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University Protests

Written by שי טחן, 5/5/2024


University Protests: Empowering Truth Above Popularity

 Rabbi Shay Tahan

At various colleges across the nation, student demonstrations have sprung up in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict, following the lead of activists at Columbia University. These protests urge universities to distance themselves from entities supporting Israel's actions in Gaza, and in some instances, from Israel altogether. Since the initial detentions at Columbia on April 18, law enforcement has apprehended hundreds nationwide. While authorities seek resolutions as the academic year draws to a close, students remain steadfast in their activism at numerous prestigious universities.

Notably, teachers and professors are increasingly standing alongside students, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding students' right to protest and advancing their cause.

Upon witnessing the increasing support for this protest among academia, even at the risk of arrest and potential professional consequences, one may ponder whether their stance holds validity. After all, these are some of the foremost academic institutions in the world.

This sentiment is particularly poignant in light of the teachings of our sages, who emphasized the importance of valuing the wisdom of all people, regardless of their background. Perhaps, then, we should indeed take heed and reconsider the grievances being voiced against us.

אם יאמר לך אדם: יש חכמה בגוים - תאמן, הדא הוא דכתיב (עובדיה א') "והאבדתי חכמים מאדום ותבונה מהר עשו".יש תורה בגוים אל - תאמן, דכתיב "מלכה ושריה בגוים אין תורה".

“If a person says there is wisdom among the non-Jewish nations - you can believe it. If a person says there is Torah among the non-Jewish nations - don't believe it.”  (מדרש איכה פרק ב, יג)

The Prophet Yeremiah mourns in the Book of Eicha (איכה פרק ב פסוק ט) that there seems to be a lack of Torah, symbolizing morality, among the nations. However, our sages highlight that while they may not possess Torah morality, they do possess wisdom.

To address this dilemma, let's turn to the perspective of the Torah on this matter. The pasuk in our Torah portion(קדושים)  emphasizes the importance of honoring not only the elderly but also those who possess wisdom(ויקרא יט, לב) . Interestingly, in this context, "wise person" encompasses even young scholars. However, the Gmara(קידושין לב,א וראה פרש״י)  raises the question of whether an old wicked person should also be honored, to which it responds in the negative, asserting that we honor only those who are wise in both knowledge and morality.

We can initially interpret this on a surface level as the Torah discouraging respect for immoral individuals. However, delving deeper, the Torah conveys a profound message: wisdom devoid of morality lacks true wisdom and thus does not merit respect. Let's elaborate on this idea.


In the Amidah prayer we beseech for wisdom, acknowledging that it is divinely bestowed upon humanity:

אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּֽעַת וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנוֹשׁ בִּינָה. וְחָנֵּֽנוּ מֵאִתְּךָ חָכְמָה בִּינָה וָדָֽעַת: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה השם חוֹנֵן הַדָּֽעַת

You graciously bestow divine understanding to man (Adam), & teach mortals wisdom; graciously bestow upon us from Yourself knowledge, wisdom & divine understanding. Blessed is You Hashem, Who graciously bestows divine understanding.


The prayer delineates three tiers of wisdomחכמה בינה ודעת . Firstly, there is knowledge(חכמה)  of , which pertains to basic information acquired through study. Secondly, there is wisdom(בינה) , which denotes a deeper comprehension of complex matters. Lastly, there is spiritual wisdom(דעת) , a divine understanding granted solely by Hashem.

Interestingly, the blessing opens by declaring that divine wisdom is bestowed upon Adam. What's the significance of this connection?

The Gemara(יבמות סא, א)  highlights that only the Jewish nation is referred to as "Adam,"  אתם קרויים אדם, ואין עובדי כוכבים קרויים אדם, emphasizing a unique relationship between the Jewish people and the divine. This distinction is further underscored by the above explained prayer in which Hashem bestows "Adam" from His divine wisdom specifically to the Jewish nation.

But why are we the only ones called Adam?

The Maharal  (גור אריה בראשית א,א)elucidates that two entities were created last to fulfill and complete the world's creation. Just as Adam was the final creation, so too is the nation of Israel the last nation created. The essence of creation, as per the Maharal, revolves around wisdom. Therefore, anyone engaging in the study of Hashem's wisdom contributes to the completion of His creation. However, it's crucial to recognize that this wisdom isn't superficial; rather, it encompasses the profound depths of divine knowledge.

While colleges and universities typically impart foundational knowledge and some very basic level of understanding, yeshivas prioritize delving into profound comprehension. Furthermore, yeshivas instill in students a practice of continuously delving deeper into the nuances of Torah and Gemara. Students spend their days engaged in mental exertion, pushing the boundaries of their understanding. This pursuit represents the second tier of wisdom, known as understanding, which serves as a pathway to divine wisdom. However, this level of understanding necessitates moral integrity and righteousness, as it involves a refined wisdom that integrates both intellectual and spiritual dimensions, requiring the involvement of the soul.

That's why the Torah commands us to honor the wise, as their wisdom is intricately linked with moral integrity, and it extends the depth of wisdom to profound levels.

The contrast between university students and yeshiva students is evident in various aspects, including the concerning difference in suicide rates. While suicide is almost unheard of in yeshivas, it remains a prevalent issue in colleges and universities. According to Wikipedia, suicide ranks as one of the leading causes of death among students in the United States. Approximately 24,000 college students attempt suicide each year, with 1,100 tragically succeeding. This alarming statistic places suicide as the second-leading cause of death among U.S. college students. Moreover, around 12% of college students report experiencing suicidal thoughts during their first four years of college, with 2.6% experiencing persistent suicidal ideation. Additionally, a staggering 65% of college students have connections to someone who has attempted or died by suicide, underscoring the widespread impact of this issue.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly half of the student population in the educational system has been diagnosed with or treated for depression.

In addition to the concerning suicide rates, another aspect contributing to the shaping of academia today is the significant number of disillusioned youth emerging from broken homes, often influenced by progressive ideologies. Many of these individuals are grappling with addiction, with substances like weed being prevalent. According to the American Addiction Center, substance abuse is prevalent among college students and can lead to various academic, physical, mental, and social challenges. A study revealed that almost half of the surveyed college students met the criteria for at least one substance use disorder (SUD). Additionally, the 2019 Monitoring the Future survey noted elevated rates of marijuana and various illicit drug use, notably amphetamines, cocaine, hallucinogens, and MDMA, especially among individuals in the typical college age range, typically in their early to mid-20s.

When you factor in these realities, it paints a stark picture of the demographic influencing academia.

Furthermore, when you engage these individuals in discussions about basic Middle East facts, you often encounter a profound lack of knowledge. Their understanding seems to be shaped more by constant exposure to TikTok propaganda and the allure of popular slogans like "from the river to the sea" than by genuine comprehension.

Given these circumstances, the question arises: should we truly consider their wisdom?

Maimonides, (in the introduction to the Eight Chapters of Pirkei Avot), emphasizes the importance of accepting truth from whoever utters it, indicating that truth is not confined to those considered wise but can come from anyone who is factually correct. Similarly, Ibn Gabirol echoes this sentiment.

Indeed, as Maimonides teaches, even if the majority of the world subscribes to a certain belief while a small minority holds a different perspective but is ultimately correct, we must adhere to the truth, regardless of its popularity.

ברוך אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים

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