Yeshiva University: Why Corporate Governance Matters for Religious Liberty
Updated on September 12, 2022
The Orthodox Jewish community has been one of the crown jewels of New York City’s famous mosaic of cultures for centuries. The faith which began almost before recorded history has remained vibrant as yellow taxi cabs replaced horses and buggies around Central Park, and rideshare sedans now vie for the customers of yellow cabs.
The faith endures despite New York’s relentless revolutions because each generation of the faithful instructs the next in the prayers, language, history, and traditions of their people—how to love the law and to live in humble submission to the Creator’s guidance.
The passing on of a faith cannot be left to chance, as the Jewish community knows. In 1886, Yeshiva University was founded to ensure that authentically Jewish education would be formally preserved and passed down in the United States. The crises of succeeding decades proved this mission more important than even its founders could have known.
For more than a century, the university has fulfilled its mission. Just blocks away from Broadway, new generations of Jewish leaders have been formed at Yeshiva, through programs like the Jewish Living and Learning initiatives “Torah Studies,” “Sephardic Programs,” and Center for the Jewish Future. Alumni like Herman Wouk and Chaim Potok have told the world the Jewish communities’ stories through books like War and Remembrance, Wanderings, The Chosen, and The Gift of Asher Lev.
But the university’s efforts to preserve the faith in a changing world are not always celebrated by its contemporaries. Rather, these efforts are often openly opposed.
In August, Yeshiva’s dean pled with a New York judge to permit the university to continue operating according to its Orthodox Jewish faith. The dean found himself and the university in court after declining to assist in the founding of an official university student group whose mission, stated values, and planned activities would directly undermine the university’s religious beliefs and doctrine. The students seeking the university’s sanction sued the university, arguing that the city’s ordinances do not permit the university to choose what belief systems it endorses in practice.
The dean’s position is not one that garners support from the mainstream media. But the dean is not concerned with popularity; instead, his concern is for his university’s obligation to submit to the law of the Creator, as understood by the university's faith tradition. The dean pled for the opportunity to be unpopular in the media, if only he could be allowed to continue honoring God’s law as revealed in the Torah.
Unfortunately for Yeshiva, at this stage, earthly law has the upper hand. Whether by misunderstanding or mistake, Yeshiva’s corporate governance failed to hardwire its religious identity into the university’s organizing documents clearly enough to persuade the local judge. In a decision that will hopefully be overturned ultimately, the district judge issued an order compelling the university to officially endorse the student group, thereby putting the law of the city ahead of the law of the Creator.
Yeshiva, represented by Becket attorneys, recently appealed for emergency relief from the United States Supreme Court. On September 9, the Supreme Court issued an order delaying the implementation of the New York court's order, pending further United States Supreme Court action. One hopes this case will have a happy ending, one consistent with our country’s history of religious freedom.
However, with unplanned litigation, the process can be a punishment, even if the religious organization is ultimately victorious. The case reminds us that, in today’s landscape, a faith-based culture and a rich faith tradition may be inadequate to deter legal battles challenging an institution’s religious identity and freedom. To deter legal challenges, faith-based institutions must have strong legal armor.
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