Believing in the Ten Commandments

JR editor GEOFF SIFRIN interviews visiting president of Yeshiva U, RICHARD JOEL, on his recent SA fundraising & speaking tour
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Oct 30, 2013

RICHARD JOEL, president of Yeshiva University in New York, which has 7 000 students, was in South Africa recently on a fundraising and speaking tour. He was interviewed by GEOFF SIFRIN.

The man who heads the flagship educational institution of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, needs to be very clear about how to merge age-old principles of Judaism with the modern world. In the avalanche of technology and social media in which we live today, and in the American context where Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate, what kind of message should it have for Jews?

“I believe in the American dream,” says Joel. “But the tendency towards individualism and self-expression at all costs is dangerous.”

A good society cannot be built where there are no boundaries or “non-negotiables”. If there are no larger questions beyond people’s individual lives, he says, “they turn inward and feel ‘life is for me and I just want to do what I want to do’. As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t believe in the ten ‘suggestions’, I believe in the Ten Commandments. The beauty of Judaism is that it doesn’t negate the individual - it says you are part of community and you also profoundly matter.”

That may be so, but how to explain the fact that an increasing number of American Jews, according to the recent Pew report on Jews in the United States, have no Jewish identity at all, nor any interest in Judaism? For Joel, it’s the outcome of a generational process.

“The totems and taboos that worked before for keeping people Jewish don’t work anymore. Such as: Hitler killed one out of three; anti-Semites don’t let you live, or live in their neighbourhoods; Israel is this poor little flower blossoming in the desert with evil enemies all around. Also, the bobbas and zeidas.

“We assumed it would ‘osmose’ from one generation to another. But those things are ephemeral. Holocaust is history, most American Jews never encounter personally-directed anti-Semitism, and as for Israel, if you don’t come from a rich Jewish home where it’s a part of your heart, it’s an ambivalence. This is the first generation where being Jewish is an option, not a condition.”

Young Jews will exercise that option only if it gives them added value in building a life that matters. JoeI doesn’t believe multitudes of Jews in the United States have rejected their Jewishness. “They have not encountered it at all,” he says.

“Jews have survived so long because they always had a sense of purpose and community, to live with certain values and partner with G-d in advancing civilisation. We do that through laws - Judaism is a legal system. Some people don’t like some laws. I believe they were given by G-d, and through rabbinic interpretation we keep applying those principles.

“But in an elective society like America, where freedom and choice is the most important thing, this is counterintuitive. It must be profoundly hopeless if one believes life is completely random.”

American society’s trend towards dropping notions of G-d and non-negotiables is “cataclysmic if you are a minority and believe your peoplehood matters”.

Jews education is critical to Jewish survival. “Jewish life will continue if Jews know and own their story. To say: ‘I don’t want to be alone, I want to be a part of something.’ In the liberal Jewish movements, the majority of their children have not received a Jewish education, and it doesn’t work.”

How do you convince young Jews who haven’t had a Jewish education or meaningful Jewish experiences, of its relevance to them?

“It gets harder and harder. We invented the birthright programme for people who had never been to Israel - to say: ‘Don’t you realise you are part of a family that has value?’ But the follow-up is critical. In America you can be part of a Hillel group on university campuses, but then you graduate and you fall off a cliff, because the community isn’t organised for you except when you’re married and have life-cycle events.”

Jews have impacted in numerous ways on broader society. So, why should we have separate Jewish schools and universities? Don’t they isolate Jews from the world?

“We need to be actively involved with the world, but as Jews,” he says. “The difference between the Orthodox and haredi mindset is the degree to which you embrace the values of the world in community.

“Jews and others need to know each other, but we need to be able to focus on our Jewishness - on what is your community, your tribe as you define it. I don’t believe it works if we are all homogenised.”

Told that 86 per cent of Johannesburg’s Jewish kids attend Jewish schools, he asks: “What do they come out with? If it is only tribalism, it is not enough. The purpose of the separate education is what they get in that education, not that they are separate.”

Joel took over as YU president after a public scandal in which former students accused two rabbis of sexually abusing them in the 1970s, and he is often challenged on this issue.

In the last decade, he says, Yeshiva University has put policies in place where that sort of thing would be unthinkable - there are multiple avenues for reporting and acting on it and structures for equipping teachers, parents and others to immediately recognise and act on any signs of something like that. Background checks are done on everyone YU employs.

Some Jewish communities tend to hush up misdemeanours by its members, to prevent it going public. Was this a factor at YU?

“There’s a journalistic question here and a community perspective. Do I think there must be zero tolerance for any form of abuse? A thousand per cent! Do I think when something comes, the reaction must be to say let’s deal with it immediately and forthrightly? Yes! Do I believe the way to do that is immediately put it in the newspapers? No! Regarding the events at YU, I can’t go further because it is still in litigation.” He promises, however, that when it is over he will have a lot to say about how the matter was exposed and dealt with.

“There is a tendency in the haredi community to say we can handle the thing ourselves - and then it is not handled. But at YU a law firm was hired to investigate, which found that two rabbis were involved in abuse over a 20 year period in the 1970s and 1980s. It is inexplicable to me why they were not fired the first instant the knowledge of what they were doing surfaced.”

Perhaps it is a reflection of the times, how such things were handled in ‘those days’? Joel accepts that, but says it’s not an excuse for what happened.

“Even then, if I heard my son was ‘wrestling’ with a rabbi, I would come with a baseball bat. There was a culture of apathy. What would be done when a student accused someone of being a predator, but it was said we won’t go to the authorities and we won’t confront that person? I imagine people of goodwill would speak to the party, he would say absolutely not, and they would say okay, but we’re keeping our eye on you.”

A few days before this interview, YU fired a new employee found to have a record of sexual abuse, which the university had been unaware of. This can happen in any large institution, says Joel: “Yeshiva University is a $600m a year operation, with 1 000 employees and 7 000 students. Yes, we are going to make mistakes, but it is a zero tolerance environment.”

There is also a “gotcha culture”, he says, where the press takes pleasure in showing a successful institution or person to have erred. “This (abuse affair) happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it is an issue for the year 2013? Why?

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant. But we must be careful of collateral damage - naming someone who hasn’t been convicted. We don’t want a situation where people won’t go into the teaching profession because it takes just one student to make an accusation and it’s all over the press.

“The first obligation is to the children, to expose the evil act, but like everything in life there has to be a mature nuance. We need to say: ‘Let’s confront this, but let do it responsibly.’”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Choni 18 Nov
    "I believe in the American dream"
    I read these lines and went no further.
    What about the dream of almost 2000 years of exile ending, allowing this generation to finally return to their own sovereign state?
    What about Hashem's "dream" of gathering His children from the four corners of the earth.
    Mr. President of Yeshiva; You are not defending American Jewry. You are defending and strengthening the exile.
    You are committing and re-inventing the sin of the spies.


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