On May 31, the media announced the passing of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. Rabbi Lamm was the iconic president of Yeshiva University, beginning in 1976, and he went on to become chancellor in 2003, serving in that capacity for the next 10 years. In an incredible bit of timing, the very next day, on June 1, the Jewish Theological Seminary announced its pick for a new chancellor to succeed Dr. Arnold Eisen, who had served in that role for 13 years. Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, who started her tenure in the beginning of July, is the first woman to occupy the office. The timing of the passing of one chancellor and the appointing of another stirred me to look closely into the two, as they represent the two flagship Jewish educational institutions in America — two denominations, two genders, yet both tell the Jewish story. I was privileged to be part of both.
In January 1997, I sat in at my first Talmud class at Yeshiva University. It was a life-changing move from secular life for me. Growing up, I had studied the Bible in school, but this was different; this was Torah. It was not studying anymore; it was learning. Chancellor Lamm was then the president. He was eloquent and wise, and he left an indelible impression on me. I didn’t really understand what he was preaching; it went over my head. At that time, I was just beginning my learning and still surveying my way through the tenants of Torah and Judaism and where I fit in. I wasn’t informed enough to absorb his philosophy, but I knew that he knew.
As many students in orthodox yeshivot, I learned the beauty of following a rabbi, trusting that he knows. Rabbi Lamm, who had a Chassidic flavor, was focused on the Yeshiva, while having to defend it from the right, remaining true to the synthesis of a yeshivah with a progressive, modern university. When I finally understood the convincing philosopher with the soft voice, I totally bought into the ideas, and I still do. Yeshiva University was established to create a modern orthodoxy, responding to the Judaism that focused only on the particular and that mainly looked inward. The Torah Umadda philosophy tried to balance Torah learning in the yeshiva, and the Madda — sciences in the university. Torah is particular to the Jewish people — revelation, while sciences are universal — creation. This philosophy, which embodies the idea of the “light unto the nations,” fashioned my Judaism.
In August 2008, I was sitting in at my first Talmud class at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It felt different. It was quite a move from Yeshiva University. While women and men study separately and shomer negiah (don’t even shake hands) at YU, at JTS it was all egalitarian, all equal. It was the way I lived my own life, except when it came to worship. It felt out of place to pray next to a woman. Here too, it is all about marrying the universalism of the sciences and the particularism of Torah, but perhaps in an inverted way. Progressive modernism is a given, but the Torah must provide the answers on how to balance the two. The challenge here is to defend from the left.
The two schools, both of which were founded in 1886, reacted in their own spirit over the decades to the challenges of the times. While YU reacted to ultra-Orthodoxy, JTS reacted to the Reform Movement which, in that view, was consistently marginalizing Jewish particularism; the “Trefa Banquet” — the non-kosher feast — in its first rabbinic ordination in America was the last straw. The two were much closer when they were founded, but grew further apart in the middle of the 1980’s. While JTS began ordaining women, YU was moving toward “black hat” orthodoxy in its Yeshiva side. Both had to deal with the place of women and ultimately with the question of homosexuality. By ordaining LGBTQ rabbis and now choosing Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz as the next chancellor, JTS had come full circle in response to both questions.
Perhaps polarization is a natural movement of finding your own, like-minded people. But I vacillate between the two chancellors. Both represent true communities that ultimately share the same story. It was not the invention of language, but the invention of the story that moved humanity ahead, and it would be both leaders who would keep moving the Jewish story forward.
In this month of Av, let’s hope the Jewish people find commonality between the two chancellors, and that they can build together. Let’s find the balance between revelation and creation to find redemption.
Chodesh Tov, —Rabbi Gadi Capela