The Beacon Shining Upon Us

Failure to comment on the YU Beacon story, I am urged by many readers, would be like living in Los Angeles without a car. It’s just not done.

The media had their fun in spotlighting a time-warp. Was there really a place on non-Muslim earth where such a brouhaha could erupt over a bit of undergraduate extracurricular activity? I would think that the incident should be rated as an overall plus. Students at Yeshiva University – not administration – not only flagged the article, not only found it uncomfortable – both for its theme and for its detail – but thought that its presence was inappropriate to the principles of the institution in which they were enrolled, principles that they themselves endorsed. In other words, if it flouted the standards of the Torah, it didn’t belong there. Their collective voice was testimony to good chinuch and good moral judgment. Enough people will understand the difference between them and crazed Islamists.

But what of the content of the article itself? What does it say about a certain part of the student population of the Modern Orthodox world? Nothing that hasn’t been said for decades. Is there more promiscuous behavior today than a decade ago? I have no idea. But similar stories could have been told several decades ago? Does it prove that YU and Stern are morally bankrupt? Not at all. All it proves is that YU and Stern are willing to open their doors to provide a Jewish undergraduate education to a far more religiously diverse group than other schools. That may be wise or unwise, depending on the impact that the less religiously engaged have upon the others. One could believe that it is the wrong way to go, and still admit that the decision is defensible.

The nagging question in my mind is the intention of the author. We don’t know whether the story was fact or fiction; it may not matter. Commenters have speculated that the upshot of the article was that the student regretted her fling. She understood that trying to live in two worlds at once, combined with lots of alcohol, is a powerful elixir of moral failure. Most importantly, she was left with nothing but shame.

What kind of shame do we see consuming our wayward student? The author leaves this unspecified. Is it the shame of personal failure, in capitulating to drunkenness? Is it the shame of squandering something special on the spur of the moment? Is it the sense of letting down family and friends who expected more of her? Is it the betrayal of a personal code of conduct that she thought she was committed to? Is it not so much shame as fear of some terrible display of Divine wrath, producing a guilt so unbearable that the student wished all along to escape it?

Or is it the shame that we see in the many pages of Tehilim where Dovid reacts to his own failing in this area – the shame of standing in the presence of Hashem Who loves us, Who has been so good to us, and Who has every right to demand that we listen carefully to His instructions for our own betterment?

How we answer that question may be very telling about where we stand in our relationship with Hashem – and how likely or unlikely we are to be the next victims of moral failure.

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14 comments to The Beacon Shining Upon Us

  • dr. bill

    Very well said. In one of his tshuvah drashot, the Rav ztl spoke about david’s simple “khatati La-Shem,” absent all of the halakhic steps required for tshuvah. The young woman’s simple/unexplained regret is a far cry from the drama of David’s confession. Nonetheless, its value as a lesson seems more important than trying to prove the talmud’s statement: “ein aputropos le-arayot” is only relevant at YU.

  • Allan Katz

    A far more important question is how we help those who have fallen , express regret, do Teshuvah and get back on track both on a personal and community level.The danger of sin , is not so much the cheit itself , but the after effects of shame and blame on one’s being. The teshuva process begins with a Rosh Hashana – creating a vision for the future , a new game plan , and only once we have this vision we are in a position to deal with the past. People who say ‘ How could I do THAT ‘and not how could ” I ” do that – have a better chance of doing teshuvah. When we focus on ourselves as objects – ‘ I’ , we end up with problems of self esteem and blaming others , when we focus on the self as a process we can change and fix the past

  • DF

    The references in this post to Dovid, Divine Wrath, and Hashem Who Loves Us are unnecessary and overly frum. The rest of it is good.

  • micha

    The story’s message is “don’t do it — it’s a huge mistake”. Is it sad the author thinks this message has an audience in the YU – Stern population? Certainly. But the story itself isn’t shocking in message. The poor decision is in publishing her description of the topic, even if it wouldn’t get an “R” rating by 21st cent standards (or lack thereof).

    I think the author is quite clear about what she regrets, far from “leav[ing] it unspecified”.

    “That little pest of a conscience is screaming…”
    “I convince myself that I’ve learned how to make love.”
    “I know I can’t tell him I love him.”

    Her conscience isn’t bothering her on a religious level, but because she knows that sexual intimacy is just that, intimacy, and should be founded on love. But then again, that is what Hashem writes in Bereishis 2:24: “עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת-אָבִיו וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ, וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד — Therefore [because Eve was formed from Adam] a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” I am therefore un sure the natural morality failing that is bothering her can be fully separated from the religious one.

    [YA - You certainly have a valid point. Even so, there is an open question as to whether Divine directives that are well understood and comprehended ought to be observed strictly in response to Hashem's demand, and not because they make sense. In this arena in particular, we should speculate what will be more effective in empowering a person to resist the temptations of the moment: a thoroughly understood sexual ethic, or the sense that the Shechinah is waiting expectantly to see what he or she will do.]

  • micha

    I also noticed another phrase in this review, “She understood that trying to live in two worlds at once, combined with lots of alcohol, is a powerful elixir of moral failure.” We all live in two worlds at once; and in fact R’ YB Soloveitchik’s philosophy centers around that point. The problem is her choice of second world. The wording of this sentence makes this too much an anti-Modern Orthodox thing, something she clearly won’t be concluding.

  • Shades of Gray

    “Their collective voice was testimony to good chinuch and good moral judgment.”

    I think that’s a silver lining in this issue, and is even obvious to(most of)the secular media. This is something the students can be proud of.

    There is, firstly, an issue here of how much freedom the Beacon should have(I think they need much more guidance, and I disagree with their judgment).

    If you want to understand how this developed and where they are coming from, there is also the context of concepts like Tzelem/sexuality and whether it is appropriate(or even helpful) to be discussed in newspapers. This openness partially motivated the editors to form the Beacon. I’m unsure if anyone has given a blanket hechsher on this approach in all its variations, but I think this orientation in itself is not moral failing and some people need it.

    More generally and broadly, an issue such as this(ie, the specific issue of the need of the editors or anyone else to discuss such matters) can be evaluated both from a standard mussar perspective and from a psychological perspective which can enhance each other. YU, as their spokesperson said to the media, is a particularly nuanced place, and certainly have people who can address a nuanced issue in a nuanced way even while drawing clear boundaries.

  • Freilach

    קשה לי להבין למה לא מתייחסים להאיסור ועונש “כרת” שבדבר?

    [YA - Good question. But that is the reality. There are many in wider Orthodox world who share Orthodox beliefs - but take many liberties in practice. And then there are many who take no discernible liberties in practice - but have given up Orthodox belief! We need to take these pheonomena more seriously, and stop kidding ourselves that if we continue as we have for the last few decades, everything will work out.]

  • Noam Stadlan

    The fact that this article was published at YU is not proof that there is more or less sexual activity going on there than any other school. It is possible that this type of activity occurs at other institutions and is just less discussed

  • Shades of Gray

    One more point, responding to the editor who justified the decison to publish:

    “not everyone is lucky enough to have someone nonjudgmental and understanding in their lives with whom they can discuss their experience. The Beacon, I thought, would be an excellent place to start this elusive conversation.”

    An alternative solution–one needs an alternative to anything one proscribes– to any void which motivated the news publicity, is to encourage people to seek out “nonjudgmental and understanding” people, be they professional or pastoral(this would also seem to be relevant to an alternative to the various aspects of the Tzelem pilot program). One can also question to what extent a newspaper discussion can be effective.

  • DF

    “There are many in wider Orthodox world who share Orthodox beliefs – but take many liberties in practice. And then there are many who take no discernible liberties in practice – but have given up Orthodox belief!”

    An excellent point. I’ve seen lots of discussion about the latter, who are known as “orthoprax.” But I’ve not seen much discussion about the former. Someone ought to take some tentative steps towards addressing it. I’d think about doing it myself, but – alas – I’m already 35.

  • Abe71

    This post is certainly on target in its thesis that one cannot generalize about, or judge, a group (in this case the YU community or the MO community)based on the actions of a member of that group. All other valid reasons aside, b’avonoseinu harabim, to do so would be to place us on a slippery slope that no Jew or Jewish group (including the very large group to which we and the author of the Beacon article belong called the Jewish People) would want to find ourselves; and in any event we have enough detractors in the World who will happily place us there. I view this post as a paradigm for the proper way to look at and non-judgementaly analyze this type of situation, and hope that Hashem looks at us without midas hadin. Thank you R’ Alderstein.

  • ShlomoH

    Sad indeed for everyone. Wonder how many parents of a HS girl considering Stern as an option for their daughter heard about or read this story and concluded that Stern was not for their daughter? Yes, sad indeed.

  • Avraham

    “That may be wise or unwise, depending on the impact that the less religiously engaged have upon the others. One could believe that it is the wrong way to go, and still admit that the decision is defensible.”

    Rabbi, wasn’t Yaakov punished on account of hiding Dinah from Eisav for that very line of thought? Is segregating klal yisroel based on religious observance a goal? Have we not already seen the logical extreme outcome of that mentality?

  • Shades of Gray

    In his recent blog post, R. Steven Pruzansky sees a lesson in the Beacon story in terms of the need for education to adress a void:

    “Ultimately, the problem rests not in censorship or permissiveness, but in failures of education and parenting – a failure to transmit our values and to convey our way of grappling with desire and gratification. We have to overcome the fear of discussing those very issues that can be the most troublesome but in the long term the most spiritually rewarding. It is only the areas in which we struggle that true spiritual greatness emerges.

    If it causes one woman to retain her dignity and say “no,” the article was worth it. If the discussions of the seamier side of Jewish life cause even one young victim of abuse to turn to his/her parents and then immediately to the police, then the discussions were worth it”

    Already in 2009, Dr. David Pelcovitz mentioned such a void in connection with the OU Marriage survey:

    “We see over and over again in the communities, there’s something missing in the job we’re doing in conveying values about sexuality to our children, and somehow there isn’t necessarily a language on sexuality we’re teaching to couples.”

    In the same vein, Dr. Norman Blumenthal was quoted regarding going beyond a merely defensive approach to abuse and adressing a void(Jewish Star, 2008):

    “The corollary to that is that we also need to teach our children how to deal with their sexual urges and how to address them because we’re not really addressing that. We need to start talking to them about a Torah perspective on sexual urges and expressions.”