Jews, Judaism, And the University

The following is the full text of a sermon delivered in Memorial Church September 14 by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, director of Hillel, during the evening service of Yom Kippur.

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've 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 freshmen 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 freshman going through the line and being wooed by a vast array of political, social, and religious organizations they are encountering for the first time, it is indeed a colorful and exciting occassion. Registering at Holyoke Center at some later time means separation from classmates on this emotion-laden day in their career at Harvard. It is 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, join 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 so 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 was affectionately called Yom Kodesh, 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 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 Gazettes of September 5th and 12. This announcement was ignored. However, in the Gazette of the 12, 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" service 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 Lipset 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, and I quote, "Important private universities had quotas as 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."

Over 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 memories, 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 a 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 in 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 the 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 Liset's article dealing with attendance at religious services, indicates that only 5.1 per cent of the Jewish professors regularly attended religious services, against 61.6 of Catholic professors and 31.7 per cent 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 per cent 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've 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 had 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 consitute 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, the corrosive effect of the University's policy toward Judaism affects a substantially greater number of Jews.