies does not cut it.

Additionally, as a side point, you imply that the "olam ha-Torah" has not employed academic methodology. Perhaps in Ponovezh, but not in Yeshiva University and RIETS. We need not pander to chareidi Orthodoxy. Take a look at the scholarship of our leaders, such as Rabbi Drs. Revel, Belkin, and Lamm. They couple academic study with Talmud Torah, and it's inspiring. And it didn't start with them. Perhaps a rigorous Modern Jewish History survey at Stern would help demonstrate to it's students that the academic approach to Jewish Studies has a history with our gedolim.

Anonymous said...

well done!

I was waiting for a post like this ever since you started Stern. What took you so long? Nevertheless, good job!

M.R. said...

"We need not pander to charedi orthodoxy."

...nor must we insult them with our word choice. Your argument is stronger without the pander.

Anonymous said...

Hey all,

Marc and Jeremy, I appreciate your responses. As for the idea that traditional limud Torah doesn't have a place in University system of credit and degrees--I can see that point, for sure. But you're not advocating for the removal of traditional JS, are you? YU's model is to be both a yeshiva and university, not merely a university. I think that "most" YU students (the group to which Chana refers) believe in ths model.

Maybe some people are against the academic studies from ideological grounds. But for others, the disinterest stems from a perceived attack on traditional JS as not being good enough, as though academic JS, with all its methodolical rigor and its place in the non-Orthodox world, is more legitimate. And perhaps it is a more legitimate subject in the University. However, just because traditional JS doesn't have a place in the University does not mean that it doesn't have an integral place in the Yeshiva+University model.

In this model, academic JS has a place, but it's not going to interest the masses any more than any other boutique subject in the University will interest the masses. You'd have trouble getting Stern students very interested in Russian Literature, either. Why should we look down on people who aren't interested?

This is all not to mention that there are risks in presenting academic methods of JS to the masses. When one of my classes studied DH and then discussed responses to it (including Rabbi Breuer's zt"l), many, not just a few, students left the class thinking that the DH asked good compelling questions, and feeling as though they were stronger than the answers. I am certainly not one to advocate leaving one's head in the sand, but I can also see the reason for concern. If these topics are not presented very well and thoroughly, by true yarei shamayim, they do cause people to doubt Judaism. Chana, you may think that the benefit of intellectual honestly outweighs the risk, and I think you're entitled to your opinion. [Really, I do!] But since I think that this risk is appreciable, I truly respect those who wish to remain unaware--and I keep on dabbling in academic JS, although I have no wish of making myself a rule instead of an exception. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that people are so discontent with Stern's Judaic Studies program. It's only my first year on campus, and I've taken some very insightful Tanach classes. It's up to each student to find classes that they find enlightening. And yes they are available. Hint: take Dr. Levine.

Anonymous said...

Anon#2 said:
"I've taken some very insightful Tanach classes."

This is my first year at Stern as well.
Yes, there are some insightful Tanach classes,however,not all of them are intellectually challenging,especially not for those of us who are maijoring in Judaic Studies.

Chana said...


Cutting edge academic findings based on rigorous scholarly method, while not (in my opinion) inherently heretical or inimical to this, simply will not fulfill the religious and spiritual needs of the Torah-driven oilam.

Whoever said that academic biblical studies must exist alone? The simple fact is that there ought to be traditional classes and academic classes, and classes that mix the traditional and academic, and then we'll all be happy.

How many frum Jews are pursuing the highest levels of academic Judaic studies?

Are we talking about Stern or places like Bar-Ilan, Hebrew University and the like? Because if we're talking about Stern, your point stands, but not under any other context.

But I can see how the people who choose to study that which is more religiously significant--and to study in the tried-and-true methods of the olam haTorah through the centuries--are not really missing out on anything essential.

Not missing out on anything essential? Except perhaps the understanding that an approach other than theirs is valid!


Or how's this for the brilliant solution! Perhaps there should be different degrees?! We could diverge into specialities. Medieval Jewish Studies Associate Degree/ Biblical Criticism Jewish Studies Associate Degree... (I'm just joking, by the way. I agree with you. Any true Judaic Studies major ought at least to be exposed to contemporary scholarship in the area. Oh, and a Comparative Religion class would be awesome, too.)


Honored? *laughs* But thanks.

"If you build it, they will come," is Field of Dreams inspired, but does that necessarily work in the real world? Supply and demand, my friend, is generally how we operate. That being said, if it's truly so with regard to YU, it certainly ought to be so by Stern.

Or at the very least, Stern students should be allowed to enroll at the courses offered by your world-class department...

I don't question this being your business, by the way. I think it's admirable that you're looking out for Aviva. Hurrah for Aviva!


I'm not sure if I agree with you that "most" YU students agree with the model in place. If they did, why are they calling English Avodah Zarah class? Or asking whether it's permissable to read Milton? Or considering their psych class kefirah?

The difference between Russian Literature (and you should know I love Russian literature, Jackie, so you're on dangerous ground here) and academic biblical studies is the following:

1. The majority of students in the Advanced Judaic Studies classes here have the kind of background that admits for their going forward in learning, while the majority of students here, unfortunately, do not have the kind of background that allows for their reading and comprehending Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lermontov, Bulgakov and the like.

2. Academic Jewish studies are necessary for the committed Jew's understanding of religion. If YU aims to produce the kind of Jew who is able to comprehend his own religion, he must be able to brilliantly understand and/or refute the problems and/ or questions of others. Otherwise, how can he hope to live in the modern world? At the very least, these studies are essential for the Judaic Studies major.

Why should we look down on people who aren't interested?-Because these people are not making an informed choice. It is not that people are not interested. It is that they are scared. It is that they have been brought up to think that encountering anything outside the sphere of whatever they've been taught up till now is a danger. They've been taught to remain within their little sphere and question within it, but they view everything outside of it as dangerous. And I say, if one is to be a committed Jew, then there ought to be nothing that scares you or frightens you; all things have a purpose and can be used for the good. Questions are legitimate. One cannot ignore the questions, and remain a Jew through avoidance. What kind of observance is that? That is an observance out of deliberate ignorance. I do not think it is anyone's right to remain ignorant if one has the ability and capacity to be otherwise.

...students left the class thinking that the DH asked good compelling questions, and feeling as though they were stronger than the answers.

And that's what a very wise person once told me, and which I later found quoted in 'Letters to a Young Poet' by Rilke.

"...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

It's okay to feel that the DH presents very good questions. We might not even have the best or most satisfying answers now. I don't think that is reason to completely avoid the issue, however, as that suggests that there is something that our Judaism cannot deal with, and that is quite the flaw.

Anon 1,

I've taken some very insightful Judaic studies classes.

No one ever stated that the Judaic studies classes as they are now are NOT insightful! We are simply pointing out that they are generally taught from the traditional, rather than contemporary approach. I myself have benefited greatly from some EXCELLENT classes here.

Anonymous said...

Whoever said that academic biblical studies must exist alone? The simple fact is that there ought to be traditional classes and academic classes, and classes that mix the traditional and academic, and then we'll all be happy.

I don't argue with Jeremy's proposal. I only intend to consider that Stern students may legitimately not be interested, without resorting to claims against their brains or their choices of how to use them.

I'm not sure if I agree with you that "most" YU students agree with the model in place. If they did, why are they calling English Avodah Zarah class? Or asking whether it's permissable to read Milton? Or considering their psych class kefirah?

If you read the dialogue between R. Schechter and Dean Srulovitz in the October Commentator (a very significant document, yashar koach to the people who organized it), you'd see that R. Schechter objects to items in YC's humanities curricula as well. Not everything found in the general studies courses of SCW/YC has a haskama on top of it, and some of it is legitimately questionable. But the fact that many girls are careful in this regard doesn't mean that they're any less into a college-level education together with their Torah studies than the roshei yeshiva are.

Your response to why should we look down on people who aren't interested?" is exactly what I guessed it would be. :-) Your position has the virtue of total intellectual honesty. I respect it, even with my reservations to it.

Larry Lennhoff said...

The women I have met from the Stern Graduate school (Stern College Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmud Studies) were quite comfortable with academic Talmudic and biblical criticism. Perhaps this is only a problem at the undergraduate level, or perhaps these women were exceptional?

Anonymous said...


Notice that only a minority of Stern women go to the Graduate Talmud program.

Anonymous said...

It's kinda funny, I don't go to YU and yet I seem to be knowing a lot about YU politics. Thank you also Chana for your insightful thoughts and keeping me coming back to the blog for me, now If I could only keep up on my blog, lol.

seraphya said...

I don't have much to say as I am now thankfully far removed from YU politics.

The "if you build it, they will come" attitude is somewhat true. I have a friend who is seriously considering between YU and Harvard. If it wasn't for the new emphasis on academic Jewish studies in YC he would not even for a second think of going to YU.

Now if we could completely model Stern on the model the guys get with the diverse set of options for Jewish Studies in the morning, including a serious beit midrash...never mind I am dreaming.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps they'll end up...thinking?

I've heard this trope before and I've never understood it. Why the rigid definition of thinking? While I may personally be in favor of academic bible studies, I don't understand why you need to demean other forms of bible study by implying they aren't 'thinking.' It's like saying 'pop music' can't be good music. It's a generalization that fails to communicate a wider spectrum of ideas. Someone can sit in Lakewood and think more about the Bible than someone in JTS. Or vice-versa. There's no premium on thinking. The value of Bible criticism (or academic Bible study if the word 'criticism' is too scary) is that it suggests previously unconsidered possibilities. Not that it somehow leads to 'thinking' while other methodologies do not.

Chana said...


That's a really interesting point. I have always seen thinking as synonymous with innovation and creativity, hence exposure to "previously unconsidered ideas." You're suggesting a different definition of the word "thought" than any I had previously considered.

Can one think in a vacuum? Because the person who sits in Lakewood and does not touch modern scholarship only approaches Judaism and its tenets from one angle, hence enclosing himself within a vacuum that I would think leads to stagnation. Is it really thinking merely to learn from the traditional commentaries and to reiterate their statements? But then, I suppose you'd challenge me by saying that "hiddushim" are thoughts arising from reinterpreting medieval sources? And you'd be right.

So I must qualify, I suppose, to "thinking outside the box."

Very good point!

Charlie Hall said...

'why it is my business.'

I'm on the faculty at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Despite that I am way out here in the Bronx, a long ride on the #6 train, it is in MY interest that EVERY program of every division of Yeshiva University be first rate. Including Stern College's Jewish Studies program. See my comment below regarding Harvard.

(If you'd like to visit, just drop me an email.)

'Or asking whether it's permissable to read Milton?'

I can't believe that anyone at YU would be seriously asking this question. Have they never read Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, who IIRC is still a Rosh Kollel for RIETS? If you really think Milton is ussur, what are you doing here?

'friend who is seriously considering between YU and Harvard'

I went to Harvard in the 1970s. Undergraduate education was not the priority of the institution when I was there. (Things may have improved since then.) But what I want to say is that it has such a strong reputation, that a number of weak programs can get ignored and not affect the reputation of the entire university. Yeshiva University isn't there yet. It needs strong programs throughout the university in every area.

And I can't believe that anyone connected with our institution would accept that Yeshiva University would be anything OTHER than the #1 university in America, if not the world, for academic Jewish studies. We are, after all, the flagship institution of Rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora. I am pleased that the YC administration has made this a priority and I hope that it may extend to Stern.