The Role of Yeshiva University Today

Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference

On Sunday 22nd October 2017, Rabbi Sacks participated in a public conversation with Rabbi Ari Lamm as part of Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference, held under the direction and leadership of its new President, Rabbi Dr Ari Berman.

Listen to the audio recording of the full conversation with Rabbi Lamm, which includes the clip featured in this video.

Rabbi Ari Lamm:

The entire world feels like it’s changing as rapidly as one can imagine. The Jewish community, in many ways, feels as if it’s at a crossroads. Yeshiva University is about to enter into a new era. So, at this propitious time, if you could see Yeshiva University play a role in the Jewish community, in the world, what would that role be?

Rabbi Sacks:

I think you can define it fairly precisely. You know the demographic projections for American Jewry, and I’m not making any denominational points here, but according to the Pew survey of November 2013, outside of orthodoxy, the out-marriage rate was running then at 71%. The only really growth areas, the only one, is orthodoxy. The end result is if you do the demographic projections, 25 years from now America will be the dominantly orthodox community, which it has not been since 1880. So, Yeshiva University will have the challenge of providing leadership, not just for the Orthodox community, but for the American Jewish community as a whole, and when it does so, I hope it will do a little better than spend all our time working out the goyim hate us - the isolation of Israel, the existence of antisemitism - they are real, but they are incredibly negative.

If that’s all our kids learn about, they will not want to be Jews. Here’s an even scarier statistic, and it came out from a Pew report three weeks ago. Young American Jews 30 years and younger when asked, “What religion are you?” 53% say, “None.”

Now, if that is not a spiritual failure, I don’t know what is. And work out when these things are happening. We know that this is the worst of possible worlds. Everyone hates us, and white supremacy in Charlottesville, and jihadist in Barcelona, and Iran, and Hamas, and Hezbollah. We know this stuff, but for heaven’s sake, we’ve been around for 4000 years. Tell me any other time in those 200 generations of our ancestors when we had simultaneously sovereignty and independence in the State and Land of Israel, and freedom and equality in the diaspora. Every prayer of our bubbas and zeidas and their bubbas and zeidas has been answered, and what are Jews doing with it? Walking away. I mean, gevalt! Abba Eban was right. We are the people who can’t take yes for an answer.

I want to see Yeshiva University go out there and deliver an intellectually powerful message to the world. You just mentioned the first thing you’re going to deal with is artificial intelligence. I have to tell you; I met just a couple of months ago with three Charedim of the Eidah Chareidit in Yerushalayim who are doing the morality programme for the artificial intelligence for autonomous, self-driving vehicles. If the vehicle is on an icy road, and it’s skidding, and there’s two cyclists it could bump into, and one’s wearing a helmet, and the other one isn’t, which you choose to bump into? Obviously, mitzad echad, you choose to bump into the one wearing a safety helmet because he may survive where the other one won't. Mitzad sheini, you’re penalising the one who is doing what he ought to do, wearing a safety belt, and rewarding the guy who’s flouting the law but not wearing it.

Now, you ask the geeks in Stanford and Palo Alto to work that one out, they don’t know where to begin. You ask guys who spend their whole day learning Gemara, “Of course. Yeah. Sure. This is so …” So, this is terrific, but even more important, what makes our intelligence special? What makes humans human? What makes us with b'tzelmaynu kidmutainu? I don’t know if you’ve read Yuval Harari’s second book, (not Sapiens but Homo Deus). If you get to the end, right at the end, he says: What counts? What makes us human? Is it consciousness or is it intelligence? If it’s intelligence, we’ve lost already.”

I was at TED this year in Vancouver with Gary Kasparov the world chess champion, who 20 years ago was beaten by IBM’s Deep Blue. So, in a world of artificial intelligence, what makes us b'tzelem Elokim? Now, that’s a good question. I’m not going to give you the answer. You work it out for yourself, but that’s what non-Jews are hungry for.

I repeat, you deliver that in the Wall Street Journal, the Charedim will love it and the Chilonian will love it. They will suddenly say, “Oh, now I understand. We’ve been learning Gemara for at least thousands of years. Now I know because modern life is throwing up these dilemmas of such specificity and complexity that were made for a Talmudic mind.”

That, I think, is number one: intellectual rigour. Number two, let us not be bashful about this, real spirituality. This is, what, 50 years since the Rav published, 52 years, 53 years, The Lonely Man of Faith? What major theological, spiritual statement has come from us in those 50 years? It’s all great and wonderful to quote the Rosh haYeshiva from 100 years ago, but ein lecha shoftim ela eina. Each generation has to make its own chatzotzrut. Each generation has to provide its own judges because we are the timeless but set in time.

What is spirituality for this generation? For the Facebook generation? We are experimenting with this. We brought out 10 little four-minute videos from first night Selichot to Erev Yom Kippur, just to begin seeing, “Can we deliver spirituality in four minutes on a YouTube video?” I’m not sure that we succeeded, but we are going to work on this, and maybe you can only do spirituality in the flesh. Maybe you can only do it with a Kabbalat Shabbat or a Febrengen or something.

So, aim high, and aim for powerful intellectual rigour and real spirituality, but don’t aim yourself at a narrow audience. Try and speak to the universal and the particular. Try and speak to as wide an audience as you can get, and you will find that you’re getting deeper and deeper into our bedrock humanity, and when you do that the words carry conviction and authority.