Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Billion Dollar Question: Can Yeshiva University Survive?

Rav Ahron Soloveichik, ZTL - proponent of Torah U'Mada
There is only one Yeshiva University. There are many ‘Lakewoods’. I have no issue with Charedi Yeshivos like Lakewood  whose purpose it is to learn Torah only.  My criticisms are only about how widely that is implemented in the Charedi world. I disagree that all Charedim should strive to do that to the exclusion of all else. But certainly such institutions should exist. There is nothing wrong with focusing on your area of expertise. Whether one should also be well versed in other subjects for their own sake (Torah U’Mada)  or only to enhance one’s Yahdus (TIDE) is what separates us from Charedim who do not place much value on Mada at all except for utilitarian purposes.

The fact is that Yeshiva University is a Yeshiva that has both a Yeshiva and a university on the same campus and encourages its students to study both. Its motto is Torah U’Mada. That is in contrast to the Charedi worldview where very few Charedim seek secular education beyond high school in America (and at all in Israel). That some go on to become professionals via a higher education is not a function of any value they place on secular studies. It is solely a function of getting the education required to make a decent living.

There is nothing wrong with studying Mada for parnassa purposes.  That’s what Touro does. Their education is geared towards Paranassa. I am a big supporter of that. But YU actually values secular studies per se. They take seriously the Gemarah’s statement ‘Im Omar Lecha Yesh Chochma BaGoyim, Taamin’. If someone tells you that non Jews have wisdom, believe them. 

YU’s goal is to seek out that wisdom and teach it to its students. It is the only Yeshiva to do so L'Chatchila beyond high school .  Those who study in the Yeshiva program - the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS, which is what YU is really all about) are typical of those who place primary importance on Torah study but place great value on Mada too. There are plenty of Masmidim there. One can go into the Beis HaMedrash at YU at any given time and find it filled with students learning B’Hasmadah Rabbah (with great diligence). Some into the wee hours of the morning. And they do not neglect their study of Mada at all  - succeeding at those studies with similar degrees of excellence.

I bring all this up in light of the recent report about the financial straits YU is going through.  Apparently YU’s board of directors approved risky investments that went south to the tune of a billion dollars. I cannot image any Yeshiva having those kinds of funds to invest, let alone to operate with. That is some serious money. That’s 1000 million dollars. They lost it all, it seems.

A lot of people blame YU’s president, Richard Joel. He is after all the CEO responsible for among other things YU’s financial welfare (and being handsomely paid for it). But I am not one of them.  He consulted with the board about those investments and they must have approved it.  He did not just blindly go into the market and invest in penny stocks. He consulted with acknowledged experts in the field of financial investments and if I understand correctly followed their recommendations.  When the economy tanked a few years ago, so did those investments and apparently they did not recover when the economy started rebounding.

But… I understand that Mr. Joel is getting the blame for all this. He is the man in charge. He is the man at the top. The buck stops there. So if he gets fired, it is just as understandable as when a Cubs manager gets fired. If the team is doing badly you don’t fire the team. You fire the manager. Even if he is a proven winner in his past engagements with other teams that have won pennants under his leadership. That’s just the way it is. Richard Joel will land on his feet. I’m pretty sure he put away piles of money from the very generous compensation he received over the years as CEO of YU (unless he put that money into risky investments too. I hope not).

But this post is not about Richard Joel’s misfortune. It is about the Talmidei Chachamin at that institution that are in danger of losing their jobs. Perhaps more importantly it is about the existence of the only school that represents the values of Torah U’Mada. As an adherent of this Hashkafa, I would consider it a tragedy of major proportions if YU were to go down.

At an existential level we cannot allow Orthodoxy to become a world where there is no value given to the wisdom of the world. That would in my view be contrary to the mission of Judaism.  Ein Somchin Al HaNes, the Gemarah tells us. To say for example that we don’t need our people to study areas that are vital to the health of our people is to ignore the Torah’s admonition that we are required to do our part in it. It’s called Hishtadlus. So that to encourage all Jews to study Torah and ignore the medical sciences is an abdication of that Hishtadlus.

It isn’t only about our physical health. To deny the study of the great thinkers of the world who have aided in our own understanding of Emes is to limit our ability to understand our own Hashkafos. That is why Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik studied philosophy. He became a world renowned expert in it. He could thus better explain Jewish philosophy by comparing it to current philosophical thought.  Much as did the Rambam with the philosophic thought of his day.

In an era where there is so much information available instantly, what better way to prepare for encounters with that, than with a Yeshiva like YU?

Yes the Torah only approach is fine for those who limit or even deny themselves exposure to outside world. But for those who study the works of other great thinkers, there is only one YU.

It would be tragic beyond all proportion if Yeshiva University were to fold. I don’t think that is going to happen. But the mere prospect of losing the only asset that rises to the task – scares me. And when a billion dollars is so easily lost, it is no longer out of the realm of possibility for something like that to happen.