Forget the teeth-gnashing already occasioned by a new study on Jewish identity in the U.S. by the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. The only thing every generation of Jews has in common is the conviction that it will be the last. What matters for the continuity of Jewish life is quality, not quantity. And in today’s America, Jewish intellectual, cultural, spiritual and religious life is flourishing. Case in point: Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, New Jersey, known as BMG or simply “Lakewood” -- one of the two biggest yeshivas, or Talmudic colleges, in the history of the world.
At Lakewood, 6,700 undergraduate and graduate students pursue a curriculum focused on the Babylonian Talmud, the compendium of legal argument and ethical narrative that has informed traditional Judaism for a millennium and a half. Even at the height of the golden age of yeshivas in pre-war Europe, it is doubtful if that many people were studying the Talmud full time. The once-famed yeshiva at Volozhin (modern Valozhyn, now in Belarus), the progenitor of the modern yeshiva movement, had no more than 300 students, and perhaps as few as 150; only 60 were officially registered.
Then there is the mode of instruction at BMG, which presents a strikingly disruptive model of higher education. Every term, each student must sign up for a chabura (essentially, a semester-long seminar group) presided over by a fellow student who functions as the faculty member. A free-market system governs the organization of the seminars. There’s only one way to become a seminar head: to be nominated by your peers who sign up to join. If you don’t have enough sign-ups, you lose your faculty position. If you’re good, students will keep signing up each term and you keep your post.
Tenure doesn’t exist, except for a handful of senior faculty. The seminars can range in size from as few as 15 students to as many as 200. The members meet for lectures by the seminar head and guided discussions several times week. The rest of the time, they engage in analysis, debate and discussion with assigned partners. Senior faculty are available for guidance and help as needed. Subject matter, too, varies, with some seminar groups focusing on specific sections of the Talmud and others pursuing a wider range of topics addressed by Jewish legal tradition.
In essence, the students are running the institution. Traditional Jewish education is usually thought of as intensely hierarchical, and in some ways it is -- respect for rabbis and teachers runs deep. But when it comes to the intellectual heart of the yeshiva, the core activity of Talmud study, the Lakewood model is astonishingly egalitarian and democratic.
That egalitarianism doesn’t extend to women. The yeshiva doesn’t ask anything about the private lives of its students (though it requires that they not date during their first term in residence, the so-called “freezer”) -- but it is resolutely, unabashedly single-sex. By the end of the first year or two, most students are married and have children. The wives overwhelmingly work outside the home, supporting the extended graduate study of the men. As a result, the women of Lakewood pursue careers, and the study schedule is set so that the men can participate in child care during what would otherwise be the workday.
An extended community of roughly 55,000 has grown up around the yeshiva, bringing investment, construction -- and political clout. In 2012, the New Jersey Legislature earmarked $1.3 billion for the state’s public and private universities -- and BMG was awarded just more than 1 percent of that amount, $10.6 million, to build a library and academic center. The state American Civil Liberties Union has sued to challenge that allocation and a much smaller grant to the Princeton Theological Seminary. But because the funds were available to all institutions of higher learning in the state, and recipients include Catholic as well as single-sex institutions, the challenge is on shaky constitutional grounds and will probably fail.
Inevitably, BMG represents a limited slice of Jewish life. Its curricular focus on the Talmud largely omits Jewish philosophy, history and literature of even the most traditional kind. Its rigorous and restricted life-world will never be right for the vast majority of American Jews, any more than it was for their European predecessors.
But the yeshiva shows that one kind of authentically Jewish experience is flourishing in America -- and that it is autonomous and independent. Its identity isn’t focused on the Holocaust or on Israel, but on intellectual engagement with the Talmud. The yeshiva is neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist.
Only 5 percent of BMG alumni become congregational rabbis. And 25 percent become educators. The rest are engaged in study for its own sake. They will enter the workforce when they are done; armed with skills of logic, formal reasoning and a type of critical thinking, they largely succeed after training in a professional field or going directly into business.
Graduates of institutions such as BMG won’t solve the demographic challenges to American Jewry highlighted by the Pew study. Moreover, the American Jewish community will not be fundamentally transformed by an Orthodox population that hovers near 10 percent. But BMG matters. It matters for the future of Jews in America precisely because it matters for the future of Judaism in America. By privileging ideas and thought over identity, it proudly stakes out a position of genuine durability.
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