Keeping Torah in the Classroom

By: Tamar Schwartz  |  December 20, 2018

By Tamar Schwartz

Editor’s Note: This article is a direct response to the November editorial.

It is important to constantly re-evaluate one’s own values and ideals and crucial that a community reshuffle, rearrange and re-establish its core tenets to remain strong. For these reasons I am not shocked, nor am I disappointed that the phrase “Torah U’Madda” seems to be constantly occurring in Yeshiva University student publications. This unique terminology was the brainchild and title of the famous book by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, YU’s third president, which forms the shield of our University’s logo and sews the fabric of our institution. The somewhat vague term however lends itself–for better or for worse–to reinterpretation.

Recently, The Observer published an article that highlighted the blending of these two values in a general studies classroom setting. While I sit in the same lecture hall as she, I’ve found the weaving together of Torah U’Madda to be not only fascinating and enlightening, but a rich implementation and expression of what this university is, and frankly, why I chose it. If YU was simply a Jewish-identifying college that offered a reputable bachelor’s degree in a positive Jewish environment, I might compare it to other universities that offer similar courses and a substantial Jewish community. Yet, the luxury that a proud Jewish university can afford, I find, is perfectly manifested in this particular advanced biology classroom. 

I do not aim to disprove that the halachic implications and Jewish communal applications to our studies might differentiate us from similar courses in other colleges, but I wonder how different this is from any professor who presents his or her own interests and insights as glosses to the core textbook material. Any college professor who has engaged in research in his or her field will undoubtedly layer the basic lessons with further explanations, stories or insights from his or her experiences that will enhance students’ understanding. On a basic level, these “embellishments” often set college courses apart from high school ones.

Therefore, when Torah and halacha (Jewish Law) become those embellishments to the subject material, not only does the teacher have the interest and expertise to offer it, but a major group of the students will likely share that interest and appreciate the insights added to the general subject material. Like I mentioned earlier, as students of Yeshiva University, we have chosen to make Torah learning a real part of our college experiences, beyond a simple cushion to our papers and tests. By subscribing to the values of our institution, I see real value behind what Torah can add to Madda, and I see what the learning of Madda can do in deepening my appreciation for Torah and the world around me.

This particular classroom represents the whole, not only of academics at our university, but I believe it reflects the larger attitude we ought to honor, in that we do not only respect Torah and Madda as exclusive entities offered to us, but are compelled to allow the two to bleed into each other into a whole that cannot be replicated anywhere else. There are many nuanced approaches to this balance which every modern-day Jew faces at a crossroads between Torah learning and the liberal and physical sciences. There seems to be what to be said regarding the greater understanding of the Torah one can achieve through the mastery of science, yet without a doubt, learning madda is greatly enhanced through the lens of Torah, which objectively provides keen insight. For the individual as well, this can provide immense meaning which by no means should have to pollute the subject material and technical requirements it fulfills. And if Yeshiva University cannot fulfill this niche category, who can?