Bernard Revel

Bernard Revel (1885-1940), Talmudic scholar and educator, directed the Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary from its shaky beginnings to become the renown Yeshiva University with a comprehensive program of Judaic studies integrated with modern scholarship.

Bernard Dov Revel was born in 1885 in Kovno (now in Lithuanian S.S.R.), a center of traditional Jewish learning, the son of the second marriage of the scholar Nahum Shraga Revel of Pren (a son from the first marriage was Nelson Glueck, dean of the Reform Jewish seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion). As a youth he gained the reputation of a scholar and was influenced by the Musar movement, which offered an ethical and talmudic system of study to counteract the inroads of modernity among traditional Jews. Many of the innovations which Revel brought to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary in New York were inspired by that movement.

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Early Career as Rabbi

His rabbinic ordination occurred in 1901, and he combined this expertise with a sensitivity to the modern world. He qualified by passing the Russian gymnasium examinations, demonstrating a command of secular studies. His awareness of political concerns led him to join the Jewish Bund, a socialist revolutionary group, retaining his traditionalism all the while. Participation in the bund, however, led to his arrest and imprisonment in 1906. After his arrest he emigrated to the United States.

While in the United States he continued his combination of rabbinic and secular studies. As secretary to Rabbi Bernard Leventhal he was guided in his preparation for becoming a leading exponent of American Jewish Orthodoxy. He published articles in Jewish journals and was an associate editor and contributor to Otzar Yisrael, a Hebrew encyclopedia. His studies included a Master's degree from New York University, which included a thesis on the medieval Jewish ethical author Bachya Ibn Pakuda, and a Ph.D. from Dropsie University (a unique Jewish institution for graduate studies only begun in 1909 and from which Revel was the first Ph.D. graduate), for which he wrote a scholarly dissertation on the relationship between the heretical sect of the Karaites and earlier Jewish tradition.

His marriage in 1909 to Sarah Travis brought him into a wealthy family engaged in the oil business. For some time he too was active in the business, but in 1915 the Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary and the Yeshivat Etz Chaim merged and Revel was called to guide the new institution. It was said that he chose "Torah over oil" to accept the call. He broadened the curriculum of the rabbinical school, introducing such subjects as homiletics, pedagogy, and some secular instruction. In 1916 he founded the Talmudical Academy, which was the first Jewish high school to combine a complete secular curriculum with an in-depth program of Jewish learning. He set the institution on the road to becoming a fully modern Orthodox center of learning in which rabbis would be fully traditional, but trained to understand and respond to the needs of the American environment.

During the 1920s pressing problems in the family business caused him to relinquish his position. After a number of stopgap measures, however, the seminary called him back, and in 1923 he gave up his business endeavors to devote himself permanently to the upbuilding of the seminary. In 1928 he began Yeshiva College, which integrated secular studies and Judaica. Despite opposition from Reform Jews who opposed a Jewish college and traditionalists who opposed secular studies the college became a success. Revel's leadership brought many new facets to the school—he attracted European Jewish scholars (Roshei Yeshiva), introduced intercollegiate sports, and published the journal Scripta Mathematica, which became widely respected in its field. He continued teaching the higher level classes in Talmud to the seminary students. On November 19, 1940, he conducted his last class in Jewish codes; during that class he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died on December 2, 1940, mourned by the entire Jewish community.

Struggles for American Jewish Orthodoxy

Revel's enduring importance lies in laying the foundations for a vital American Jewish Orthodoxy. His efforts often met with opposition, and the controversies in which he engaged are a guide to the development of American Jewish Orthodoxy. At first American Jews refused to believe that an institution for Jewish Orthodoxy was needed. The Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement sought to speak for all traditional Jews. While Conservative Judaism still claims to be the true representative of traditional Judaism, many traditional Jews consider its innovations unacceptable. Later Revel faced opposition from traditionalists who were uncomfortable with his innovations. His use of non-Jewish workers in the Yeshiva cafeteria, the inclusion of such controversial subjects as the theory of evolution in Yeshiva's curriculum, and the giving of honorary degrees to non-Orthodox Jews (although Revel distinguished between the non-Orthodox and those identified with sectarian movements such as Reform or Conservatism) alienated many within his constituency.

Within the institution itself Revel faced problems. The presence of non-Orthodox students in both Yeshiva College and in the Teacher's Institute was problematic. Graduates of the seminary faced the dilemma of congregations in which men and women sat together. Questions arose when Jews formerly married to Gentile wives sought to reaffiliate with an Orthodox synagogue. Revel confronted these issues as a traditionalist firmly committed to Orthodox Jewish law. His replies to these dilemmas reveal a man who understood the needs of his time and the timelessness of his tradition.

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Further Reading on Bernard Revel

Aaron Rothkoff has written a lively and vivid biography, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (1972). Sidney B. Hoenig, who wrote the informative essay on Revel in the Encyclopedia Judaica, presents a scholarly investigation of Revel's writings in Rabbinics and Research: The Scholarship of Bernard Revel (1968). Useful references to Revel are found in Gilbert Klapperman, The Story of Yeshiva University (Toronto, Canada, 1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Aaron, Bernard Revel—builder of American Jewish orthodoxy, Jerusalem; New York: Feldheim, 1981.