At America’s Best Universities, Biblical Religion Is a Curiosity, if Not a Menace

October 20, 2021 | Meir Soloviechik
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At the time of Columbia University’s founding in 1784, notes Meir Soloviechik, the leader of the local synagogue, Gershom Mendes Seixas, was made a member of its board of regents. A Jewish student even gave a commencement address, composed by Seixas, in Hebrew. In the 20th century, Columbia attracted numerous Jews with the relaxation of quotas, and was the first secular university to create a chair in Jewish history. Barnard College, Columbia’s all-women’s school, was itself founded by a Jewish woman, and today has a large number of Orthodox Jewish students.

This year, a few hours before Rosh Hashanah began, Cynthia Yang, a senior administrator at Barnard, sent an email to Orthodox students telling them that they would have to violate the holiday’s restrictions to report any positive coronavirus tests. Soloveichik comments:

Yang’s email is remarkable, and revealing, because it betrays her own opinion of Jewish traditional faith. For Orthodox Jews, the Sabbath laws, like the rest of the Torah, are kept first and foremost because we are commanded to keep them, because we must keep them. But not for Yang; that these “traditions” were anything other than cultural curiosities, easily discarded at her command, seems never to have occurred to her.

Her email further reflects the fact that in an institution purportedly committed to multiculturalism, the faith of Jewish students is unworthy of equal respect. Would Yang have considered composing such a nonchalant note to other ethnic or religious groups on the Barnard and Columbia campuses? The answer is obvious; indeed, it is likely that in this parallel case, Yang’s job would have been in danger. . . . In the age of intersectionality, it is specifically traditional Jews whose difference Yang considered unworthy of celebration and protection.

Yang soon after sent an apology, and an alternative solution was devised for devout students. “But,” Soloveichik writes,

it is impossible to avoid the feeling that, as a reflection of the ethos of the academic elite, Yang’s note provides an ominous omen. Jews encountered a unique embrace in America because of its love of the Hebrew Bible. A society suddenly hostile to biblical faith will become an entirely different America for adherents of Judaism; . . . many of those overseeing the most celebrated schools in America no longer see traditional faith as essential to the pursuit of knowledge and consider biblical belief a curiosity at best—and a menace at worst.

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