Degrees of Separation: A Farewell to Yeshiva College

Degrees of Separation: A Farewell to Yeshiva College

BY: Seth Herstic

 

1.

If the stereotypical Yeshiva College student suffers the pangs of some inner conflict unique to him, then what is the nature of that conflict? Over the years, many have found the answer in the “double-curriculum” that our college demands. According to this theory, YC’s emphasis on Torah study and secular knowledge is to blame for its students’ unique religious confusion and torment. Simply put, as the proponents of this theory say, the contents of the morning program and afternoon program clash, and this content clash creates inner clashes in undergraduates. Whereas the morning program preaches absolute faith in God, His Torah, and the Truth of tradition, the afternoon schedule teaches relativism, skepticism, and atheism. Apparently, these conflicting messages, taught by disagreeing pedagogues who do not respect one another’s worldviews, make a terrible mess in the hearts and minds of YC students.

Although this proposed explanation of the situation is old news, its implications may not be. The intellectual challenges that the dichotomous schedule presents may still be tearing minds and hearts apart in YC. Newcomers to the college, fresh out of a one-, two-, or three-year Torah-only stint in the Holy Land, may find the assertions of some professors and the texts they assign to be especially unsettling. Although most of these students will weather the liberal arts storm and emerge religiously unscathed, a small percentage, usually the philosophically inclined, will lose some of their religious devotion in the process. Yet an even smaller sample of YC undergrads will leave Orthodoxy solely because of philosophical factors.

Notwithstanding the very real religious anguish that a contradiction-saturated curriculum can cause, the YC student has bigger falafel to fry. After all, over the past sixty or so years, Orthodox Jewish thinkers and academics have produced and delivered many thousands of classes, articles, and books on every conflict that exists under the sun between Jewish and secular wisdom. When it comes to intellectual struggles arising from Torah u-Madda, the YC student need only surf the Web or the YU library to decide which of the multitudinous extant articles addressing his particular question he would like to turn to for answers. Thus, if there still is a unique plague of inner turmoil that afflicts the YC undergrad, it cannot be the plague of content-conflict arising from a double program, for there now exists an overstocked intellectual pharmacy offering myriad medicinal options for alleviating and curing this plague.

If there still is a real, rampant, conflict rending many a YC student in two, then it is not intellectual in nature, but experiential or existential. If there still is a Torah u-Madda plague, then it is not to be detected in the college catalogue or course schedules. It is not an issue of subject matter. Rather, the conflict, the clash in the mind and heart of the YC student, is due to exposure to and the desire for contradictory modes of living, modes of living which each attract a part of his fundamental humanity. Although this tension takes on a unique form at Yeshiva College, its basic properties may not be unique to Jewish people, but may be applicable to all people of faith in the modern world. Indeed, this more typical conflict is not unlike the one described in the Rav’s The Lonely Man of Faith.

 

2.

The tension that ails the YC student, and even the religious non-Jew, is caused by the dissonance between quantity-centered living and spiritual living. Adam the First’s preoccupation with quantity is a product of his desperate desire to exist. More than anything, Adam the First wants to be; his greatest fear, then, is to disappear. When he is not progressing quantitatively, he begins to feel himself fade; in order to alleviate this terrifying feeling, he turns to the tangible, to things – things that can be counted, organized, filed, felt, registered and read. He builds a bridge, buys a lot of books, starts a club, writes an essay, posts a video on the web, adds friends and posts pictures of himself on Facebook. He adds lines to his resume. He writes, and writes much, because to him the written word seems more lasting than the spoken. He objectifies everything he can in order to advance his presence in the world. He even exploits his own heart by recording all of his sentiments on a blog. To keep a journal is not enough! He thinks, “What good are my feelings if I cannot use them to increase my fame?” And he publishes; because this, he thinks, more than simply writing to friends and in journals, will ensure his immortality. He avoids the amorphous, shuns the subjective, and mocks the immeasurable because such things cannot be stacked upon each other in clean rows and shown off. They cannot be used. Instead, he turns to quantity so that he will not disappear. He has either been convinced or convinced himself that if he fills space, with himself and with objects, he will exist and matter more. Thus, Adam the First is really after glory, kavod (which literally means “mass” or “heaviness”). If he achieves glory, he exists.

Because wanting to exist means wanting to exist completely, Adam the First’s greatest dream is to live forever, to be an immortal. Therefore, the greatest enemy of Adam the First is time. Time limits Adam the First and his accomplishments. Time tells him that he can only write so much, only build so much, only learn so much, only acquire so much, and only fill a finite amount of space; and, worst of all, it tells him that he is going to die. Thus, Adam the First’s life is a fight against time. In order to win this contest, he relies on the only thing he can: quantity. So, Adam the First buys planners and Blackberries, writes schedules, and tries to fill his days with productivity. Efficiency is his weapon against time; it is his saber on the battlefield of life. A great day for Adam the First is one in which he has written a smart schedule and accomplished as much as possible.

      A quantity-centered life is also a life of distance. It is an existence of distance from people and from the projects and activities one undertakes. Adam the First is disconnected from everything he does and from everyone with whom he interacts, and this is because everything he does is done for the sake of something else. In other words, his life is all means and no ends. He learns in order to do well on the test, he does well on the test in order to get an A in the class, he wants an A in the class in order to achieve a high GPA, and he wants a high GPA so he can get into a top graduate program. After he gets into the top graduate program he earns a career from which he is disconnected and which he wishes to leave for a more glorified or better-paying job. But Adam the First views people as means as well. He exhibits warmth and flatters others to land an interview or infiltrate a social network; he befriends one person simply to get in touch with another; he “kisses up” to professors to ensure high marks. He views people as objects and even collects them on Facebook. Eventually, he marries a woman whose love is also just a means to an end. Due to his fixation on filling space and achieving kavod, he resents his peers for their accomplishments and is often beset by a fiery jealousy. All of this because he is driven by quantity.

 

3.

 

At the other end of the human spectrum sits the Spiritual Man. Do not misunderstand him or cheapen his title! He is not necessarily spiritual because he often dances in circles, claps his hands, sings, meditates, wears fuzzy, colorful kippot, or learns Hasidut. These activities can certainly be manifestations of spirituality or indicative of a spiritual life, but they are not definitional to spirituality and they fail to do justice to the singular life of the Spiritual Man. Saying that spirituality means singing and dancing is like saying that love means hugging and kissing. Just as there is more to love than superficial gestures, so too does spirituality go beyond externals. What, then, is spirituality? Spirituality means li-shemah (for its own sake). It refers to that state of experience where deeds are done – deeds which one feels connect one with something incorporeal and greater than oneself – not for prestige, accumulation, accomplishment or profit, but for the sake of the deeds themselves.


In Judaism, the archetypal Spiritual Man lives for religious experiences that connect him with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu; or, as Abraham J. Heschel would put it, he lives for “sacred moments.” Since he is religious-experience-centered, he is perforce quality-centered; and, being quality-centered, he naturally lives a life of closeness to people and to his undertakings. His life is a chain of ends, of moments, and not a string of means. Since he cares not for glory, he can honestly rejoice over his friend’s achievements. Since accumulation and accomplishment do not interest him, he can surrender himself to moments and live in the now. This is why spiritual people tend to be adept at and passionate about tefillah, zemirah (singing), and rikkud (dance): these things are amorphous, affective, and qualitative in nature, requiring devotion to the moment, and they do not lend themselves to measurements and quantities. They are all about connection and not at all about accumulation. 

        Halakhah may be highly quantitative in nature, but it nevertheless demands a spiritual life from Jews. After all, the great goals of Halakhah and Torah are fear of God, love of God, knowledge of God, love for one’s fellow, humility, justice, truth, and deveikut. We can measure the heights of our sukkot, the volume of our mikva’ot, the length of tsitsit, the size of our wine glasses, but can we measure love of God? Fear of God? Can we measure a Jew’s sense of justice or goodness toward his fellow man? Can we measure one’s immersion in prayer? Of course we cannot; and maybe that is because, more than anything, “God requires the heart” in our dealings with Him and in our dealings with each other, and matters of the heart defy quantity. It is impossible to measure the love of a parent for a child or the love of a husband for his wife, and one cannot compete or win in this realm either. It would be absurd to compare two happily married couples and decide which marriage is more successful or which spouses love each other more. How would you go about calculating it? So, too, how would you go about comparing the righteousness of one tsaddik to another? For example, who was more righteous, R. Kook or the Hafets Hayyim? How would you figure it out? This is a stupid question! Judaism is about relationships, sacred moments, and matters of the heart. It may be quantity-laden, but it is spiritually centered.

 

4.

 The stereotypical YC student is both Adam the First and Spiritual Man. The contradictions which plague him, arising from this dichotomy, are not unique to him but are experienced to some extent by all honest religious people in the world – a world which, by the way, has been quantity-driven since the dawn of time. Nevertheless, the tensions that religion creates, and the jarring oscillations it produces in the dichotomous man, are intensified in the soul of the YC student, for he finds himself in the eerie twilight zone that is both a yeshivah and a college.

But, as I have noted, it is not the college catalogue which intensifies the sting of his already-frayed existence. He may not like having to read Rashi in the morning (or early afternoon) and Toni Morrison in the later afternoon, but the content clash is not what is really eating him. What is troubling him, what is exacerbating the pain of his imbalanced life, is the experiential conflict that the twilight zone creates. For the value systems that the yeshivah and the college are presenting are antithetical to each other.

The cause of the exacerbation can be stated quite simply: colleges promote quantity and yeshivot traditionally promote spirituality. Who are the heroes, the giants, the gedolim of colleges? Why, the professors, of course! And which men of yeshivot are traditionally granted the equivalent appellations? The talmidei
hakhamim and the tsaddikim. Which undergraduates are the most valued in professors’ eyes? The ones who think well, write well, and who will go on to graduate schools, doctoral programs, and who will produce thick, footnote-heavy dissertations. And which bahurim are (or should be) the most favored in the Rashei Yeshivah’s eyes? The ones with heads on their shoulders, who surround themselves with holiness, who devote themselves to achieving the greatest goals of Torah wisdom and Halakhah (i.e. fear of God, love of God, knowledge of God, love for one’s fellow, humility, justice, truth, and deveikut).

It is not the substance of academic studies that is necessarily in opposition to a yeshivah’s values, but the cult of academia. Academia is about quantity and Torah is about spirituality; for example, in order for a college professor to achieve that most hallowed of academic dreams, tenure, he or she needs to publish significantly. Not only that, but he must write like an academic! (If this is not quantity-centeredness and distance-living, then I do not know what is.) Sure, quality of work is also evaluated, but as important as anything in the path to tenure is the quantity of published works. Isn’t it quantity-centeredness that inspires academics to chop up their dissertations into 23 published articles, half of which share the same thesis?

Isn’t the pull of quantity-centeredness responsible for the compulsive writing of footnotes, endnotes, backnotes, frontnotes and sidenotes? Indeed, academic articles often take place below the footnote line! This is because the archetypal academic is an Adam the First; he or she is after glory and afraid of disappearing. His outlook is in complete opposition to the spiritual person’s; and the culture of academia, which is quantity-centered and quantity-saturated, contradicts the values of a typical yeshivah, which promotes axiomatic Jewish principles that are affective, amorphous, and spiritual. 

But the conflict runs deeper at our college, and the confusion intensifies still. YC has managed to produce a twilight zone within a twilight zone.

 

5.

Even more discouraging for the YC student than the tension he feels from his attraction to two opposing value-systems and modes of living is the confusion and disheartenment he experiences when the lines are blurred and the opposing forces in his life are confused. Navigating through an existence of quantitative desires on the one hand and spiritual ones on the other is quite challenging, but confusing spirituality with quantitative living makes thriving as a happy religious Jew impossible. Unfortunately, Yeshiva College has allowed, encouraged, and promoted such confusion on campus.

Talmud Torah has always invited pitfalls of elitism, arrogance, and kavod; one need only glance through the Mishnayot
of Pirkei Avot to realize that the sages were well aware of this challenge. For thousands of years, Jews have been mistakenly viewing their learning of the Law as a purely quantitative endeavor and their knowledge as a tool for increasing their kavod; but YC took it to the next level. YC did not only let its talmidei hakhamim sit at the front of the study hall; it awarded them for their Torah scholarship with plaques, books and prizes. Chairs were created – chairs of Bible, chairs of Talmud, and chairs of Jewish philosophy. Awards were handed out annually to the finest students in MYP, BMP, IBC, and Mechinah. Elite Torah fellowships and kolelim were established and a Yeshiva Honors Program arose. But well before the YHP came into existence, there was the academic Jewish studies curriculum. This curriculum, though teaching Jewish studies, was made part of the college and not the yeshivah and represented a great oxymoron. The oxymoronic nature of this program lay not in its method, for the study of Torah has always been academic at least in part, but in its message that the quantity-driven world of academia could possibly harmonize with the yeshivah student’s spiritual life, of which talmud Torah occupies a central role.

As such mixed messages abound, it is no small wonder that some students mistake their study of Torah for a quantitative enterprise. It is no wonder that some learn Torah for fame and the writing of articles; that students care more about finishing tractates of Talmud than actually learning them; or that talmidim aspire more to the “Most High Kollel” (Kolel Elyon) than to the Most High, or that the shi’ur one attends is a matter of kavod. But this blurring of boundaries does not end with the quantification of Torah study; rather, it extends to the Yeshiva College student’s entire religious life as well. Specifically, the confusion manifests itself in the bahur yeshivah‘s
setting of quantitative spiritual goals, which is a contradiction in terms.

 

6.

Avodat Hashem is unlike a weight-loss program. A Yid cannot simply hop on a spiritual treadmill for two weeks and afterwards weigh himself on a scale of frumkayt. Spirituality, by definition, defies such quantification. Nevertheless, there are those of our institution who pursue this type of spiritual routine. Some students may pursue it by deciding to pray with kavvanah for two weeks straight, while others may attempt it by committing to learn night seder with greater passion. These goals are admirable, but they are also doomed to failure, because as soon as one sets a quantitative goal for an amorphous, spiritual act, that act is drained of all its life and dries up like an etrog in the sun. And as soon as one builds a spiritual life around such an approach, one’s world becomes empty, for quantity-centeredness transforms man’s actions into means, and Avodat Hashem, at its essence, means lishmah, means being in the moment, performing the deed for itself.

Li-Shemah and spirituality become especially difficult principles to live by in face of the Adam the First-driven social atmosphere of YU. In this milieu, YC bachelors are inclined to act more spiritual or religious in order to improve their chances at courting the more pious bachelorettes. They do this because they believe that their “level” of religiosity (or “shtarkness”) dictates who they can date and who they will marry. “Very frum” guys, they claim, are going to attract “very frum” girls, “medium frum” guys are going to attract “medium frum” girls, and so on. These opinions are reasonable enough: a Jewish man at an early stage of his spiritual journey will probably not be a good match for a Jewish girl at a more advanced stage of hers, and vice versa; the quantification and categorization of religiosity found on websites like SawYouAtSinai and YUConnects proves as well as drives this social phenomenon. Nevertheless, YC students and Jewish bachelors everywhere should not let this social situation affect their avodat Hashem;
trying to better one’s service of God and advance one’s spiritual life in order to improve one’s social prospects is a vain pursuit. Such strivings are paradoxical and futile for reasons already enumerated, and they will yield neither spiritual substance, social contentment, nor marital fulfillment. As soon as one tries to do a spiritual act in order to land a date or a wife, the attempted act is rendered devoid of spirituality and substance. Showing up to morning minyan for three weeks straight, attending a certain “shtarkminyan, wearing a certain kippah, or not wearing certain kinds of pants in order to tell oneself and one’s friends that one is more frum – in order to date certain kinds of girls – is the antithesis of religious living. The irony: if we only did things li-shemah and focused on the penimiyyut (internal aspects), the hitsoni (outward) things in our lives
would also take care of themselves.

 

7.

It says in Kohelet, “Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver.” Rashi offers three explanations of this phrase. His first is that “Whoever loves the commandments will not be sated with them,” and his third is, “Whoever loves Torah will not be sated with it.” Although it may be a derashah on Rashi’s derashah, one could expound the verse to mean that, “One who loves the study of Torah and the performance of commandments similar to the manner in which he loves money, will never be satisfied with them.” The reason is that money has no inherent value; its only value is in numbers. Money is, by its very nature, only a means to an end. One who loves money, therefore, does not really love it, does not really value an individual nickel or penny, but loves the accumulation of money. Thus, love of money represents the quintessence of quantity-centered living, where the actions of one’s body and the sentiments of one’s heart are only as valuable as they are useful in getting Adam the First to the next plateau along his never-ending ascent to quantity, accolades and kavod. Therefore, to love Torah or the commandments like one loves money will never lead to satisfaction with them. Instead, that kind of love will only lead to frustration and emptiness.

 

8.

That spirituality is unquantifiable and amorphous does not, God forbid, imply that spiritual progress is a lie or a futile pursuit. On the contrary; a Jew is bidden to keep ascending the proverbial mountain to God and if he is not engaged in this effort, he is perforce regressing. A Jew must set goals, but the nature of those goals must be quantifiable, not amorphous. For example, a reasonable religious goal to set might be to pray Ma’ariv with a minyan for an entire week, or to pray Ma’ariv relatively slowly. Here are some other goals that make sense: visiting a sick person once a week, joining the YU Chesed Club, saying an extra ten chapters of Psalms every day, spending one dinner a week with one’s parents, learning in the beit midrash for an hour every night, ending one’s learning ten minutes before Minhah, going to the mikveh on the eve of Shabbat, inviting friends over to one’s apartment or dorm at least 5 times a month. These are quantitative, objective goals; and, although they may not necessarily equal spirituality, they can certainly facilitate and lead to it. Along the same lines, R. Soloveitchik often stressed that in Halakhah, the objective act precedes the inner, subjective experience, even though that immeasurable event may be the goal and fulfillment of the Law.

The opposite of this type of goal-setting is the setting of goals that try to quantify spirituality. Examples are: learning a page of Talmud in 10 minutes, making a siyyum every month, learning and understanding all of Tanakh in two years, developing an emotional bond with the sick person one visits, becoming a great rabbi, crying during tefillah at least once a week, really loving Jews, serving God with greater joy, being more humble, and so on. These are all wonderful, lofty goals that can be attained, but not by trying to grasp that which has no form.

 

9.

Within man’s soul God formed opposing dreams and in his mind He placed divergent potentials; if man is to be himself, to paraphrase R. Soloveitchik, then he must embrace both sides of his being. To mistake one side for the other may be foolish and detrimental, but to reject either side is also tantamount to rejecting Creation. But how can man expect to tend to both poles of his inner world without turning his life into a series of painful religious oscillations and contradictions? How can man hope to attain unification and wholeness while pursuing paradoxical forms of living? It is not enough to merely say that conflict is creative. Sometimes a boat rocks back and forth until it capsizes and is rent by the waves. Some Jews are incapable of turning their conflicts into creations. Some simply sway, shatter, and then sink.

I, for one, am a decent sailor, barukh
Hashem; despite all the contradiction and confusion I suffered while wandering through Yeshiva College, I kept afloat and kept trying to find that elusive balance in my religious life. Of course I never found it, and maybe I never will. My college experiences would not quite be classified as wisdom literature, and I am in no position to offer solutions and reconciliations to problems and tensions that the Rav could not overcome either in theory or practice. Nevertheless, here is what I know now: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” This is the lesson of Shabbat, for Shabbat is the ultimate end. It is the “purpose of the heavens and the earth.” It is the destination of creation, the goal of the week’s products. Shabbat stands in time as a playground of spirituality – a day when we stop amassing, stop preparing, stop accomplishing, stop counting, and start focusing on the moment. Shabbat is the ultimate affront to Adam the First’s dreams. It is the weekly proof of the centrality of the amorphous and immeasurable in our tradition. Its message may even teach us how to strike a balance in our everyday lives as striving religious Jews.

 

Seth Herstic is a senior at YC majoring in Sociology. Next year, he will be studying in Israel, at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah’s Educators’ Kollel.