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Rabbinic alumnus criticizes YU English department for neglecting Western canon

The controversy has spilled over from the student newspaper onto social media.

Yeshiva University in New York City. Credit: YU.edu.
Yeshiva University in New York City. Credit: YU.edu.

Following an op-ed in one of Yeshiva University’s undergraduate student papers in which an alumnus decried the English department’s drift away from the “great works of the Western canon,” seven English professors at the flagship Modern Orthodox institution wrote that they are “disappointed to be subject to this unwarranted critique.”

On Feb. 9, Yitzchak Blau, a rabbi and rosh yeshivah (head of school) at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem, wrote in The Commentator that his alma mater’s English offerings in the spring 2023 semester emphasized film and literary themes that he thought pale in comparison to the Great Books. “Even if one finds the study of movies incredibly absorbing and deep, the lack of balance is striking,” he wrote.

The seven professors, including department chair Rachel Mesch, responded in a Feb. 14 op-ed, also in The Commentator, that the department teaches “canonical works and more.”

The professors noted Blau’s admiration for the humanities, but “we are pained that he would base his critique of our department solely on the titles of courses for the current semester,” they wrote. Recent courses have focused on Milton, Jews in Western literature, the European novel and Shakespeare in the Bible, they noted.

“Yeshiva College students thus have ample opportunity to study canonical authors in our regularly offered classes. But Rabbi Blau is not wrong to note that the focus and nature of many of the courses we offer has shifted since the time that he was an undergraduate,” they added. “Literary studies, like all academic fields, has developed over the last 35 years, and we would be intellectually remiss if we did not offer our students the tools to engage with those changes.”

That means addressing more women and people of color in courses, creative writing and “media literacy,” they wrote. They added that English course enrollments have risen dramatically since 2019.

“Our students express gratitude that we offer critical tools for analyzing the kinds of creative works that they encounter on a regular basis,” wrote the professors. “But these fields of study are not separate. In some of our classes, students study film, television and even podcasts in their relationship to traditional literary forms like novels, poetry and short stories.”

The discussion has since spilled over onto Blau’s Facebook page. “As long as the disagreement remains respectful, the Modern Orthodox community is enhanced by such disputations,” he wrote. He then launched into a five-point response that has so far drawn 16 comments.

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