The Judaics Requirement: An Associate’s Degree, or a Forum for Growth?

By: Sara Schatz  |  December 29, 2019

By Sara Schatz

I was quite astonished to read the opinion piece, “Core: A Help or Hindrance?” in the latest edition of the YU Observer, where the author stated that she would “much rather be able to put the proper amount of time into [her] sciences and get amazing grades, rather than having an associate’s degree in something that does not help…in the long run.” Though I am aware that the Core requirements Stern currently has in place may not be ideal for certain majors, I firmly believe that the author has completely missed the point as to why the Judaics system was established. 

I would like to preface my arguments: I came to Stern for the Judaics, and I was not a true freshman. Thus, I wasn’t forced to be on Core for six semesters. It feels almost unfair of me to write this, as I acknowledge that I don’t know how it feels to be stuck in that particular system. However, I do know one thing: no matter how many or how few Judaics courses someone takes at Stern, everyone should acknowledge with appreciation that they have the opportunity to learn Torah seriously in an unbiased environment. 

Stern College was not created for its biology department. Nor was it created to have people live with other Jews in a secular environment so they can relate to each other culturally. Stern was created for women to have their own Jewish environment. 

To accentuate this point, I’d like to share a few anecdotes from some leaders who have witnessed Stern’s evolution over the decades. A few Shabbatot ago, Stern College was privileged to have Rabbi Saul Berman, longtime professor of Jewish Studies, stay in for Shabbat, where he related a story to us about the famous picture hanging up in our Beit Midrash of Rav Soloveitchik teaching the first Stern College Gemara shiur in 1976. He noted that the Gemara shiurim and our graduate program, GPATS, such established parts of our institution today, should not be taken for granted. Rabbi Berman, the Rav, and Rabbi Lamm faced major backlash from the Orthodox Jewish community for teaching Gemara to women, which nearly put the Rav in cherem (excommunication). Nevertheless, these rebbeim of Stern College stood their ground, because they knew it was important for women not only to be educated, but well-rounded, in their Torah learning.

On a similar note, a couple of months ago, I interviewed Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual advisor) of YU since 1977, regarding the discussion about changing the Core system at Stern. He stated that the Core program began in order to provide Stern students the ability to learn Torah seriously while simultaneously getting a secular studies degree. The website’s mission statement echoes this, stating: “…Stern College for Women is a pioneer in the field of women’s education. We offer women the unprecedented opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degree in the arts and sciences and immerse themselves in rigorous Jewish studies at the same time, in the same place.”

From these perspectives, one can infer that the original intent of Stern’s Judaics system was to provide women the opportunity to grow religiously post-high school. In this vein, the most effective way to accomplish this is by mandating Judaic courses, many of which do not simply teach the “practicalities of being Jewish,” but encourage us to think about what Judaism means to us. I don’t believe I’ve taken a spoon-fed Judaic course in this institution as of yet.

Does that mean modifications should not take place if it’s not working for certain students? Of course not. I am not intending to completely undermine the author’s thesis. I understand that the system has a lot of flaws, and is unfair to numerous people, particularly the true freshmen who need to take Core for six semesters. The mission statement’s description of this being an “unprecedented opportunity” implicates that flaws are bound to ensue. Yet when making this argument, one needs to at least come from a place of hakarat hatov (appreciation) and comprehension of a system that fought incredibly hard to create opportunities for women to learn Torah before they enter the real world.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik eloquently notes in his famed essay, Confrontation: “We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task; we have to cope with the problem of a double confrontation. […] We believe we are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community. In this difficult role, we…undertake a double mission…” 

The duality of Judaics and obtaining a degree is tricky. However, we must not look at it as a waste of time, but rather as something that will strengthen our religious beliefs as we enter non-religious environments in the future. Our college years are not idle points of transition that lead us to our careers; they are formidable components in life’s journey that create our individuality, not only as professionals, but as Jews. Let’s not take that for granted.