In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Jewish college scene was intellectually dominated by a student-run organization called Yavneh. Dynamic and stimulating, this organization advocated for Orthodox students and provided classes and lectures to satisfy their religious and scholarly needs. The demise of the organization and the lack of a replacement raises questions about the future direction of the Modern Orthodox community.
In a new book, The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s, Dr. Benny Kraut z”l presents a detailed history of the organization. He describes its origins, functions, controversies, growth and eventual collapse. In doing so, he not only offers a contribution to American Jewish history, he (presumably consciously) describes the maturation of the Modern Orthodox community and the development of some of the problems it currently faces. As Prof. Jonathan Sarna notes in his Foreword, Kraut presents Yavneh as a “microhistory,” a paradigmatic slice that reflects on the greater community of which it is part.
Yavneh is much more influential than one might assume. Many of the students who participated in Yavneh during their formative years are now household names in the Orthodox community. Scholars and educators such as (assume scholarly titles for all) David Berger, Rivkah Blau, Gerald Blidstein, Shnayer Leiman and Joel Wolowelsky are only a few of those who emerged from Yavneh. R. Yosef Blau was even president of the organization for a time. The bulk of lay and academic thinkers of our community were shaped, at least in part, by their experiences in Yavneh.
As Kraut ably describes, Yavneh was full of excitement and creativity. Students led on their own, more or less. While guided by rabbis and scholars, the students still performed all of the planning, administration and execution. On college campuses that were bereft of Jewish scholarship, Yavneh participants taught their own classes. Against many university and Jewish establishment obstacles, they created a vibrant environment of Jewish learning. Additionally, they fearlessly tackled the tough topics that Jewish university students inevitably face — the conflicts between Judaism and secular studies and ethics. With great optimism, energy and scholarship, they boldly went where few rabbis were willing to go.
Eventually, Yavneh dwindled in the 1970’s and then collapsed in 1981. Part of this was due to Yavneh’s success. Universities became more accommodating to students who observe kosher and Shabbos; schools started offering Jewish studies classes. Yavneh became somewhat redundant. Additionally, the scholarly optimism began to fade and divergent theological views created divisions. I suspect that as Orthodox Feminism developed more fully, campus students split over its innovations. The left-right divisions became too sharp to gloss over.
Looking around at the thirty years since Yavneh’s demise, I wonder where else such an incubator exists. In my day in the early ’90s in YU, select honors students took specific course requirements and attended special lectures by R. Norman Lamm. Twenty years later, I’m not aware of any significant scholarship to emerge from those circles. Is it because we are still too young or because the group was poorly chosen or their program lacked a spirit of excited creativity? YU currently has a much more rigorous honors program but will it produce Torah U-Madda scholars?
I look around for the next Drs. Berger, Leiman and Blidstein but can’t find any. Maybe they exist and I know them but, because of the nearness in age, I look right past them. Maybe I am unfairly comparing the achievements of people my age with those thirty years our senior. Or maybe the Yavneh phenomenon produced a unique cohort of scholars that will prove to be a passing historical phase. Perhaps that first generation of Modern Orthodox scholars were shaped by their unique experience of building everything themselves in ways that later students cannot understand and from which they cannot benefit.
(Please note that this is not an invitation to debate any specific individual’s achievements or lack thereof.)