Why Did No One Defend Yeshiva?

I recently wrote a post on Hevria that caused a bit of a stir. The point of the piece was to, in a more-clever-than-wise way, point out that both yeshiva and college fall short in terms of providing a true education to their students, and for very similar reasons.

As soon as the essay went online, I started getting responses. A lot of them were positive. A lot of them weren’t.

Now, it’s rarely fun and almost never productive to argue with people on the Internet. The notion that anyone is going to change their mind about anything from an Internet argument is laughable (even the people who say they’re open-minded are not going to change their minds on any substantial issue from a comments section debate). Nevertheless, I feel these rather stupid impulses that I imagine others might find familiar…a certain need to have the last word; a need to prove myself, even to strangers; a need to defend what I’ve said, as if my reputation or something else important is on the line.

So I began to engage with the critical comments. And when I did, I began to realize that the point of my article had been grossly misunderstood. Most of the “negative” comments were people who felt I was saying people shouldn’t attend college, an idea that obviously aroused some emotion in some of my readers.

But then, as the flow of comments dwindled over the next few days, the plot thickened. Though many did not like my criticisms of college, and told me so, not a single person seemed upset about or defended yeshiva from my criticism.

Which leads me to the question: Why?

As far as I see it, there are a few possibilities:

  1. My readership does not include people who could defend the yeshiva, but does contain those who could defend college.
  2. People who would defend yeshiva do not for some reason feel the need or desire to comment (or private message me).
  3. My comments on yeshiva were not interpreted as an attack or criticism at all, whereas my comments on college were.
  4. I struck a nerve with those who would defend College, whereas my Yeshiva comments were so off-the-mark so as to elicit no response. That is, my criticism of Yeshiva was inaccurate, but my words against college were too accurate.
  5. Yeshiva is actually indefensible (that is, everyone thinks the yeshivas really are terrible), whereas college is better than I make it out to be. That is, my criticisms of Yeshiva were accurate, but those of college were inaccurate.

Let’s go through one by one.

  1. It is simply not true that my readership includes no people who could defend Yeshiva. I know that this essay was discussed at Shabbos tables in religious neighborhoods; I have friends who love yeshiva specifically and religious institutions in general who merely told me they enjoyed the piece. I also had several comments from individuals who went both to yeshiva and to college who had no problem criticizing college of both. None of these defend yeshiva, even though they could have.
  2. Even if for some reason there is pressure to not defend yeshiva on Hevria (and I don’t think there is), I received no private messages defending places of jewish learning. This, despite dozens (at least) of generally outspoken, unafraid yeshiva graduates who know me personally and would definitely not be afraid to share the opinion on the matter. I find it hard to believe that if there was a perceived attack on yeshiva, no one would say anything. Even if they all followed the general rule that argument achieves nothing (and they don’t), they might have tried to paint a more complete picture of yeshiva in their comments, just as many did with college. So perhaps it was not seen as an attack…
  3. — but that makes no sense either. I used literally the exact same words to criticize college and yeshiva, almost like a copy-and-paste job. Granted, previous events among the readers may have made them predisposed to defend college. That is, it’s not that they didn’t see yeshiva as under the gun, but rather that they were particularly sensitive about college because college students are ostracized, spoken badly of, etc. in the religious community. This explanation makes sense to me. However, I think it’s incomplete. After all, where are all these people who look down on college when it is compared directly to their own educational institutions? If there really is this much religious oppression, or cognitive dissonance over college, etc., I would think that comparing yeshiva to that secular institution would elicit some sort of outcry. But no such reaction was forthcoming. Again, I received not a single defense of Yeshiva from an entire religious community.
  4. Everyone who at all bothered to comment on the “yeshiva” half of my post had the same thing to say: That my criticism was spot-on.  Thus, even if my criticism of college was accurate, it seems to have been at least as accurate when it comes to yeshiva, and it was widely acknowledged at such.
  5. Of these five possibilities, I find this the most compelling — but again, this simply isn’t enough. True, the yeshiva system is widely acknowledged to have flaws, whereas flaws with college as a whole are much less widely accepted. But I had commenters who acknowledged the flaws of college, yet still pointed out that the benefits outweigh the costs. For yeshiva, there was no such defense. No one had anything to say about how wonderful it was that there was a place where one could be steeped in Judaism and its traditions 24/7, or focus worry-free on the word of G-d, or even merely exist separate from the world and yet somehow above it. These benefits are obvious to me. (After all, I was never saying people shouldn’t go to yeshiva.) Yet no one felt the need to mention them, to force me to qualify my criticisms…

And so, back to the original question. Why did no one defend yeshiva?

I’m not sure. But here’s a whimsical theory.

No one defended yeshiva because there is now a clear understanding in the religious world that any organization, institution, or individual merely participates in  or reflect what is Good or True, but is never itself completely good or true. In the secular world, however, there is now no concept of participation in an abstract perfection; there is only the thing itself, flawed until perfected.

In other words, since there is no particular vision of what college is, at essence, all of its failings are major detractions; after all, the next criticism might demolish the whole thing altogether. We must explain, against every criticism, why it is still a worthwhile institution. Meanwhile, since the Yeshiva at heart has an essential identity fully integrated into the Jewish framework, focusing around Torah study and all its implications, no number of incidental failures can undermine its worth.

People don’t feel the need to defend yeshiva because yeshiva is Torah study and Torah study is not going anywhere. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement, and this is widely (if not universally) acknowledged. But a criticism of the institution is not an existential threat to it; we can work to fix the yeshiva, but the yeshiva will always exist, as long as Jews do Jewish things. The Jewish society has a need for intensive Torah study, and that need will always draw the yeshiva into existence like a wick drawing oil to the flame. So when I say that yeshiva sure is expensive, a hundred readers smiled and nodded and went back to their business, because though the cost may irk them, it is merely a practical issue that prevents us from fulfilling our need for yeshiva more pleasantly and efficiently.

College, on the other hand, is not perceived in terms of the need it fulfills per se. Especially in its current form, it is very hard for anyone to say what exactly college is for. And if you can’t point at the need or purpose that is its sustaining core, any attack could be an existential threat. When I say college debt is ridiculous, there is some chance I might be encouraging people to avoid college or even, G-d forbid, to demolish it. This is possible because not many people really think of college in terms of what it’s for, why it’s necessary, or ultimately (as follows directly from those ways of thinking) what it is. And so, it must be defended.

All of which is kind of meta, since my underlying reason for criticizing both yeshiva and college is that neither of them teach us enough to think this way, to see the underlying structure of the world around us and engage it in a way that fulfills the potential of the human intellect and allows us to be noble, dignified, elevated beings.

There is no doubt that in terms of purpose and essence, the religious perspective has serious advantages in these intellectually muddled times. The very idea that there is a G-d teaches us to think in those terms. But I do not think that there is no secular way to think in them. On the contrary, with advances in science we now live in a world much more open to thinking in terms of design, purpose, meaning, form, and essence.

That, whimsically, is my explanation.