Editor’s note: Twice a month, we hope to ask four or five rabbis to answer a hashkafic question in 100-300 words.
This week’s question is: “Is enrolling in a secular college ever appropriate in today’s day and age?”
Suggestions for future questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope readers enjoy.
To answer this question, I would first need to ascertain the following information:
- What is the alternative to entering the university? Full-time Torah learning? Working? Learning a skill?
- Is this a course needed for parnassah or for the purpose of merely furthering one’s education or expanding one’s intellectual vistas or skills?
- What is the nature of the courses to be taken? Do they contain aspects that are halachically or hashkafically problematic?
- What is the environment like in that specific university vis-à-vis morality, attitude towards Jews and Israel, etc.
- Are there other observant Jews attending this university and specifically these courses?
- What support system will one have to balance out the secular environment and other negative influences of the university? These supports may include shiurim, a strong social network of observant friends both on and off campus, and observant homes to spend Shabbasos with.
After considering all these factors, I would arrive at a decision whether to advise the questioner to enroll or not to enroll.
— Rabbi Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Matisyahu, popular lecturer and educator
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The Talmud (Chagiga 12b) records a statement by Rabbi Yosei: “Woe unto people who see but do not know what they see; who stand but do not know on what they stand.”
Rabbi Yosef Chayim, of 19th century Baghdad, interpreted this statement as follows: “One who does not know what occurs on the earth below will not succeed in understanding what occurs in the heavens above. A lack in the wisdoms of the world is a bar to knowledge of the Torah” (Imrei Binah, 1:2).
Knowledge of the sciences and humanities enables us to see… and know what we see. It enlarges the scope of our thinking; it prods us to reach a greater “wholeness” in our religious worldview.
Today, the university is the institution that fosters advanced general knowledge among the young generation. By studying the humanities and sciences, students are exposed to the best that has been thought and said over the centuries. Moreover, a college degree is a prerequisite for many professions and occupations.
For observant Jews, negative factors exist – anti-religious professors, lax moral standards among students, difficulties in maintaining an Orthodox lifestyle. I was fortunate to have attended Yeshiva College, where Torah and college education are conducted in an intellectually and religiously proper environment. But not all students can attend YU for various reasons.
Students may choose universities best suited to their talents, or best in line with their professional goals. Some opt for public universities where tuitions are more affordable. It is appropriate – and necessary – for students to have access to university education. But choices should be limited to campuses with a thriving Orthodox Jewish community.
If we want Jews to function successfully in our society, college education is a sine qua non. The alternative is to condemn Jews to live in physical and spiritual ghettoes.
— Rabbi Marc D. Angel, director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals
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I am uncomfortable with responding to questions in absolute terms. When Orthodox students have to decide where to continue their academic studies, there may be individual circumstances that will justify what is normally a risky choice.
If the option of attending a religious college is available, it obviously should be preferred. This would be true even if the atmosphere in secular colleges was less challenging to observance. Growth in Torah is a lifelong pursuit.
The present climate on secular campuses assumes values that contradict our fundamental beliefs. Students naively assume that graduating a yeshiva high school and a year learning in Israel is automatic protection.
Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that it isn’t sufficient. But programs that that exist on some of these campuses providing support should be encouraged because the reality is that many Orthodox students and their parents will ignore my advice and make that choice.
— Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
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My father, Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet, a”h, sought to attend college in his youth. When it became obvious to him that the Lubavitcher Rebbe wasn’t keen on the college scene, my father wrote to the Rebbe and expressed hope that he wouldn’t be upset (have a “kepaidah,” as he put it) with him.
The Rebbe replied, “Chas v’shalom for me to have a kepaidah against someone. I am just doing my obligation of trying to help when you see someone going on a path that isn’t good for him.” There’s much more to the story, but it wasn’t until after he was married that the Rebbe “allowed” my father to attend university.
I have observed many a nice Jewish single attending a secular college and coming back grappling with varied aspects of his or her Jewish identity. Sometimes it’s because he or she may not have been properly anchored; other times it’s because of the general temptations that such an environment presents.
There is much truth to the saying of our Sages, “Don’t trust in yourself too much,” as well as their astute observation on the machinations of the evil inclination: “Today he tells you to do this, tomorrow he tells you to do that…”
There are inherent risks – hashkafic and otherwise – in attending a secular college. There is an added danger for an unmarried person, who lacks the strong foundation of family life to secure him or her.
Several Jewish institutions today enable one to get a degree without exposing oneself to these risks. Granted, a degree from YU or Stern may not compare with a degree from Harvard, but that’s where it comes down to a little faith that ultimately G-d provides and you’ll land the job and make the money you were intended to. There’s no need to gamble your soul in the process.
— Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, popular lecturer, rabbi of the Mill Hill Synagogue