Narratives and the YU Newspapers

By: Dov Pfeiffer  |  December 7, 2022

By Dov Pfeiffer, Staff Writer

The Broadway musical Hadestown opens by explicitly describing itself as being a retelling. Hermes, who serves as narrator in the play, states, “see, someone’s got to tell the tale, whether or not it turns out well, maybe it will turn out this time, on the road to Hell, on the railroad line.” Orpheus, a main character of the play, spends much of the play seeking the right story to tell. Among many other themes, one of the ideas Hadestown explores is the value and purpose of storytelling.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about peculiar sorts of narratives: structures through which we can comprehend history in all its forms and stories through which we construct our values. These sorts of narratives have broad applications. Robert Cover, in his article “Nomos and Narrative” argues that, “no set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning.” Essentially, normative meaning comes from the complex interplay of the letter of the law, our stories and values that surround them, and the resulting balancing act played between the many different ways people conceptualize these ideals and the need to maintain a unified legal system. 

In her piece, “The Feminist Challenge to Halkha,” Tikva Frymer-Kensky builds upon a similar concept from a different essay of Covers, “Violence and the Word.” Frymer-Kensky discusses the foundational narratives of various Jewish denominations, and how they animate or impede their Judaism. Frymer-Kensky describes the standard Orthodox Judaism foundation narrative, very roughly, that God chose us at Sinai, giving us the Torah, which is unchanging and eternal, as well as an Oral Torah which was codified in the Talmud. Rabbis have continued to study and codify these laws so in every generation, Jews can know God’s will and bring the blessings associated with compliance. She notes, both explicitly and by association with other denominational narratives, the internal strength and coherence of this narrative.

Especially interesting to me is the constructive power of viewing radically different ideas in tandem. In my experience, seeing divergent perspectives descending on the same topic enables understanding of a vibrant, polysemous world that neither view in isolation could open. Especially in cases of deep disagreement, such a construction requires some potential for dialogue between the sides. If neither side can see itself in the other’s story or if basic details are blurred in the service of one’s point, potential for dialogue and resolution become endangered. When stock phrasing replaces thoughtful, novel formulations, we lose out on the possibility for renewed reconciliation.

I have found the YU newspapers to be a place where students often explore new and different approaches to various aspects of the Jewish community, often taking strongly divergent positions. With writers at a stage of life too young to have a full a priori approach to important topics, but at a point in their lives where it becomes necessary to find their voices on these issues, novel approaches, expressions of exploration, and creativity abound.

Personally, I don’t feel this divergence to be a bad thing; if anything, I think it is a credit to our community that we can foster individuals able to explore themselves while retaining part of our community. However, one side effect is that with so many students having unique, powerful, unexpected, and often clashing visions on many issues, conflict is frequently created. It is important that an alternate view is not seen as dangerous, necessitating the removal of the offending article from sight, but to honestly engage with others’ perspectives, attempting to learn from and engage with those who think differently.  

Similarly, given the value of exposure to alternate, often unconventional narratives, it becomes especially important for the editing staff to ensure they carve writers’ unpolished gems in a manner that allows the writer’s unique perspective to dazzle instead of superimposing their own image over the writer’s canvas. Indeed, this has always been my experience with my past editors, whom I feel compelled to take this opportunity to thank for their role in helping me express my voice. Further, I strongly encourage any YU student with a voice and the confidence to broadcast it to share their narrative with the world, playing a role in this great symphony I feel so fortunate to be a part of.