The Failure of Stern’s Torah U’Mada

By: Elka Wiesenberg  |  May 10, 2018

There has been so much controversy about the value of women’s Torah at Yeshiva University. Instead of following our emotions, which is what leads to our underappreciation in certain circles of Judaism, let’s look at the facts–without discussing the patriarchy we already know exists. We need to get to the root of the issue: what exactly are women’s roles in Torah at YU?

Yeshiva University is known for its iconic motto of “Torah U’Mada”–Torah and sciences, equal parts of a Modern Orthodox Jew’s education. The university’s dual curriculum for its undergraduate students promises vigorous learning and thorough knowledge of Judaic and general studies. YU is an institution that prides itself in having high standards for both of these essential aspects of a Modern Orthodox life.

At Stern College for Women, Torah U’Mada is operationalized with a Judaic core: a number of semesters, based on a student’s previous years of post-high-school Torah study, that she must be enrolled in at least 8-9 credits of Judaic studies, presumably matching the amount of secular education that she is getting.

This sounds like the ideal combination of a Torah education with a Mada one. Theoretically, it means that women are spending as much time learning Bible and Talmud as Sociology and Physics. However, when these classes are put on a transcript, the numbers reveal an ugly truth: Torah falls short of being equal to secular classes. The 2-3 minimum number of Judaic classes for CORE, advertised as 8-9 credits, that each Stern student pours her effort into each semester, are translated into only six credits. Somehow, the actual class value is trimmed down by thirty-three percent. This seems to reflect how much YU really considers its women’s Torah to be worth; in comparison to other subjects, the rate is 2/3.  

YU’s excuse for this reduction of credits, as explained during orientation, is that having too many “unusual” class credits on a transcript looks suspicious to graduate schools, or to any institution reviewing these transcripts. I find it preposterous to determine that nine credits of “Hebrew Studies” per semester reflects drastically differently on a transcript, even to an outsider’s perspective, from six such credits.

There is also the argument that not getting the equal number of credits to match the hours taken, makes the learning in these Judaic classes “lishma”–purely for G-d. However, all the grades are averaged together to form that six-credit combination, so each class is still focused on the grade as much as if it were worth its full credit.

The only results of CORE classes counting for two thirds of the credit are negative.

When a student knows that any Judaic class that she takes on CORE is not worth as much as any general-studies class that she takes that semester, she will not be as motivated to put her effort into that class in order to do well. Overall, the system makes women wrinkle their noses at the thought of putting in precious time and brain power to three challenging Judaic classes, just to earn one six-credit A. They therefore settle for less stimulating Torah. They take classes that won’t detain them from what will actually be on their records. This discouragement from pushing limits in Torah learning is absolutely abhorrent.

On a philosophical level, cutting down how much Torah extrinsically counts might subconsciously reduce the intrinsic respect that students have for it. Why should I care about my Judaic classes as much as my general studies, if even Yeshiva University doesn’t think they matter? When students are academically trained to see Torah classes as less serious than secular ones, it will likely have an effect on their view of the worth of the subjects intuitively. In fact, many women create their general studies schedules first, then pick whichever of the easiest Judaic classes “fit into” their schedules.

When the Rav conceptualized “Torah U’Mada,” Torah came first. With the diminishment of value that the CORE system implies, Torah barely falls in the same category.

How can the system be improved, so that women’s Torah learning is put back on the pedestal which it deserves to be on?

Pick a side, YU. If you want us to consider our Torah with the same value as our Mada, make it worth the same amount of credits. And if you want us to see it as more important, either make it worth more, or make it completely lishma. This in-between status is not only confusing, but disrespectful to the educational importance of Torah. After all, we didn’t sacrifice so much to be at YU, to then have our Torah be of such low status.

Maybe Stern students should be perfect. Maybe we should all realize the value of Torah without your help. But at the end of the day, most of us need our institution to make its priorities clear if we want to understand life’s priorities ourselves.