Where religious faith is no bar to reason

November 9, 2007

New York's Yeshiva University successfully marries orthodox religion with academic freedom. Nathan Jeffay reports. It is just before eight in the morning and New York's Yeshiva University is well and truly awake. The majority of undergraduates making their way to the college synagogues for morning prayers.

Their day, packed with classes and seminars, will last until late evening. This is because YU, as it is universally known, is one of just two universities in the world that offers students a traditional Orthodox Jewish education as well as a rigorous academic course. And if it is to manage this, there is a lot to pack into a day.

YU's history dates back to the 19th century and the arrival of thousands of Jewish migrants from Europe who adopted polarised positions in terms of their religion.

Many left behind their Orthodox faith. For them, the practice of giving every young Jew a comprehensive grounding in the complexities of Jewish law and belief in a yeshivah , a religious school, was regarded as outdated. They preferred to gain secular qualifications, many of which had been closed off to them by anti-Semitic laws in their home countries.

Others feared for the survival of traditional Judaism in the new environment of the US and felt that secular education would be corrupting. They also believed that the demands of religious learning left no time for secular studies, and they insisted that youngsters were given only a yeshivah education.

YU (or its precursor, which opened in 1886) sought to occupy the middle ground. Its message was that young men - and later, on a separate campus, young women - could get the best in secular education while, at the same time, working on an advanced course in traditional Jewish studies. This was termed Torah U'Madda , Hebrew for "religious study with secular study", the institution's motto to this day.

YU's outstanding characteristic is its undergraduate degrees, all of which include spending about half of each day on studying religious topics in addition to academic subjects. These courses attract only observant Jews, although postgraduate courses and staff positions that are independent of religious study attract people from all religions and none. Undergraduates also benefit from prayer facilities and kosher food being close at hand and never have to catch up on time missed because of religious holidays since there are no classes.

This might leave some people wondering where academics fit into the system - and whether they must defer to religious mores.

"There is total academic freedom. Nobody tells a professor what to teach," insists Carl Feit, head of the biology department.

He adds that, while people may perceive academia and religion to be an uncomfortable combination, this opinion is likely to be based on a knowledge of Christianity, not Judaism.

"Take my subject," Dr Feit said. "There is a popular perception of conflict between science and religion. People often think of Galileo and the Church. The topic brings to mind evolution and the modern anti-science attitudes, but this is largely driven by Christian evangelicals and is of limited relevance to Jews."

When conflicts do arise, the policy of the university, said Gillian Steinberg, a professor of English, "is that there is no policy".

"This means that we work it out as we go along and in so doing explore how the two fit alongside each other, the whole point of the place." By way of example, she cited a recent meeting in her faculty, where the study of literature with explicit sexual content seemed to clash with Jewish religious law.

"Some faculty members feel that this is a religious university and there are some things it is not right to study if they make students uncomfortable. Some responded that it is precisely the job of academics to challenge people and, in so doing, make them somewhat uncomfortable," she added.

The role of a YU academic, said Daniel Pollack, professor of social work and a legal scholar, and himself an Orthodox Jew, is just like that of any other academic. "I do not talk about Judaism in my classes. In fact, I do not talk about anything religious in any shape or form," he said.

What then, is the point in bringing together religion and academia in one institution?

It is that the secular education provided not only has the same purpose as at other universities, but that it is also used in the religious part of the curriculum, where students are encouraged to find ways of synthesising the secular and the religious. Norman Lamm, one of the world's most respected rabbis, is chancellor of the university and a leading advocate of this process.

He said: "The very act of encountering two essentially disparate disciplines and identifying the similarities and the differences and raising a generation of men and women who will manage to study and balance both is creative in the best sense of the word, and very inspirational. It broadens the mind and challenges the spirit. The very tensions between them give rise to creative syntheses and produce cultural and intellectual breadth."

This explains academics' responsibility to students, but what of their research? The YU philosophy assigns religious value to all research, whether or not it is carried out by faculty who buy into it.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy, chair of Bible and Jewish philosophy, said that YU as an institution believes that God created the world and that the better man's knowledge of the world, the better his knowledge of God.

"The liberal arts provide a service to those who seek God," he said, adding: "To expand the range of our language and the amplitude of our thought is to deepen our knowledge of and participation in the world that God has presented to us."

The value of providing quality teaching and research is also highly symbolic (YU came 52nd in the US News & World Report 's 2008 America's Best Colleges). By showing the Jewish community that one institution can provide both, YU promotes its ideology that, while it may sound abstract, has permeated the Orthodox Jewish community in America.

Congregations are often led by YU graduates, many of whom hold a PhD as well as rabbinic ordination. Sermons incorporate quotations from the Bible and Bentham, one after the other. And the belief in a synthesis of secular and religious education, following the example of YU, extends out into society.

"In this sense, the university shapes American Jewry," Professor Pollock said.

Daniel Rynhold, who has just moved to YU as assistant professor of modern Jewish philosophy after six years lecturing at King's College London, said: "In England, people in their forties and fifties have a sophisticated understanding of all sorts of subjects but retain a 14-year- old's understanding of Judaism. What happens at YU helps to raise the level of the discourse in the States."

Yeshiva University

  • Yeshiva University is ranked 52nd in US News & World Report 's 2008 league table of America's best colleges;
  • Yeshiva has 6,512 students in total, including 2,994 undergraduates;
  • The university has four campuses: the Wilf Campus, the Israel Henry Beren Campus and Brookdale Center in Manhattan, and the Jack and Pearl Resnick Campus in the Bronx;
  • Undergraduates are almost exclusively Orthodox Jews, while postgraduates and academics at the university come from all religions and none;
  • Students come from 38 states and 55 countries.

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