Are the Yale Four representing U.S. Orthodox Jewry

Should Orthodox Jewish students be subjected to the licentious lifestyles of modern-day Ivy League dormitories?

Does Yale University think it has the right to force Jews to choose between observing our religion and studying at the hallowed New Haven campus?

Those are the questions that the "Yale Four" — four Orthodox Yale undergraduates — want the Jewish community and Yale to answer. The four have sued the university in federal court for the right not to live on campus.

The answer to both queries is clearly no. Yale ought to respect the beliefs of Orthodox Jews just as it — and the rest of the politically correct academic world — purports to respect all diverse cultures and creeds. And surely no university ought to feel comfortable about actions that seem to place a sign on the gates of the campus saying, "No observant Jews wanted."

The question is, is that really what Yale is doing? If not, then maybe the national media has misunderstood this story.

Yale, like many other elite schools, was once home to a malignant anti-Semitism. But that is clearly no longer the case. The fact is, Orthodox students and Jewish life in general have thrived at Yale in recent years. Today, a kosher kitchen that serves 200 people every night exists in a fabulous Hillel house, along with facilities for daily services.

According to the clear majority of Orthodox Jews at Yale, as well as Rabbi Michael Whitman, the spiritual leader of Young Israel of New Haven and Young Israel House at Yale, the Orthodox requirement to "live within the restrictions of modesty is attainable at the dorms." And many Orthodox Jews live on the Yale campus without violating their beliefs or being unduly scandalized by the goings-on in other students' private space.

Nevertheless, national Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish organizations are joining the national clamor on the side of the four students, formerly known as the Yale Five until one of the students got married and was thus granted an exemption from the dormitory rule. Supporting them are the Anti-Defamation League and attorney Nathan Lewin, a longtime protector of religious rights whose work I respect.

Pundits around the world have made a meal of the story. Most comments center on the incongruity of students petitioning to be separated from the opposite sex. This "man bites dog" angle has been especially popular with conservative columnists who see the Yale Four as striking a blow for morality against the Sodom and Gomorrah of the modern university campus.

However, viewed from another perspective, the lawsuit by the Yale Four, filed last week, is just another chapter in the story of the dismantling of the university campus. The racial segregation that has reappeared at many colleges at the behest of African-American students is both ironic and troubling. The trend ill-serves both students and the institutions involved. And it is against that backdrop that Yale's stand in favor of students living together ought to be understood.

Yale contends that its status as a private "residential university" where segregation is not encouraged ought not to be overturned just to spare some Orthodox boys the sight of "women traipsing around the halls on the way to the bathroom," as one of the Four put it.

Whatever is or isn't happening in the dorms to offend the sensibilities of religious students, I think Yale has a right to maintain itself as a residential university. But it also has an obligation to make itself a place where Jews — Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike — can feel comfortable in observing their religious beliefs.

These two principles are by no means incompatible. As with similar problems, such as alternatives to electronic keys on Shabbat, which have already worked out, I think compromise is possible.

And I certainly do not see the preservation of same-sex bathrooms in the dorms as an issue for which Yale ought to be willing to go to court. But the problem remains that the Yale Four don't want a compromise that would have them living on campus under any circumstances.

They make a good point when they say that since there are exceptions allowed for older undergraduates and those who are married, why can't there be an exception for religious beliefs? But those exceptions relate to Yale's responsibility as the would-be guardian for minors — the old in loco parentis concept — rather than to questions of principle.

Yale's willingness to let the kids off the hook as long as they are willing to pay their $7,000 mandatory dorm fee is also troubling. They should drop that loophole if the university wants its position to remain credible.

But the most troubling aspect of all of this is one that the national magazines are uninterested in. It is the phenomenon of one group of Jews declaring that their position on an issue is "the" Orthodox point of view.

As with questions of kashrut or any other matter of observance, there is an implicit putdown of those who are identifiably Orthodox who don't draw the line in the same place that the Yale Five are drawing it.

If an Orthodox Jew cannot live in the dorms without having his or her religious beliefs compromised, then the implication is that all the Orthodox Jews who are currently living in the dorms are not as Orthodox as some would have them be.

Hard feelings are the inevitable result. And that's why the support for the Yale Four is less than universal among Jewish students on the New Haven, Conn., campus — especially among those who are openly observant.

Which leads me to think that the real plot line in the Yale Five is not a heroic quest for religious freedom — a fight that was won on Ivy League campuses on issues of kashrut and Sabbath observance a long time ago — or even one of a backlash against an immoral society.

Maybe it is that same old Jewish story of the struggle between the "black hat" ultrareligious Jews and the kippah sruga (knitted skullcap) modern Orthodox Jew. In that scenario there is no position more comfortable than being "more Orthodox than thou." Such stories are a staple of modern Jewish journalism and represent two legitimate points of view.

But those who see the Yale Four as the latest chapter in the history of the struggle for religious liberty are probably barking up the wrong tree.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer at National Review.