A Bleak Outlook for Orthodox Humanities

Chaim I. Waxman Tradition Online | January 31, 2022

TRADITION’s editor, Jeffrey Saks,  recently brought a fracas roiling the halls of the Ivy League to the attention of readers of these pages. As that debate about the state and role of the humanities in American higher education has serious implications for us as a religious community, Menachem Kellner joined in and expanded the conversation to its philosophical and theological first principles. Now, Chaim Waxman responds to Kellner, bringing his sociologist’s skills to sound a pessimistic note…

(See the index of all entries in this series.)

I am in agreement with much, indeed almost all, of what Menachem Kellner argues in his thoughtful piece, “Orthodox Humanities?“ I believe that there is significant, even essential, value in the humanities, and I wish that there were many more Rabbi Soloveitchiks and Rabbi Aharon Lichtensteins who were fluent in philosophy and literature and could utilize their insights to help understand Torah, mitzvot, halakha and hashkafa more deeply. Regretfully, I do not anticipate an increase in the percentage of Orthodox Jews, let alone talmidei hakhamim, who will be fluent in the humanities. Even more, while I do not question that there can be religious value in the humanities, I question whether the study of the humanities is religiously mandated. 

Not only do I not anticipate an increase in these endeavors, I anticipate a decline in the study of the humanities among my fellow Orthodox Jews, much as there has been a general decline in the humanities in colleges and universities both in the United States and Israel.1Data from the US National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the number of college students graduating with a humanities major has fallen for the eighth straight year to under 200,000 degrees in 2020, and “depending upon which fields you include in the humanities bucket, the drop in graduates is somewhere between 16 percent and 29 percent since 2012 . . . English language and literature — a major that used to account for a third of all humanities degrees — has been particularly hard hit. In 2020, there were only about 37,000 college graduates who had majored in English, down a third from 55,000 in 2009. History is seeing a similar collapse, down 35 percent.”

The reasons for the decline are varied. Judging from readers’ responses to an article on the decline, they include: real or anticipated employment prospects; the belief that the humanities have not made people more humane; learning history makes it no less probable that it won’t repeat itself; political science has not improved the political climate; the perceived prospects of technology; contemporary students’ reluctance to read because they find it difficult, boring, not fact-based or data-based; among others.2

In addition, it is highly probable that the humanities have harmed themselves over the last decades by following what the political scientist, Yali Peng, termed “intellectual fads”3 by denying the importance of facts in favor of “narratives,” and, more recently, by being “super-woke,” very highly sensitive to any potential criticism related to charges of insensitivity to social justice. Along these lines, the humanities in particular have also become tools of the ideological progressives who are anti-Israel and, thus, repel all those who are not so committed.

There are similar patterns in Israel. Between 1990and 2014, there was a steady decline of about 32 percent in the number of students studying the humanities as their first degree at Israeli universities,4 and the downward pattern continued.5 It is probably fair to assume that the reasons for the decline are similar to those in America, and that the strongest of them is economics. It is, however, almost certainly not the only reason, as there are other fields that face the same economic prospects but have not experienced such enrollment declines.

For Orthodox students, some of the issues are the same as those in the larger society and there are some that are unique to them. The strong progressive ideology and the pronounced anti-Israel bias of the humanities almost certainly repelled many young Orthodox men and women (and their parents). Even without that, however, there are more basic bases for the weak attraction of the humanities to Orthodox Jewish students. In the mid-1980s, I conducted a study of undergraduates at Yeshiva College (YC) and Stern College for Women (SCW) and, not surprisingly, found that the vast majority of them majored in physical sciences, pre-med, math, computers, economics, accounting, business, marketing, and social science. Only about 13 percent majored in literature, arts, or Judaic Studies.6 The main reason that the students chose to enroll at Yeshiva University was to enable them to continue their Jewish education while getting a college education which will enhance their professional opportunities. That they viewed higher education as job-oriented is not surprising. Theirs was a nearly identical attitude toward higher education as in the broader American society, where the vast majority of those who attend college or university do so for pragmatic purposes. As the president of the American Association of Higher Education put it, “When asked why they go to college, most students put ‘getting a good job’ high on their list.”7

At the time, Yeshiva University’s undergraduate men and women overwhelmingly rejected the dominant haredi/yeshivish position that viewed college and secular studies not only as a waste of time but as forbidden.8 This haredi position gained prominence in America of the 1940s and 1950s with the arrival, in 1941, of Rabbi Aaron Kotler (1891-1962), who established his yeshiva, Beth Medrash Gavoha (BMG), in Lakewood, NJ, and proclaimed that America’s Jews “must create an atmosphere of dedication to the Torah . . . without involvement in any external and tangential thing.” Rabbi Kotler9 and BMG have been the dominant forces in the American haredi world since the mid-twentieth century. In addition, many alumni of haredi yeshivot become teachers in mainstream American Jewish schools and convey the notion that higher education is, at best, permitted for employment purposes.

The Yeshiva University students overwhelmingly rejected the haredi stance. More than 82 percent disagreed with the statement, “Ideally, a Jew should study Torah only, without any secular study,” and more than 75 percent disagreed with the statement, “Secular study is permissible only insofar as it is important for one’s livelihood.” Moreover, More than 80 percent agreed with the statement, “It is a Jewish value to learn as much as one can, including secular study”; 85 percent disagreed with the statement, “Some types of secular study, such as the natural sciences, are important for the observant Jew, but not such fields as literature, history, philosophy, and fine arts”; and 80 percent agreed with the statement, “All spheres of knowledge are intrinsically important for the observant Jew.”10

It should be recalled that this survey was conducted at a time when R. Soloveitchik, though ill, was nevertheless a prominent, if not dominant, living presence at Yeshiva University. In addition, though R. Aharon Lichtenstein left New York to make aliya in the early 1970s, he continued to be an influential presence at Yeshiva University with which he maintained formal ties and visited periodically. And, in 1976, Rabbi Norman Lamm assumed the presidency of Yeshiva University and spurred a number of projects aimed at strengthening the ideal of both Torah and secular knowledge, “Torah U’Madda.”  In other words, this was time when the religious value of the humanities and secular knowledge was consistently expressed and encouraged. Even at that time, as indicated above, only a small minority of YU students majored in literature, arts, or Judaic Studies. In our own day, very few of the Torah U’Madda projects survive and the notion of the humanities having any inherent value has been reportedly largely dismissed. If that was the case at the yeshiva which had fostered positive approaches to humanities, it would appear that the prospects for a realization of Menachem Kellner’s vision are indeed miniscule. Increasing numbers of yeshiva students, both in the United States and Israel, will go to college or university, but overwhelmingly only for the purpose of getting a job. The notion of inherent religious value in the humanities appears to be even further on the decline.

On an entirely different level, I suspect that the cultural climate in which we live is much less conducive to fostering the universalism which is the subject of several of Prof. Kellner’s works. Though I cannot now point to data to substantiate it, my sense is that the more one’s environment is fragmented, the more the individual is likely to claim exclusivity to that which pertains to him. The interpretation of Jewish “chosenness” as a function of our innate qualities is much more likely to be adopted in a society in which Jews are widely threatened than in a society in which we are accepted as equals. Thus, Arnold Eisen wrote a significant work on how non-Orthodox American Jewish religious thinkers, who lived in a relatively open society and wanted to fully be part of that society dealt with the notion of “the chosen people.” Both the United States and Israel are now internally split by contrasting ideologies that are fraught with fierce partisan antipathies. These are settings that are hardly conducive to a belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Even if Menachem Kellner were not a good friend I would like to be optimistic about the prospects of the humanities within religious thought. As a sociologist who deals with the empirical I am less than optimistic, but having been an ardent New York Mets fan, I agree with the late Tug McGraw—“Ya gotta believe!”

Chaim I. Waxman is Professor and Chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department, Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem, and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University.

  1. I imagine similar patterns in Europe, though I have no data to support that. In any case, when we include the United States and Israel, we are dealing with about 90 percent of the world Jewish populations. (Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population 2021,” forthcoming in Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin, eds., The American Jewish Year Book, 2021, (Springer Nature, 2021).
  2. The Atlantic, “Life Philosophy is More Than a Credential” (October 2018).
  3. Yali Peng, “Intellectual Fads in Political Science: The Cases of Political Socialization and Community Power Studies,” PS: Political Science and Politics, 27:1 (March), 1994, pp. 100-108).
  4. Report on the State of the Humanities in Israel, 2016, research and writing by Dr. Yokhi Fisher and Dr. Adam Klin Oron (Van Leer Institute), 51 (in Hebrew).
  5. Israel Council for Higher Education, Press Release (October 2020), 5.
  6. Chaim I. Waxman, “Orthodox Judaism and Modern Society: A Study of Undergraduates at Yeshiva University,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Israel Sociological Society, Bar Ilan University (February 7-8, 1990).
  7. M.A. Miller, “The Meaning of the Baccalaureate,” About Campus 8:4 (2003), 6.
  8. This approach to secular studies actually has roots long before contemporary haredism developed. It can be found, for example, in the work of the kabbalist, Rav Yosef Yavets (c. 1440-1508), who was expelled during the Spanish Inquisition. He wrote his book, Sefer Ohr HaHayyim (not to be confused with the work of the same title by R. Hayyim ben Atar [1696-1743], known as the Ohr HaHayyim HaKadosh) against those Jews who engaged in philosophy and “external books,” “heretical works . . . to divert our people from the holy Torah and mitzvot that were given to Moshe at Mount Sinai in writing and orally” (Amsterdam, 1781, cover page).
  9. Aaron Kotler, “On the Maintenance of Torah in Israel,” in Va’ad leHaramat Keren ha-Torah: Kuntres Keter Torah (New York, 1944), 32 (in Hebrew). For an analysis of R. Kotler’s perspectives, see Yoel Finkelman, “An Ideology for American Yeshiva Students: The Sermons of R. Aharon Kotler,” Journal of Jewish Studies 58:2 (Autumn 2007), 314–32.
  10. The study was based on a sample representing about a third of the student body.

Leave a Reply