Yeshiva University’s motto long has been “Torah Umadda” — Torah and secular knowledge. But how the two halves of Yeshiva University fit together has not always been clear to students. Jewish classes are Jewish classes, and secular classes are secular classes, and not often did the twain meet.
That is starting to change.
Rabbi Stuart Halpern of Englewood is the chief adviser to the university’s provost and the head of its press. His task, he said, is “bridging the Y and the U.”
Rabbi Halpern began working at YU 13 years ago, starting in its department of student life. In 2010, he had the idea of putting together a collection of essays on the weekly Torah portion from throughout the university, including “law professors, high school educators, roshei yeshiva” — that is, Talmud instructors — and “psychologists.”
“Mitokh Haohel” — the name means “from the tent” — proved a success. YU Press published a sequel on the haftorah portions, and three volumes of essays on the prayer book. It also got Rabbi Halpern noticed by YU’s then-president Richard Joel, who tasked him with creating projects that would bring together the different parts of the university.
This spring, Yeshiva University Press recently published two volumes that exemplify Rabbi Halpern’s work in bringing the two realms together: “Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth,” a collection of essays, and “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States: A Sourcebook.”
“Megillat Ruth is a passion of mine,” Rabbi Halpern said. “It’s about so many important topics like conversion, immigration law, elder care, and family.
“Ruth is a very radical book. People treat Ruth as a simple story, a happy story with little conflict and only positive characters. That’s one reading. But there’s also a radicalness. She comes from Moab, a nation that is a sworn enemy of the Jews. She pledges her allegiance to the Jewish people in a very radical way. She says, ‘Wherever you go, I will go.’”
That language, Rabbi Halpern said, hearkens back to God’s command to Abraham of “lech lecha,” go forth to the land of Israel.
“Abraham is told by God to go to the Land of Israel and God will take care of him. He goes with his family and wealth.
“Ruth is the opposite. She is going on her own, with no family, no spouse, on an Abrahamic journey of her own, with no reassurances that everything will be okay.
“How radical is that, having an immigration story that supersedes in a way our literal founding father? She out-Abrahams Abraham! And the book gives her the ultimate reward — she gets to be the great-grandmother of David and ultimately of the Messiah. This is an immigrant story.”
“Gleanings” includes essays by YU faculty. “There’s an incredible chapter by Rabbi Saul Berman, who marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, on immigration as a theme in Genesis and the Book of Ruth.” And it includes essays by scholars outside the university. Writer Ilana Kurshan “wrote a beautiful chapter on love in Ruth and Song of Songs,” he said. In keeping with the book’s promise to demonstrate the benefits of “the synthesis of Torah Umadda (Torah and general wisdom)” when studying the biblical text, the essay juxtaposes the biblical stories with verse by 19th century English poet John Keats.
“Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land” is an outgrowth of YU’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. “This is the first source book that puts the foundational documents of American history, from the Puritans and Founding Fathers through Abraham Lincoln, with the biblical verses that inspired them,” Rabbi Halpern said. The verses appear in both the original Hebrew and the English King James translation.
Rabbi Halpern said that his book follows in the footsteps of Eric Nelson’s book, “The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought,” which “shows how after the Protestant Reformation, many Christians were interested in going back to the Hebrew Bible. They realized that its writings have much to say about democracy and the rights of many. His book shows how the political philosophy that shaped America was in conversation with and inspired by Jewish texts.”
The book took seven years to create, Rabbi Halpern said. “As luck would have it, it arrived the week we read, in the weekly Torah portion Behar, ‘You should proclaim liberty throughout the land.’ If that’s not providence, what is?”
Encouraged by current YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman and his vision for an integrated university, Rabbi Halpern has run interdisciplinary programs on campus and off. He ran an online forum on the future of the book. Taking that show on the road, he ran a panel called “YU Ideas” at the Frisch School in Paramus. “We brought in three YU faculty members — an English professor, a yeshiva professor, and a computer scientist — to talk about the future of the book.”
He produced a podcast called “Reinventing the Self,” which was released last year before the month of Elul and the season of repentance. “It brought into conversation an addiction therapist, a professor at YU’s Cardozo Law School who changed the policy on solitary confinement, and Daniel Rynhold, a professor of Jewish philosophy who has a chapter on repentance in his book ‘Nietzsche, Soloveitchik, and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy.’”
On the academic level, he is looking at ways to create more formal interdisciplinary programs at YU.
“The Straus Center recently got New York State approval for a graduate certificate in Jewish political and social thought,” he said. “The coursework there will be of interest to students in the RIETS rabbinical school, the Cordozo law school, the Revel graduate school of Jewish studies, and the Azrieli graduate school for education. Coursework will range from a course in the biblical ideas of American democracy to a course in Lincoln and leadership to a course on art history and Jewish thought.
“We’ve also been exploring many avenues by which there can be overlap between our rabbinical school and our social work school,” he said.
He said he expects to see other interdisciplinary programs formalized and approved in the coming years.