Revel and the Cross
YU’s Thinkers of the Past: A Monthly Column
This new monthly column will explore the thoughts and opinions of rabbis of YU’s past, especially as they pertain to the issue of the month. Our first column will discuss an opinion of Rabbi Bernard Revel (1885-1940), the first president of Yeshiva College and dean of RIETS. His contribution to the shaping of YU and its philosophy was pivotal at the early stages of YU’s development.
“May I ask you to be good enough to assist me with your opinion concerning Jewish law.” So begins the April 4th, 1928 letter of George W. Matheson, the dean of St. John’s College of Law, to R. Bernard Revel, the dean of RIETS.[i] What a rare moment in history this must have been, wherein the dean of a school named after a saint asks a “shaila” (question) regarding Jewish law to the dean of a school named after a rabbi. Matheson explains the issue simply. The school traditionally has a cross symbol engraved in the scroll work on their diplomas. Some Jewish students accept the diploma nevertheless, yet others “seem to be of the opinion that their religion forbids them to accept this diploma… If the Jewish religion prohibits our Jewish graduates from accepting this diploma, I am naturally anxious to know about it immediately.”
This question, being of an ecumenical sort in 1928, was enough to elicit a hint of surprise in R. Bernard Revel. “I appreciate your being good enough to interest yourself in, and to put before me, the question of the acceptance of the diploma of St. John’s College of Law…”
Dean Revel’s response is quite interesting.
The law is “not free from complication,” he writes. “During the Middle Ages the cross was a specific Christian symbol, often an object of worship; as such, it was, and is, scrupulously avoided by Jews who adhere to Jewish law and tradition.” This is the historical and religious background of why Jews generally avoid owning objects that have crosses on them. But what about a cross on a college diploma, where the cross isn’t used as a religious symbol as much as, in his own words, “to indicate the origin of the College and the auspices of its inception?” His answer is, “the Law does not definitely forbid the acceptance of a diploma so enscrolled.”
We can clearly see Dean Revel’s quandary expressed here. On the one hand, halakha as he sees it can be lenient in this case. Yet, the students haven’t objected unreasonably. The issue truly at hand is that Jewish people have always stayed away from this symbol, even when it serves no particularly religious purpose. While he could not deny the letter of the law, his language of “does not definitely forbid” gives the permission a certain edge to it. There is some kind of forbiddenness here, but not of the halakhic variety.
In this vein, he ends his response with an appeal to Matheson’s position, “as a scholar and dean of a college of law,” that just as secular law has a spirit of fairness to it, religious law as well has, “a spirit of equity behind the law.” We should appreciate, he writes, why the Jewish students have objected as they did, for it indicates that they have, “preserved a concern beyond the material aspects of the age.” Reading between the lines, there is a strong insinuation that the cross on the diploma represents a failure at equity of religion, that Jewish students who complain are expressing the feeling of being religiously out-of-place and unwanted at the school. The implication is that Matheson should think about changing this feature of the diploma. Matheson got more than he bargained for; he posed a simple question of Jewish law, and Dean Revel saw fit to give him mussar – rebuke.
It is quite understandable that Dean Revel’s response does not mention any primary sources. Of course, there is much discussion regarding Christianity’s status as avodah zarah in halakhic literature, and this may or may not be relevant to crosses on diplomas. Regardless, Dean Revel certainly has much support for his lenient halakhic conclusions. Rema, Y.D. 141:1, already wrote that a cross worn around the neck is not to be considered an object of worship, as it is merely a reminder of their religion, and therefore does not pertain to the rules of an object of avodah zarah. This can easily be applied to a cross on a diploma that exists for no real religious purpose and is certainly not worshiped.[ii]
What is more interesting is Dean Revel’s focus on the sensitivity that Jews possess in relation to Christianity and Christian symbols. There is a historical sensitivity here, which comes from nearly 2,000 years of Jewish persecution at the hands of Christians and the Church. And there is a religious sensitivity that comes from the halakhic distance from avodah zarah that has classically been attributed to Christianity. Today’s Orthodox attitude, even to a large extent among the Modern Orthodox, remains at this distant and suspicious state. But how can we keep this status quo even when the dean of a Christian-founded college reaches over this divide to the dean of the Jewish-founded seminary in order to be more sensitive to his Jewish students? Especially today, when so many Christian leaders make overtures of peace towards Israel and the Jewish people, can we really continue to view it in this fashion?
Dean Revel’s response is that although halakha does not demand of us to act this way, we all must at least appreciate this Jewish sense of uneasiness. There is a feeling of uncomfortableness when faced with an unnecessary closeness with religions and ideologies that had such an effect on our religious psyche. The intuition that made these Jewish college students of the 1920s (who were most likely not Orthodox) object to such a diploma clearly exists deep in the consciousness of Judaism and Jewish culture. And though Dean Revel calls for a “spirit of equity” in St. John’s on behalf of all people, he recognizes the right for subconscious uneasiness that is “beyond the material.”
This sensitivity to our past is important. Though there is a Torah prohibition to return to Egypt in Deuteronomy 17:16, the reasons for and applications of this prohibition are not clear. Most understand this prohibition as applicable today, its reason being in order to keep the Jews away from the pagan and uncivilized society that Egypt represented.[iii] But the deepest reason is simply because the Jewish people should not go back to a land that so traumatized them. It smacks of callousness to do so. The Jewish national narrative, repeated and emphasized yearly on Passover, speaks of the terrible abuse at the hand of Egyptians, ingraining every generation with this sensitivity to their ancestral sorrow. It makes Jews uneasy to go back. Though the Torah commands us not to despise the Egyptian (Deuteronomy 23:7), Jews are nevertheless enjoined to continue to appreciate that feeling of disconcertment.[iv]
This isn’t an isolated concept. Several sources speak of an unofficial ban on returning to Spain that was promulgated after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.[v] In 1968, permission by the Franco government of Spain to rebuild a synagogue in Madrid sparked a flurry of literature[vi] about the subject. The response of many rabbis was to reaffirm this unofficial ban even to the modern day. Even this year, in February of 2014, Spain announced that it would be offering Spanish citizenship to all Jewish descendants of those who were expelled in 1492.[vii] Though Spain saw this as a peaceful gesture, some rabbis, including R. Shlomo Aviner and R. Haim Druckman, declared it forbidden for anyone to take advantage of this offer.[viii] Of course, this has no bearing on the people of Spain. But it surely reflects that same historical sensitivity.
One of Professor David Berger’s arguments against Chabad messianism is in large part from this standpoint of being sensitive to our history. He writes (emphasis mine), “Jews through the ages repeatedly–through both word and deed–rejected the possibility that God would send the Messiah to announce that redemption was imminent, preside over a movement identifying him as the Messiah, and then die in an unredeemed world… Since this point was a key argument used against Christianity for untold generations, rendering it false is a betrayal not only of the Jewish faith but of generations of Jewish martyrs.”[ix] It is not merely a breach in what has traditionally been believed in Judaism. Dr. Berger believes it is a betrayal of those who were murdered with denial of such a possibility on their lips. The “scandal”, as he puts it, is more than what is halakhically permitted or prohibited, it is our indifference to this betrayal, and our implicit allowance of who he considers betrayers to remain within Orthodoxy. Dr. Berger does not deny the tremendous good that Chabad does every day, all around the world. But, as the Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, his perspective is one of tremendous sensitivity to this topic.
Rav Soloveitchik in his seminal essay “Confrontation,” writes about the perils of historical betrayal when Jews engage in interfaith dialogue. After a list of preconditions to engaging in interfaith dialogue, he writes (emphasis mine), “[W]e certainly have not been authorized by our history, sanctified by the martyrdom of millions, to even hint to another faith community that we are mentally ready to revise historical attitudes, to trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, and to reconcile “some” differences. Such a suggestion would be nothing but a betrayal of our great tradition and heritage and would, furthermore, produce no practical benefits.”[x] For the Rav, mere hinting at compromise not just with Jewish law, but with “historical attitudes,” how Jews have viewed other faiths historically, is a betrayal of our history and the millions who died to protect Judaism. While we may have some interaction with other faiths (to what extent the Rav meant has been debated more recently),[xi] our historical responsibility must temper it.
R. Revel was expressing an important Jewish notion. When we forget our history, we betray it. Even as we forgive, we cannot forget – for our own sakes. We are commanded not to hate the Egyptian, despite his ancient sins against us, and we are commanded to love every Jew as our selves, despite what their beliefs mean to us. So too we must seek to find a balance between caring for our Christian brothers, while appreciating the discomfort we have from our deeply implanted sense of Jewish history.
Aryeh Sklar is a senior at YU majoring in English, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser
[i] See Rabbi Aaron Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy, (JPS 1972), 316-317
[ii] However, see Shakh 141:6 for qualifications, but others take a less qualified approach, both Sefardi and Ashkenazi, see for more recent examples, Responsa Yalkut Yosef, Yoreh Deah 139:4, Responsa Iggerot Mosheh, Yoreh Deah 1:69.
[iii] See for example Sefer HaMitzvot l’R’ Saadia Gaon L”T 235, Maimonides Sefer Hamitzvot L”T 46, Nachmanides Deuteronomy 17:16, Sefer Hachinuch 500.
[iv] For a discussion of how Maimonides and others could live in Egypt, see the excellent and fairly comprehensive essay by R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 14:87.
[v] Thanks to Michael Alweis for mentioning this to me.
[vi] See David J. Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol.1, (New York: KTAV, 1977), 206-209 for more details about this.
[vii] Isabel Kirshner and Raphael Minder, “Prospect of Spanish Citizenship Appeals to Descendants of Jews Expelled in 1492.” The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2014
[viii] Tova Dvorin, “Senior Rabbis Forbid Taking Spanish Citizenship as Reparations.” Arutz Sheva, 2 Oct. 2014. Available at: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/177306
[ix] David Berger, “A Brief Response To Marc B. Shapiro.” SeforimBlog, 2 Feb. 2009. Available at: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2009/08/david-berger-brief-response-to-marc-b.html. See his book, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008) for further detail about this and other arguments.
[x] Joseph B. Soloveitchik “Confrontation,” Tradition 6,2 (1964): 5-29, at p. 25
[xi] See R. Meir Soloveichik, “How Soloveitchik Saw Interreligious Dialogue,” The Forward, 25 April 2003, and R. Shlomo Riskin, “Is Christian-Jewish Theological Dialogue Permitted? A Postscript to Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s article, ‘Confrontation’”, CJCUC, 30 August 2012. See also Jake Friedman, “Confronting ‘Confrontation:’ Understanding the Rav’s Approach to Interfaith Dialogue,” Kol Hamevaser 4:2, (2010): 17-18, available at www.kolhamevaser.com.