Editor’s Thoughts: Defining the Yeshiva-Space

By: Reuven Herzog

The Jewish psyche seems to always center on zemanim – the day is regulated by times of prayer; the week is regulated by shabbat; the year by Rosh Hodesh and the holidays. However, less explicit attention is given to the other three dimensions of our experiences. Space surrounds us; it defines our experiences with other things both tangible and not. In this issue, we wish to turn attention to the spatial considerations of the Jewish world.

What does it mean for an entire city to have holiness, who gives it that quality and who is affected by it? On the flipside, what does it mean for a tent to be enveloped with impurity; or for one to be the focus of God’s presence? How does the design of a study space affect the character of our tefilah and talmud? How is spatial design an element of affirming a Jewish identity? Is there such a thing as real spaces, fake spaces, and non-spaces? And how much of a Jewish space, exactly, is the domain of the Jewish book? In the following pages we bring many of these and other inquiries into discussion with each other, showing how the questions of space in Jewish Thought are complementary and unified.

In this context I want to introduce a model of spatial inquiry and apply it to our own Yeshiva University. One of the most critical questions to address about a given space is its boundaries. Where does one thing end and the next begin, and what is the sort of relationship between the interior and exterior of a space? The university encompasses three undergraduate colleges, multiple graduate schools, a law school, two high schools, a community synagogue, a museum, until recently a medical school, a rabbinic ordination program, an advanced Talmud program for women, multiple kollelim, undergraduate Torah studies, not to mention the Center for the Jewish Future and the S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program. Its buildings stand in four neighborhoods in New York City, as well as in Jerusalem. Precisely where among this multitude can we find “the yeshiva?”

For this approach I am assuming that a model of a “yeshiva” exists, and that our yeshiva is based on it. Furthermore, I am not arguing what the yeshiva should be, or making hard prescriptive claims of definition. I instead want to make observations on some aspects of the yeshiva’s self-described internal coherence as well as relationships to the base model.

It’s reasonable to acknowledge the consensus that the Glueck Beit Midrash is the heart of the yeshiva. Looking to the previous models of yeshivot, Glueck’s usage is similarly only tefilah ve-talmud. With regards to how the yeshiva perceives of its coherence, it is where the opening kinus occurs and the weekly sichot mussar are delivered; additionally, its minyanim are referred to as “the yeshiva minyan.” [i]

Just as the inclusion of these batei midrash within the bounds of “the yeshiva” is without question, so too is the exclusion of the law school, the medical school, and the museum. Their uses are hardly yeshiva-like activities, and the people who occupy those spaces do not claim to be yeshiva students – many have no connection to the Jewish tradition.[ii]

But what of the spaces in between these poles of consensus? The Beren Campus and the women who attend school there have an argument that they should be included within bounds of the yeshiva. After all, the women’s undergraduate programs were established to be counterpart to the men’s dual-curriculum. However, these are often not treated as part of the yeshiva, to many of these women’s chagrin. Two years ago a group siyum was held in honor of Rav Schachter; this initiative included male undergraduate, semikhah, and high school students. No women were included in this effort, not even the full-time Torah students in GPATS. Though the scheduling of a co-ed shabbaton in Washington Heights was deemed by some to be inconsistent with yeshiva-space, none of the objectors seemed concerned that such events regularly occur on the Beren campus. In what is the most frustrating example of this exclusion to many, the beit midrash in 245 Lexington Ave. is often repurposed as a study space and work space for non-Torah subjects.

As we continue to develop our spatial model of “the yeshiva of YU,” what other structures do we include? Do we include all buildings on the Wilf Campus, even Belfer Hall, which hosts no Torah programming, or the Gottesman Library? What about the classrooms in Furst Hall; what of the offices there? Do the dormitories count; the cafeteria; the pool?

We can also inquire as to who is included in “yeshiva-space?” Semikhah students, MYP students, BMP students, Roshei Yeshiva all fit the roles of a classic yeshiva. As for IBC and JSS students, are they included? The college class-style learning, the focus on non-Gemara material, and the ability to include afternoon classes in an IBC schedule are certainly not consistent with the classic yeshiva style of seder and shiur. And while nearly all MYP teachers are given the title “Rosh Yeshiva,” this does not seem to apply to the other programs’ faculty.

When are the boundaries of yeshiva-space? Let’s assume for a moment that all YU male undergraduates occupy this space. But when are they in it, and when are they out of it? Are they considered in the yeshiva only when they are learning in the beit midrash, and they are exclusively college students from 3 PM onwards? Or are they benei yeshiva all day long, just like the kollel fellows?

To examine two ramifications of these theoretical questions, first let us take the case of night seder. A yeshivatypically includes three sedarim: morning, afternoon, and night, and the expectation is that the student is devoting nearly all of his time to immersive Torah study. If one is inhabiting yeshiva-space all day, then attending night seder is a reasonable expectation. However, if after 3:00 the undergraduate men leave yeshiva-space, then their calculus changes. A college student has both “vocational” responsibilities – class attendance and homework – but also is expected to use this time to cautiously enter the adult world: run errands and live self-sufficiently, develop hobbies, cultivate friendships, enjoy outside leisure. Talmud Torah here fits in as an avocational responsibility, juggled with everything else; and the college student has already devoted five hours in the day to such study; more may be admirable but certainly not expected.

Second, we will consider recent debates on campus which have centered around appropriate levels of women’s inclusion in the yeshiva; last year the discussion surrounded the Klein@9 minyan; this year it was over an uptown co-ed shabbaton. Others have thoughtfully articulated arguments about appropriate conduct inside a yeshiva;[iii] I do not wish to enter directly into this conversation, but instead to raise a question on one of its assumptions, that these events took place inside the yeshiva. Some leaders of Klein@9 tried to argue that they were a “community minyan” not within the bounds of the yeshiva, and thus RIETS’s concerns should be irrelevant. Similarly, the recent shabbaton was held primarily in the Schottenstein Center – a building whose primary tenant is the officially designated “YU Community Shul,” whose attendees include minimal yeshiva students, and where co-ed interaction is regular and unquestioned. We should ask, therefore, was this shabbaton in the yeshiva; or was it in the adjacent neighborhood?

To respond to these questions, perhaps we can offer a spatial model anchored not on physical structures but on people. In this model, the yeshiva is not defined by batei midrash but by its students, wherever and whenever they travel. A student in the yeshiva should conduct himself as one at all times, from the start of the zeman in August to the end in June, shabbatot included. If it is not appropriate for a yeshiva student to partake in co-ed events, then a co-ed event designed for yeshiva students inherently runs contrary to institutional norms, violating the student-defined yeshiva-space.[iv]

The importance of delineating spaces cannot be understated. From both a descriptive and prescriptive angle, spaces have inherent qualities and expectations, and before engaging in questions of what is or what ought to be with our yeshiva and our university – questions of tradition and innovation, insularity and engagement, top-down and bottom-up authority, the Academy and the Mesorah – we must agree on a definition of those two terms. My attempt to define a model of YU’s “yeshiva” is meant only as a first step in this conversation.

Though questions of our campus community are important for consideration and discussion, just as deserving of attention is the broader Jewish world, which is what we aim to shed light on in this issue of Kol Hamevaser. Enjoy perusing the rest of our issue on space, and we hope the explorations within will reframe the way you see those spaces around you.

Reuven Herzog is a senior at Yeshiva College and Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser.

[i] The Fischel Beit Midrash matches many of these descriptive qualities. A further connection between the two: Rav Hershel Schachter is explicitly considered the posek of the Glueck and Fischel batei midrash and the minyanim held there, unlike any other part of the institution.

[ii] Other questionable occupants of yeshiva-space are the Revel, Azrieli, and Wurzweiler graduate schools. Semikhah students often attend these schools as part of their rabbinic training program, and Revel’s Academic Jewish Studies curriculum can arguably be defined as Talmud torah just like a classic yeshiva’s.

[iii] See articles by Sam Gelman, available at: https://yucommentator.org/2019/02/more-than-an-announcement/, and by Kira Paley, available at: https://yuobserver.org/2018/02/stern-students-shouldnt-access-uptown-pool/.

[iv] Further, we can distinguish between situations were benei yeshiva are occupying their home yeshiva-space (generally as a group) and where they are guests in other spaces, such as other college campuses or their hometown communities.

Leave a Reply