Wednesday, August 11, 2004

My Teaching at Yeshiva University

The following was written for an upcoming issue of The Commentator, the official male undergraduate student newspaper of Yeshiva University. In honor of the 75th anniversary of Yeshiva College, a special section of The Commentator will be running throughout the 2004-05 year.

I taught at Yeshiva College forty years ago, for about a year and a half during the 1961-62 semesters. At the time, I was completing my doctorate in political science at NYU and an opening arose at Yeshiva because a veteran professor had passed away, I believe suddenly. There was no expectation that I would become a regular member of the faculty and, in fact, by the fall 1962 semester, I was teaching full-time at Hunter College.

The classes were held at a building that was called, I think, Muss Hall, which although newly opened was nothing to write home about because it was a functional structure with few of the accoutrements that I found later on at various campuses. I shared an office with a number of other faculty, some adjuncts as I essentially was and some full-timers, including Charles Liebman who was preparing a seminal study on American Orthodoxy that appeared shortly thereafter in the American Jewish Year Book. After making aliya, Liebman emerged as perhaps the foremost scholar in the sociology of Judaism. When he passed away nearly a year ago, we lost a person of much integrity and great insight.

The students were mostly bright and motivated, but I can't say that they earnestly dug into the material or generated what can be called much intellectual excitement. Perhaps this may have been because they were mostly political science majors and more than a few were headed toward law school. When I meet a student from that period, invariably he has become a lawyer and, invariably, a rather successful one. A more important factor was and probably still is the nature of the Yeshiva College experience, primarily the dual educational program. While few of the students seemed particularly interested in mastering Talmud or Judaics, they all went through the motions and generally seriously. Since they also want to have time for athletics and other diversions, there was scant interest in excelling in subject matter beyond what was required to get a good grade. The time factor inevitably limited out of class contact with students, an experience that is a vital part of campus life in most places.

There was even less contact with other faculty members except, for the few with whom I shared an office. Perhaps this was due to my temporary status, but I am certain that it arose as well from the way Yeshiva College was organized and administered. I had ongoing contact with [I can't remember his first name] Bacon, who was YC's Dean and because of paperwork requirements with other school administrators. What struck me then was the paternalistic nature of Yeshiva, the way faculty members, including those who were senior, were treated as employees who had a very limited role in curriculum matters and no role in faculty hiring and promotion. This was so unlike what I encountered everywhere else in my subsequent academic career.

Admittedly, there could have been faculty meetings that I did not know of, but I am certain that the departmental dynamics that are par for the course at most universities was absent at least then at Yeshiva. There was no such thing as a salary scale or faculty participation in tenure decisions or in a host of matters that are familiar fare elsewhere. When in the late 1970's the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a faculty dispute arising at Yeshiva that faculty members were not employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act because they essentially were managers who participated in all kinds of key decisions, my reaction was that YU had pulled one over the Justices. This is a prime example of a bad case resulting in bad law.

As a part-time college teacher, I had little directly to do with what might be termed the religious life on campus. I had no contact to speak of with Judaic faculty, nor did I participate in any events of a religious nature. At the time, the religious faculty was dominated by Rabbi Soloveitchik and other notable figures who had already been around for quite a while and who continued to be dominant through the 1970's and into the 1980's. There were few, if any, young American born and educated Torah scholars on faculty, of the sort who are now predominant and who have clearly contributed enormously to the prestige of REITS.

As I recollect, the religious atmosphere at YU at the time was parve. There were students who studied in the Beit Midrash with intensity but they were relatively few in number. At the other end of the spectrum, there were students who had no use for religious study and I was told that more than a few deviated substantially from religious norms, including the playing of radios in the dormitories on Shabbos. But overwhelmingly the student body at the time appeared to be solidly Orthodox, with few interested in pursuing careers in the rabbinate or religious teaching or Jewish communal life.

I take it from what I have been told that there still are students whose behavior is in a religious sense deviant. Likely, it is impossible to avoid this in an institution of the size and diversity of Yeshiva. What is most striking is the abundant evidence of how many of those who have gone through Yeshiva College and continued in REITS are intensely committed to Torah study and to careers that enrich the Jewish people. Forty years ago, few would have thought that at its main campus the Yeshiva University of the 21st century would have so strong a religious character. I certainly did not believe that this would be the case. Happily, I was wrong and happily the Jewish people worldwide have benefited as a consequence.