Thursday, January 01, 2009

Professor James Kugel and Yeshiva University

Those who read this blog on a regular basis know of my strong support of Yeshiva University. And it remains strong and firm. That’s because its Hashkaos of Torah U’Mada most closely reflect those of my own. Not that they are perfect. Which Yeshiva is? But they are the closest thing to my Hashkafa that exists in the Torah world. There is no other Yeshiva like it. Almost all other Yeshivos reject Torah U’Mada. Those that do allow the study of Mada post high school – like HTC, Ner Israel, Chafetz Chaim, or Chaim Berlin - do so reluctantly or as a necessary evil towards Parnassa.

But my support for Yeshiva University is not a blank check. It is not unequivocal. And when I see something wrong there I am going to protest it.

According to an article in Vos Iz Neias, Professor James Kugel was invited to speak at Yeshiva’s Stern College for Women. He was invited by the newly formed student organization, Teiqu. He accepted and spoke there on December 11th to a packed audience.

Professor Kugel is an observant Jew who believes in Documentary Hypothesis. As I understand it Documentary Hypothesis more or less maintains that by doing a serious literary analyis one can prove that the Torah was written in different eras by four different people and later redacted in what we call the Torah. If this is an accurate description then there is no other way to understand it except as heresy – Apikursus. Because that means there was no Abraham; no Isaac; no Jacob; no Moses, no Sinai. It’s all or mostly made up – as a sort of allegory. If one believes this, there can be no other description of him than Apikores.

Not that I am castigating the integrity of Professor Kugel. I am sure he is a sincere and intelligent man who strives mightily to find truth. Perhaps someday he will. That he found Sheker and currently sees it as truth is sad. But as Rav Chaim Soloveichik is reported to have said, ‘Nebech and Apikores is still an Apikores’. And as such he should not have been invited to speak at YU.

I’m not going to go into detail as to why I do not buy into Documentary Hypothesis. Nor am I going to allow this post to become a debate about it. Suffice it to say, that I am unimpressed with ‘proofs’ of the human authorship of the Torah. There is nothing about Julius Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis that disproves that Torah is of Divine origin or that it is the word of God.

The question is, if I am opposed to Professor Kugel why do I support Yeshiva University’s policy of Academic freedom? Isn’t Professor Kugel’s appearance the epitome of that? Furthermore, doesn’t Yeshiva offer some courses which contain Apikursus? How can I support that – which on the surface would seem much worse since it is an official part of the school curriculum - and at the same time reject Professor Kugel’s appearance there?

The answer is that I accept the explanation and reasoning of Dr. Bernard Revel, founder of Yeshiva University’s precursor, Yeshiva College. His goal was to attract the best and brightest American students who were being drawn away to Ivy League type schools. He wanted to offer them a real college, not a second rate one which they would never attend. By not compromising on Academic freedom he was able to do that.

The result was that many students opted for YU instead of a secular university. Asked about how as president and official Rosh HaYeshiva, he could allow Apikursus to be taught at all, he answered that his students were prepared by their Limudei Kodesh – their morning religious studies - to deal with those subjects if and when they encountered them. Had they gone to secular universities and encountered them there, they would not have been prepared at all.

In any event these courses can be avoided. If one does need to take one or more of those courses he is far better prepared to do so then if they had gone to Harvard right out of high school.

In the case of the charismatic Professor Kugel, YU chose an option that was not required of them in order to maintain academic freedom. They had no obligation to invite him. They had every right to veto him. Not every speaker that is invited must be approved. And they could have avoided it had they chosen to.

Does this not violate the principle of academic freedom? Not in my view. Academic freedom is not absolute. If it were Yeshiva University would be required to allow a holocaust denier like Northwestern University Professor Arthur Butz the right to speak as well. There are limits to Academic freedom. A religious school has a right to set religious standards about whom they will invite to speak - just as it does to set standards against bigots and racists.

The great danger of Professor Kugel is that he is in fact observant. This gives him an aura of credibility that a non Jew or non-religious Jew does not have. He is charismatic and very popular as was evidenced by the large turnout that came to hear him.

It is my considered opinion that YU has made a serious mistake. This is not just about allowing someone with a different Hashkafa to speak as stated by Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Cohen, professor of Bible at Stern and Associate Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School:

Dr. Cohen asserted: "It is true that Professor Kugel's views on biblical authorship are not those of traditional Orthodoxy and that, no doubt, is the source of the controversy. However, in my opinion, Yeshiva University's educational ideals demand that we not limit ourselves to learning only from those who share our precise hashkafa."

I strongly disagree. In my view this goes far beyond traditional Orthodoxy and different Hashkafos. It enters the realm of heresy - on par with what the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary preaches.

One may be tempted to compare this to the visit to YU a few years ago by Catholic Cardinals and ask, ‘What’s the difference?’

Allowing a group of priests who are leaders of their church and who - in a gesture of good will and earnestness - sought to observe how a Yeshiva works. That is a far cry from what happened here. Those cardinals were not invited to speak or even to study with the students. They were there only to observe and admire. Professor Kugel who by definition is a heretic was there to ‘teach’ – by addressing the students and explaining his views.

Academic freedom has its limits and Yeshiva University would have been well within its rights to veto his appearance just as they would have vetoed Professor Butz.