In December 2015 renovations to the Mendel Gottesman Wilf Campus Library came to a close. While YU is often known to embrace more traditional modes of thinking, the University has taken a surprisingly progressive stance towards libraries. Most people still define the word library as a building used to house books and periodicals, but the YU administration believes that this is an outdated understanding. Therefore, all the library’s books have been packed away and replaced with colorful carpets and lounge chair furniture. Students of Stern College for Women were impressed with the new look and asked that the Beren Campus Library be renovated as well. However, their request was immediately denied.
When asked for an explanation, the administration replied that the seventh floor of the 245 Lexington Building already houses a beautiful space perfect for studying both individually and in groups. The students seemed confused by this response. They knew that the seventh floor was home to the Beit Midrash, but had never noticed any additional study area there. The administration quickly clarified that students should not be misled by the words Beit Midrash printed on the entrance of this study hall. They also explained that unlike the Men’s Beit Midrash which is used exclusively for Torah study, the Women’s Beit Midrash was always intended to function as a multi-purpose room.
Many Stern College students seemed unsatisfied with this answer. They turned to YU’s Roshei Yeshiva and asked whether it is appropriate for women to study secular subjects in the Beit Midrash. They received a wide range of responses.
One Rosh Yeshiva explained that men and women are created very differently. Men lack a natural connection to God and are therefore required to perform time bound mitzvot. Women on the other hand are naturally more spiritual and are thus exempt from such commandments. Similarly, as a result of their elevated spiritual status, it is unnecessary for women to distinguish between kodesh and chol the way their male counterparts do. Another Rosh Yeshiva took a more nuanced approach to the issue. He believes that the only reason the women of Stern College could possibly be studying secular subjects is in pursuit of high-paying careers with which they hope to support their future husbands who will sit and learn Torah. Therefore, such study definitely falls under the broad category of limmud torah and is perfectly permissible behavior for the Beit Midrash.
A third Rosh Yeshiva stated that the students voicing this question needed to get with the times. Perhaps when Rav Soloveitchik was alive it was suitable for women to study Torah, but today, with the threats of feminism and Open Orthodoxy, the situation has changed. He paskened that the Beit Midrash should be used exclusively for the study of secular subjects since it is inappropriate to engage in assur activities such as women’s Torah learning in a place designated for holiness.
Despite the reassuring words of the Roshei Yeshiva, some Stern students still feel uncomfortable studying for their Biology exams in the Beit Midrash and continue traveling to the Gottesman Library. Upon learning that this group of students learn gemara and hope to matriculate in GPATS upon graduation, the administration commented that since these women don’t stand a chance in shidduchim, they are actually doing them a favor when causing them to travel uptown. After all, Roshei Yeshiva advise that their RIETS students stay away from those GPATS feminists who hope to have a chavruta with their spouses and keep their priorities straight by seeking a wife who will cook and clean instead. Now, these women have at least some hope of meeting their bashert on the shidduch shuttle or better yet in the library. The new windows, LED lights, and lounge chair furniture make it the ideal setting for a first date.