Will Professor Lawrence Schiffman Become the Next Chancellor of Yeshiva University?

Recently, news has been trickling out that Rabbi Norman Lamm, the powerful former president of Yeshiva University, has resigned from the post he held as chancellor of that institution over the past decade.

According to some reports, Lamm has been suffering from health problems for several years. In his resignation letter, written with help from his family, Lamm expresses regret for concealing certain allegations of sex abuse at Yeshiva—allegations that have tragically put a spotlight on ethical improprieties at New York’s elite orthodox Jewish university and its associated high school.

Now then, begins the arduous task of finding a new chancellor for Yeshiva. As Prof. Samuel Heilman has indicated, “it will be very difficult to find someone who can serve both as a moral leader, Torah scholar, and Jewish public intellectual with an advanced university education who embodies modern Orthodoxy as does Rabbi Lamm.”

In my view, however, a preeminent choice does offer itself. In the interest of encouraging speedy reflection and a vote on this matter, I do not hesitate to recommend that Professor Lawrence Schiffman, YU’s current Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, be rapidly appointed to fill the vacancy left by Rabbi Lamm. Reflecting his capacity to make fast and daring decisions—even with no previous announcement when necessary—Dr. Schiffman left his prestigious position as chairman of New York University’s Jewish Studies department to assume the Yeshiva position in January 2011.

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Lawrence Schiffman (at left)

Lawrence Schiffman has long served as one of the nation’s outstanding educators, as well as a unique voice for a faith-based perspective in historical research. At the same time, his role in establishing a new direction in academic politics is a central one, particularly in view of the frequency with which his authoritative statements in this regard are cited in the press. (I myself will refer to some of these statements below.)

What is this new direction in academic discourse and practice? In a word, it involves a gradual casting aside of purported “civility” within the ivory tower, a “civility” that so very often turns out to be a mask for baser motives. This development has gone hand in hand with a welcome abandonment of long-established criteria of individual humanistic “excellence” (criteria now likewise unmasked as arbitrary “truth” claims) in favor of a far more appealing standard of media-friendly academic-network consensus. Over recent decades, in face of the often-commented “crisis in the humanities,” the development has been gradually embraced by various college and university administrators, following the lead of prominent academics who are clearly aware of the crisis in their general field.

As suggested, a strong case can be made, in my view, for Lawrence Schiffman being at the forefront of this new direction, carrying it foreword, in fact, into previously hardly imaginable realms. To again mention the above example: what other distinguished academic would abandon, brazenly and with great suddenness, a prestigious chairmanship with international panache, in mid-academic year, for a mid-ranking administrative position at another, local (albeit not third-rate), university? Although Professor Schiffman himself has modestly explained his move in terms of receiving a “big raise,” the real motive here was clearly not money, but great love for Yeshiva University—a love certainly far more admirable than outmoded, hypocritical academic protocols.

And for another, even more compelling example: what other well-known humanist would have the courage to send direct threats, threats that would then be highly publicized, to First Amendment specialist Eugene Volokh, demanding that the jurist remove information and comments posted by third parties on his academic website that address aspects of Professor Schiffman’s career in ways he strongly feels are deeply unfair? Indeed, the distinguished scholar possessed enough sang-froid to have letters sent, as well, to other legal websites that conveyed similarly hurtful comments! In my view, the character-traits this reveals—including, above all, fearless determination and perseverance in the face of adversity—make Lawrence Schiffman an ideal candidate for Yeshiva’s chancellorship at what is, for the university, unfortunately an extremely trying time.

It is clear that not everyone admires Professor Schiffman as I do; that not everyone feels his approach to the pressing academic affairs of our times should be seen in such an admirable light. Such mixed feelings are doubtlessly the fate of any public figure with the courage of his convictions. In fact, aside from the derogatory (and certainly unfair) third-party comments referred to above, Professor Schiffman does seem to have been subjected to a good deal of brazen ridicule on the Internet. To bolster what I feel is nevertheless the strong case that can be made for choosing him as Yeshiva’s next chancellor, it is important to take a look at the counterarguments that, however specious, may appear to have even an iota of substance, as opposed to the numerous statements about this great scholar that merit nothing better than silence.

In the latter category: while I myself, virtually all other members of what has been misguidedly referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls “monopoly,” and the mainstream of academics teaching in the field of Jewish Studies consider Lawrence Schiffman to be a revered specialist in the field of Jewish Thought (and indeed, to agree with the New York Times, in the general field of early Christianity), a handful of others have had the temerity to brand him a plagiarist, a dogmatist, and a careerist schemer—and to even present documentation backing up those outrageous allegations.

As indicated, these allegations are really hardly worth mentioning. What might seem to have a bit more substance is the suggestion that under the stress of confronting those outside our Scrolls Community who have made such allegations, in his choice of lawyer Professor Schiffman has displayed a rare instance of possibly faulty judgment. The issue is a minor one, but it has been exploited to the full by Lawrence Schiffman’s enemies. On Professor Volokh’s site, they have even mocked the fact that the lawyer signs his name as “Clifford A. Rieders, Esquire”! And they have even used that purported opening to poke fun at the fact that the lawyer’s firm, which includes colleagues Thomas Waffenschmidt and others, is oddly located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania: a town whose sister city is the settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And in an additional swipe at the lawyer that indirectly slings mud at Professor Schiffman as well—again reflecting mixed feelings at work about what I see as an ADMIRABLE step on that great scholar’s part—another lawyer has even alleged that Rieders “is busily trying to sanitize the internet of arguments that might … not-so-much favor Schiffman.”

What can hardly be denied is that lawyer Rieders has, unfortunately, not always worked in his client’s best interests. For example, he has even, it would appear, distributed false information about Professor Schiffman’s current position at Yeshiva, referring to the eminent Judaics scholar as the “Vice Provost of Yeshiva University.” In light of Dr. Schiffman’s well-known great personal and professional integrity, there can be no doubt that this information is being disseminated by his lawyer without the professor’s consent or knowledge. Indeed, on his popular website, Professor Schiffman describes himself with full accuracy as the “Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.” (Oddly, in what is perhaps yet another example of administrative confusion reigning, momentarily at Yeshiva, there seems to be some ambiguity on the university’s own website as to whether Lawrence Schiffman is in fact the Vice Provost of that institution, or merely the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.)

Just as oddly, perhaps in a reflection of Professor Schiffman’s distinguished “rabbinic” appearance marked by a fulsome beard, more false information about the revered scholar has been conveyed in both the New York Times and a news service run by students at Yeshiva. Clearly without any cooperation on his part, both these sources have falsely indicated that he is also a rabbi. Again, the professor’s lack of connivance in this misinformation is self-evident. Although he is doubtless well aware of the dictum in Proverbs that “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” [27:2], he will also be aware of the broader import conveyed by that other dictum, in the same text, that “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give.”

In the continued effort to besmirch Professor Schiffman’s indisputable probity, confusion has also been sown concerning the precise factors motivating his above-mentioned sudden departure from his prestigious chaired position at NYU—as indicated, in the middle of the 2010-2011 academic year. In line with what I have already suggested, some have urged that Schiffman, always the excellent entrepreneur, simply took advantage of a well-earned mid-career opportunity to improve both his professional standing and remuneration: ample justification, it seems to me, for a move on his part to mid-level administration! Others, however, have basely hinted that the move came as a reaction to the publication of an article by the Hebrew-manuscript specialist Norman Golb, a professor who is well known for stirring up controversy and who teaches at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

To understand the real nature of the attack that was leveled here on Professor Schiffman, a little background is in order. We are informed, in Tablet Mag, that

In 1993, Avi Katzman, an Israeli journalist, published an interview in Haaretz in which he pushed Schiffman on the similarities between his work and Golb’s previous writings.

“But you also, in different articles that you published, have not hesitated to appropriate portions of Golb’s theory without acknowledging as much, and without giving him appropriate credit,” Katzman asserted. 

However wildly unfounded, this might seem like a very serious plagiarism charge leveled, again, at a distinguished member of the Dead Sea Scrolls Community. But the scholar’s response to Katzman was in my view devastating, exposing those who have dared accuse him of a long-term ethical lapse for what they are. As quoted in Tablet Mag:

“This isn’t the issue,” Schiffman responded. “There’s no innovation in Golb’s theory… Golb can say what he wants… Does he think that he wrote the Bible?”

Judging from a recent account in the New York Times, Dr. Schiffman has been perfecting this strong and courageous line of discourse over the years. Not only did Golb not write the Bible, but, according to the esteemed Dead Sea Scrolls specialist, “Almost nobody reads anything he writes.”

In a manner that characterizes his scholarly writing as well, Professor Schiffman’s logic here was crushingly incisive: How, in fact, could he have plagiarized Professor Norman Golb, if nobody reads anything Norman Golb writes to begin with?

Enter Professor Golb’s son, Dr. Raphael Golb, who, some fifteen years after the original, unfounded plagiarism accusations, published a “detailed” account of the episode, along with a critique of purported misrepresentations of Professor Norman Golb’s work by Professor Schiffman. Dr. Raphael Golb even had the temerity to advertise Professor Schiffman’s alleged misdeeds with a series of underhanded texts, distributed via Gmail in the revered scholar’s name to his colleagues and teaching assistants at NYU (and to the NYU student newspaper to boot), in which the distinguished professor appeared to be accusing himself of plagiarism! Golb fils, we read, is himself trained as a classical philologist—and he seems to think this qualifies him to embarrass an esteemed academic through a nasty prank. In other words, apparently without a clue as to whom he was taking on, Raphael Golb chose, from a warped personal perspective of his own, to, in the words of Luke [1:52-54], “put down the mighty from their seats.” According to Tablet Mag, he even dared write the following in one of the fake self-accusations:

“Apparently, someone is intent on exposing a failing of mine that dates back almost fifteen years ago.…It is true that I should have cited Dr. Golb’s articles when using his arguments, and it is true that I misrepresented his ideas. But this is simply the politics of Dead Sea Scrolls studies. If I had given credit to this man, I would have been banned from conferences around the world.”

“The e-mail was signed,” the Tablet piece continues, “Lawrence Schiffman, professor.”

According to the New York Times article quoted above,

“I didn’t realize I was dealing with idiots,” Mr. Golb said.

Now Professor Schiffman is certainly no idiot. And, as I have suggested, he has always shown admirable alacrity in spotting an opportunity when one comes along. Apparently, he here saw a good deal more than an opportunity. “Once I realized I was being impersonated, I realized that this is a crime,” he explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education. And to again quote the Times:

“This has nothing to do with scholarly debate. It has to do with criminal activity. Fraud, impersonation and harassment are criminal matters. This was actually designed to literally end my career.”

In fact, Raphael Golb’s efforts marked—I would submit—a key episode in Schiffman’s professional career, steeling him for the trials that surely lie ahead should he be elected Chancellor of Yeshiva University. Clearly, what the department chairman and soon-to-be administrator keenly perceived was that he now had an excellent opportunity to turn around the outrageous plagiarism charges, and to focus attention on where it really belonged: namely, the serious harm done to widely respected academics when they are impersonated by (as he would explain to the press) mentally disturbed members of the public. The harm, he explained, is very real. As he put it to a distinguished New York Daily News reporter, “I was almost in a nonclinical depression.” The reaction is completely understandable because as Professor Schiffman observed, a most disturbing form of clinical mental illness seems to really be at work here. As he put it in the pages of the same venue where he had originally been accused of plagiarizing Professor Norman Golb:

“I call it the curse of the scrolls…it apparently attracts unbalanced people. There are people who get carried away and just go crazy from the scrolls.” 

Tablet Mag then paradoxically adds:

In a recent telephone interview, Schiffman himself insisted that he suffered no harm; “the opposite, I got a big raise out of it,” he said – noting his recent move from NYU to YU, where he makes more money than he did at NYU – “though emotionally it was very difficult.” 

No harm, but emotionally difficult? The reporter was here surely misquoting her source, in the process revealing her sympathies for Dr. Raphael Golb and her desire to cast a bad light on Professor Schiffman. There was certainly enough emotional distress, indeed alarm, for the eminent academic, according to the New York Times, to go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, contacting an agent he had advised on a prior case:

“You know how the F.B.I. says, ‘once you’re one of ours, you’re always one of ours?’ he said. “It’s totally true.” Dr. Schiffman said he had asked the prosecutors if they couldn’t just scare Mr. Golb. “Send some police in there to scare him and he’ll stop. They said, ‘you have to understand, we don’t do that. We investigate a crime, and if we find there’s a crime, we prosecute.’” 

Meanwhile, the plagiarism charges, we are told,

drew attention from the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences and the vice provost for research, who instructed Mr. Schiffman to draft a formal refutation of the claims. “There was no serious belief that I was a plagiarist,” Mr. Schiffman said, “but there was a serious requirement that this be disposed of in the formal manner.”

Dr. Schiffman, we are informed, was quick to put together a response, in which he explained that

Norman Golb has used a variety of methods, including threats, lawsuits, and use of the Internet to advance the claim that his point of view should be followed.

At this point, we can anticipate those wishing to cast aspersions on Dr. Schiffman’s character interjecting something like: “Now wait a second! Doesn’t this remind me of something? Threats? Lawsuits? Tell that to Professor Volokh and another commentator on Professor Schiffman’s own threats, former prosecutor Ken White. Or tell it to Professor Golb, who has publicly answered Schiffman’s allegations, rebuking him severely in a point-by-point reply.” But the response to such misguided reactions is contained in the facts themselves, as they unfolded. These facts point, I again submit, to Lawrence Schiffman being the single most suitable candidate for the Chancellorship of Yeshiva in our university’s moment of ethical crisis. On March 5, 2009, Raphael Golb, the son of Professor Schiffman’s chief opponent Professor Norman Golb, was arrested and charged with multiple crimes. We read that the Manhattan district attorney, in a prepared statement that afternoon, said that “Golb engaged in a systematic scheme on the Internet, using dozens of Internet aliases, in order to influence and affect debate on the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Schiffman explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education that:

Consumers of scholarship are very much nurtured by the Internet. They can easily be defrauded by people who are giving false impressions.

In a dubious account of the matter by Dr. Raphael Golb, included in a collection of material documenting his trial, we are informed, certainly inaccurately, that Professor Schiffman’s above-mentioned “confidential” response to the accusations was withheld from Dr. Golb’s attorneys until the eve of trial. At the trial itself, Professor Schiffman eloquently explained that Avi Katzman’s original allegations were merely

an accusation of too few footnotes to a guy. Norman Golb is footnoted in everything I’ve written. I have written seven books…I have written 139 scholarly articles. No one has ever accused me of plagiarism, and Norman Golb is footnoted in them.…I have never plagiarized Norman Golb.

Tablet Mag reports:

“I wasn’t supposed to talk about it at the trial,” Schiffman admitted. “But I realized no one would stop me, so I just went on and on, and the jury – they were eating it up.”

Interesting excerpts from Professor Schiffman’s compelling trial testimony have also appeared online, accompanied by the testimony of former NYU dean Richard Foley, denying that Schiffman was ever obliged to author his response to the plagiarism allegations: another reflection of the skill he has shown in coping with what has been nothing short of a professional and existential crisis. Professor Schiffman’s own testimony features an excellent moment—a telling sign of what he has certainly been able to offer Yeshiva’s students, in his capacity as Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, regarding their own successful career advancement—when he was asked, by a shockingly disrespectful attorney, whether he had an obligation to familiarize himself with NYU’s code of academic conduct. “No, there’s no such obligation,” he answered, gently rebuking his inquisitor. “I have breezed through the handbook. Nobody reads it. They don’t even give it out. It’s not even printed.”

This interchange points, once more, to the mix of rock-solid integrity and earnest frankness that has always characterized the actions of New York University’s former Jewish Studies Department chairman. Why should, in fact, the faculty members of NYU (or of course Yeshiva or any other university) actually read their faculty code of conduct? As Professor Schiffman reminds us, the real dishonesty here is on the part of those who lie to their students and claim that they have read it. The remarkable steadiness of Dr. Schiffman’s insistence on honesty in this respect becomes clear when we recall his above-cited statement about the controversy-loving Professor Golb: “Almost nobody reads anything he writes.” For, after all, how could Schiffman, or indeed any other professor, be expected to comply with a code that forbids so-called “plagiarism” if nobody reads it to begin with?

In weighing all the benefits Yeshiva University will accrue by appointing Lawrence Schiffman its next Chancellor, we should consider a number of lessons, each revealing his professional shrewdness, that he has offered us thus far in his illustrious academic career:

• When you are accused of plagiarism in an American university, do not answer the charges. Ignore them for as long as possible.

• Hope for a bit of luck – for instance, that your purported victim’s friends or family members will attempt to expose your alleged misconduct in an imprudent way.

• Meanwhile, cultivate contacts at the FBI; these can help you turn the tables on your purported victim at the right time with appropriate action in the courts.

• Also work on your contacts in the academic community. If things ever become too uncomfortable for you in your current position, you can always switch jobs, and possibly even receive a big raise.

• Hire a lawyer to assist you in ridding the Internet of distressing information about you.

• Above all, remember at every step that you are, to quote the words of Dr. Raphael Golb, “dealing with idiots.”

Apparently, we will all have ample opportunity to ponder this lesson over the coming months, because Professor Volokh informs us that an appeal of Dr. Raphael Golb’s conviction, secured by Professor Lawrence Schiffman and his police and prosecutorial contacts, is scheduled to be heard by the New York Court of Appeals in Albany. Indeed, an appeal brief appears to have been filed with the court in Albany in that ongoing case. Hopefully the proceedings will allow the academic community, as well as the public at large, to appreciate the intellectual rigor and steady professional integrity informing Lawrence Schiffman’s ideas and actions.

In this way, I end where I began, with an earnest appeal to Yeshiva University to rapidly appoint Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Schiffman as the new University Chancellor. It is in that position, far more than in his current post, that he will best be able to serve as an ethical paragon for the current generation of Orthodox Jewish students, thirsty as they are for both knowledge and honestly-earned professional success.