Q. Is there any difference between the approach to study in a yeshivah and that in a university?
Both are concerned with finding truth. But their aim is different. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay, “The Meaning of Torah” explains it. Heschel says:
“I came to the University of Berlin to study philosophy. I looked for a system of thought, for the depth of the spirit, for the meaning of existence. Erudite and profound scholars gave courses. They opened the gates of the history of philosophy. I was exposed to the austere discipline of unremitting inquiry.
“Yet, in spite of the impressive intellectual attainments offered to me, I became increasingly aware of the gulf that separated my views from those held at the university. The questions I was moved by could not even be adequately phrased in categories of their thinking.
“The problem to my professors was how to be good. In my ears the question rang: how to be holy. To Judaism the idea of the good is penultimate. It cannot exist without the holy… Man cannot be good unless he strives to be holy.
“In those months in Berlin I went through moments of profound bitterness… I walked alone in the evenings through the magnificent streets of Berlin. I admired the solidity of its architecture. There were concerts, theatres and lectures by famous scholars, and I was pondering whether to go to the new Max Reinhardt play or to a lecture about the theory of relativity.
“Suddenly I noticed the sun had gone down, evening had arrived. ‘From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?’ I had forgotten that sunset is my business – that my task is ‘to restore the world to the kingship of the Almighty’.”
The university trains a student in historical perspective, critical skills and technical expertise. It does not guide a person to holiness, to “restoring the world to the kingship of the Almighty”. It does not claim to do so.
Like the yeshivah, it takes words seriously, but unlike the yeshivah it does not cherish the Word of God.
It does not instil what Heschel calls “sensitivity to spiritual meaning… a drive towards serving Him who rings our hearts like a bell, as if He were waiting to enter our lives…”
The university is concerned with civilisation: the yeshivah is concerned with eternity.
Despite its critics, university education has its value, but it is the yeshivah that has both value and values.