Orthodoxy’s Champion of Sacred and Secular Synthesis
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
Altogether too often a nation fails to remember the people who were truly responsible for major achievements and breakthroughs in different areas of thought and action. Instead, it gives all the credit to those who come after and spectacularly capitalize on what was done earlier by the almost-forgotten persons.
Therefore, I am delighted that at long last greater recognition is being given the contribution of Rabbi Bernard Revel to the successful transplanting of Judaism to the Western Hemisphere. Others may have broadened the scope of his undertaking; still others may have defined and refined the conceptions which he advanced. But he was the pioneer, the innovator, who gave his life for what he believed; and he did so well that a cause deemed hopeless by most of his contemporaries became a spiritual force which no one can now ignore.
Dr. Revel was the founder of Yeshiva University and the man who appointed a dean of that institution who subsequently founded a sister institution in Israel, Bar-Ilan University. He was the dreamer who kept the faith that traditional Judaism can cope with the modern world and the challenges of the natural and social sciences.
Rabbis who hold that this is impossible and that Judaism can only survive if Jews isolate themselves in physical or spiritual ghettos still abound, but they too cannot deny that Revel’ s dream is being fulfilled and that they too have gained by his vision. Revel paved the way for their institutions to come into being and to enjoy status in America’ s open society without following the pattern of the Amish.
Revel was comparatively young when he died, and those of us who were privileged to be close to him in the ‘20s and ‘30s are now relatively few. His biography has been written and deserves a wider reading public. For those who may not read the biography,
I want to record some impressions of his life and career and add my voice to the tribute being paid him as Yeshiva University celebrates the 100th anniversary of its establishment. For this milestone, the U.S. postal authorities approved a commemorative stamp for Revel.
He was the first man in modern times to insist on the introduction of secular studies into yeshiva programs. His was a revolutionary step and evoked the wrath of many Orthodox contemporaries, as it still evokes the resistance of heads of yeshivot in Israel and the United States.
Revel knew that if an iron curtain continued between sacred and secular studies, the tradition would not have spokesmen able to cope with modernity. He held fast and made possible not only a secondary school education for his students in a high school of incomparable excellence with a greater percentage of students winning Regents’ scholarships than any ether high school in New York State but also an undergraduate college. His successor, Dr. Samuel Belkin, then added professional schools and a number of departments for graduate study.
Belkin expanded the scope of the university principally to enhance its image and its contribution to higher education and research. For Revel, however, the goal was an ideological “synthesis” his favorite word. He insisted that modern spokesmen for Orthodoxy be masters of natural and social science. Otherwise, they would hardly be able to communicate with moderns and expound the tradition. In addition to mastery of sciences, they must be able to achieve the sanctification of the secular, the integration of the best that humanity has achieved with the eternal truths of Judaism, the greater appreciation of Judaism because of its differences with other religions and cultures, and the reformulation 0F the cherished concepts and practices of Judaism and their rationalization in modern terms.
Until this day, Yeshiva students dream of the goal of “synthesis” associated with Revel’ s name. Belkin redefined “synthesis,” but many old-timers and many of the Orthodox “intelligentsia” still prefer Bevel’s original notion.
However, Revel was concerned not only with creation of an Orthodox intelligentsia. He also wanted to train rabbis who would be more than halachic experts. He wanted rabbis trained for the kind of spiritual leadership they must now exercise. And he introduced into the rabbinical training program subjects that ancient yeshivot never considered Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, pedagogy, even public speaking and homiletics.
Yeshiva students still frown upon the requirement to study these subjects; they make Torah study seem like preparation for a professional career. But Revel knew better, and because of his initiative, the great orators and communal leaders of American Orthodoxy achieved the status that they have. I mention only two of those deceased, Rabbis Joseph H. Lookstein and Irving Miller.
A few words about the man. In a brief career in the oil business with his wife s family, he invented a device which made him financially independent for many years. He, therefore, not only served Yeshiva University for a nominal salary, but spent many times that sum to feed and clothe poor students. I remember how often I called to his attention the need of students for winter overcoats, which he bought and for which he paid.
He knew the names of every one of the several hundred students; his memory was phenomenal. But what is more, he knew their travail. He knew when a student was struggling with doubt, and he undertook to give moral support. He never encouraged blind faith, but he also disliked iconoclasm. I remember that one day he encountered a student who was an avid reader of H.L. Mencken’ s American Mercury the organ of skepticism and satire with a green cover and Revel noticed that the student was carrying an issue of Harper’s magazine, with a red cover. Revel charmingly congratulated him on moving “from the green to the red.”
I think of him very often. He is responsible for so much I have tried to do with my life, and this tribute is my inadequate way of thanking him and blessing his memory.