Jews, Judaism, & University

by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold

Tonight my remarks will deal with several problems raised by the clash between the Jewish calendar and that of the University. Tomorrow, on the most sacred day in the Jewish year, the University is holding freshman registration. The administration has made a provision for those Jews who wish to observe the Day of Atonement: they may register late without penalty.

On the face of it, this seems to be a rational and satisfactory solution. The University will function as scheduled without hindering Jews in the performance of their religious duties. However, upon closer examination, this solution becomes problematic.

I have three objections to this solution. One has to do with how it affects Jewish freshmen as members of their class and the university community. My second objection has to do with the test that the University is putting to new students on their very first day at Harvard. The third objection deals with the fact that this solution reflects a general attitude toward Judaism on the part of the University which constitutes the official policy of this University, and is supported by both Jews and non-Jews.

There are two days in the life of students at Harvard and Radcliffe that have emotional importance far beyond their practical value: they are freshman registration and commencement. The emotional meaning of commencement for undergraduates is obvious, and I need not deal with it here. As for freshman registration, perhaps because it marks the concretization of a cherished hope – but whatever the reason – it is a day to which freshman look forward with much anticipation and excitement. I know that for upperclassmen registration is already something of a nuisance, since it entails filling out countless forms which they have already filled out in previous years. But for freshmen, going through the line and being wooed by a vast array of political, social, and religious organizations for the first time, it is indeed a colorful and exciting occasion. Registering at Holyoke Center at some later time means separation from classmates on this emotion-laden day in their career at Harvard. It would be the same as having a separate commencement for Jews at Holyoke Center to avoid a conflict of calendar.

My second objection is that the University must take into consideration the powerful impact that it has as a whole upon students, most particularly new students. This impact, by the way, is not accidental but is carefully cultivated. It does not take a long time for the new student to realize that while the University does not discriminate against Jews as individuals, Judaism is not part of University life, but is tolerated outside of it. “Business as usual” at Harvard on Yom Kippur therefore constitutes a pressure to conform. I’m certain that some freshmen will, for the first time in their lives, ignore Yom Kippur, joining their non-Jewish classmates at registration, and resent being put to the test. I know this for a fact because freshmen of previous years have told me so. And I wonder, “Why should the University put impressionable young Jews to such a test at the outset of their Harvard career?” I ask, “What is the counter-value, apart from bureaucratic considerations and lack of regard for Judaism, that justifies putting this not-so-subtle choice to them?”

The holidays of any people are its cultural treasures. For historical reasons, Jews did not build impressive monuments in stone and wood, but concentrated their creative genius on constructing inspiring structures in time. Our holidays are our cultural-religious works of art. They have uplifted and inspired generations of Jews through thousands of years. They were islands of joy, dignity, and calm in the midst of their turbulent life. In times of distress the holidays brought solace and support; in time of peace rays of sanctity and a glimpse of the eternal. They served as an inspiration to our poets and artists. Such was the role of our holidays, and, in particular, of Yom Kippur, which has affectionately been called Yom Kadosh, the holy day. I find it puzzling that an institution dedicated to the development of appreciation for cultures of various peoples would behave so indifferently to cultural and religious treasures of nearly a quarter of its members. I know that this is not done deliberately out of malice or prejudice. I’m convinced that it is merely an oversight, the result of ignorance. But this is precisely what is so difficult to understand. How can an institution committed to the education of character be so blithely innocent about the cultural and religious institutions that have shaped the character of so large a number of its students?

Is this a contradiction in terms, or is it perhaps the direct result of University policy, which may best be described by the slogan, “To Jews as individuals, everything; to Jews as a people, nothing.” This slogan was first voiced shortly after the French Revolution by Clermont-Tonnere, a French statesman who championed the extension of civil rights for Jews on these terms. As a concrete example of this policy, let me cite an instance, admittedly not of great importance, but nonetheless illustrative of it. On August 2, our office sent to the Harvard Gazette, the official university weekly, a schedule of the High Holiday services and asked that it be printed in the Gazette of September 5th and 12th. This announcement was ignored. However, in the Gazette of the 12th, in an article describing activities of freshman week, it announced a “worship service on Sunday the 14th, at Memorial Church, for freshmen and parents.” Then, skipping our services, it went on to say, “as the first day of registration, September 15th, is also Yom Kippur, students who wish to observe the holiday may register on the 16th or 17th.” Apart from ignoring our High Holiday services, one wonders what sort of “worship” services all parents and freshmen are invited to on this Sunday.   I suppose it is the official service of the Church of Harvard.

Strange as it may seem, this policy is not only accepted but even defended by many Jews in the University, and that is why I’m talking about it tonight.

To understand how Jews have gotten to the point of supporting a situation which is prejudicial to Jewish interests, we have to resort for a moment to the history of the Jews at American universities. Fortunately, Professor Seymour Martin Lipsett has done a study on the subject of Jewish academics, which was published in the American Jewish Year Book of 1971. In it we read, “Important private universities had quotas limiting the number of Jewish undergraduates until the end of World War II and relatively few Jews were able to secure employment on the faculty of these schools.”

Overt anti-Jewish prejudice seems to have peaked in the ’20s and ’30s when large numbers of children of immigrants began to enter college. This pressure led many schools to impose quotas on the admission of Jewish students. President Lowell of Harvard and President Butler of Columbia openly defended Jewish quotas. As late as 1945, Ernest M. Hopkins, President of Dartmouth, justified quotas on the grounds that “Dartmouth is a Christian college founded for the christianization of its students.”

These restrictions were applied even more severely to faculty appointments. In his memoirs, Ludwig Lewison tells how he was prevented from teaching English; the noted linguist Edward Sapir relates how he was told by his Professor that, as a Jew, he could not expect an appointment in the United States, and he had to go to Canada to teach. Lionel Trilling recalled in an article in Commentary that he was the first Jew appointed to the English Department at Columbia. The Harvard Law School did not appoint another Jew after Felix Frankfurter until 1939, when Paul Freund and Milton Katz were named assistant professors. The limitation on the academic job market, in turn, served as an excuse to limit the number of Jewish students in graduate school, the argument being, “Why train people who cannot get jobs?”

This hostile attitude had a marked impact on those Jews who were admitted or who got appointments at a university. Living in a hostile environment, they eventually had to adjust to it, and in the process, many evolved a strong ambivalence toward Judaism. Table 17 in Lipset’s article, dealing with attendance at religious services, indicates that only 5.1% of the Jewish professors regularly attended religious services, against 61.6% of Catholic professors and 31.7% percent of the Protestants. This enormous difference between Jewish and Christian attendance at religious services cannot be explained by the corrosive effect rationalism had on the religion of academics, because it would presumably have affected all professors in similar ways. A ratio of 6:1 or 12:1 can only be understood as an attempt by most Jewish professors to adjust to an environment hostile to Judaism. Two percent converted to Christianity; many became staunch humanists with a warm feeling for all aspects of culture and religion, so long as it was not Jewish. A large segment evolved the idea which is still held by many, that the university is a neutral community of scholars where religion should not intrude. The statistics I’ve just cited as well as the statement by the former president of Dartmouth indicate that this belief in the neutrality of the university performed nonetheless the important function of preserving the self-respect of many Jewish academics.

I have no statistics on how the hostile attitude of the university affected Jewish students in the past. It could not have been beneficial, for they were not only influenced by the same forces that influenced the Jewish academics, but, more importantly, they were also influenced by the ambivalent attitudes of the Jews on the faculty with whom they tended to have stronger identification. I need not tell you that in most cases that influence was not conducive to strengthening their Jewish identity. From personal observation over a period of 17 years, I can state sadly that even the vestiges that have remained have been harmful.

Recently, however, the situation of Jews at the University has changed for both students and faculty members. Jews now constitute a substantial proportion of the academic community. Yet the rationalization of neutrality has retained its hold. There are many Jews at this University who still cling to the belief in the religious neutrality of the university, in spite of the imposing church at its center. It has become something of a principle akin to the principle of the separation of church and state, with the difference that now there are more Jews at the University; and the corrosive effect of the University’s policy toward Judaism affects a substantially greater number of Jews.

Most Jews at Harvard are very loyal to the University and they find it difficult to admit that fair Harvard, which gives them so much, is not willing to accept them as Jews. Instead, many argue for the preservation of the status quo. But this constitutes a sanctification of Harvard’s history including its errors. It would seem to me that loyalty to Harvard, an institution dedicated to “Veritas,” should lead us rather to an impartial, critical attitude so that we may make it a better institution for all people in it.

The time has come for Jews to acknowledge that the University is not and never was a religiously neutral community; that its calendar, like the calendar of this state, is the Christian calendar; that its holidays are Christian holidays; that there is a Christian church in the heart of this University, recognized and supported by the University; that Judaism is outside of the University, neither recognized nor supported by it; that this constitutes a blatant act of favoring one religion over another; and that this situation has had and continues to have a corrosive effect upon the religious devotion and cultural attachment of Jews in the University.

To those among us who say “this is a Christian university within a Christian country,” I affirm that America is the country of all the people who live in it, and what the people who live in this country believe in is American religion, whether its roots go back to Sinai or to Jerusalem year one, or any other year, or to any time or place on earth. I believe that the intent of the first amendment to our constitution was to prevent any one religion from attaining the power to dominate any other religion; it was meant to allow for the free development of religious pluralism in America. Hence, I affirm that being Jewish in America is as American as being Christian. What is un-American is exclusivism, discrimination, and lack of appreciation for the cultural and religious institutions of any segment of the population of this country.

More and more people now recognize the dignity and worth not only of individuals within the context of a monolithic American culture, but also the dignity and worth of the cultural religious traditions and institutions that have sustained those individuals.

This new orientation – this new climate of acceptance – is also evident at the University. But you and I know that institutions tend to resist change, and the older they are, the more resistant to change they become. There is now a great deal of good will toward Jews at this University, but good will by itself will accomplish little. It is our task as the interested group to indicate to the University that the separation between Jews and Judaism is undesirable because it is offensive and harmful to Jews and therefore to the University.

There is much that will have to be done to change the present University policy, which is a left-over from a period when the University as a whole was hostile to Jews. One affirmative act in this direction would be for the university to avoid conflicts with High Holidays by postponing registration of the first day of classes when they coincide. I know that this creates a problem, but in the scale of problems the University deals with, it is a minor one and can be solved easily, provided it is recognized as a problem.

On Kol Nidrei night, which is the time of tshuvah – repentance – I urge you, the Jewish community of the University, to reject all rationalizations that support this policy, and to view the amelioration of this prejudicial situation as our communal act of repentance. I further urge the freshmen present here tonight who might have considered registering tomorrow to defer doing so out of regard for this holiday, which is so sacred to all the Jews in the world.


© 1991 Ben-Zion Gold

P.S. The University has since avoided a conflict of registration with Jewish High Holidays.

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