Given that the 1920s marked the height of Jewish exclusion from university life, it is perhaps not coincidental that the 1920s witnessed both a major attempt to found a national Jewish university (a forerunner to Brandeis University, which would only be created in 1948) and the opening of Yeshiva College (in 1928). Zev Eleff’s 2011 article on a proposed national Jewish university highlights the possibilities and tensions inherent in the former idea: Proponents, most notably Louis Newman, argued that Jews needed an outstanding institution of higher education that would welcome them, just like their non-Jewish counterparts had. Eleff points out that Newman was inspired by the contemporaneous founding of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But the idea found many detractors, most of whom argued that Newman’s proposed ‘Menorah University’ would be essentially throwing in the towel on the effort at joining the American mainstream—it was, in their words, un-American. Instead, they encouraged Jews to continue going to state universities.
Where Newman’s vision had its roots in the assimilationist narrative of late-19th and early-20th century Reform Judaism, Bernard Revel’s vision of Yeshiva College, which he first outlined in 1923, had its roots in the yeshiva world. Revel himself was an iluy, a child Talmudic prodigy, and upon his arrival in the United States he earned the first doctorate at Dropsie College in Philadelphia, writing about Philo.
(As an aside, it is fascinating that Philo was the subject of research not only for Revel, but also for Samuel Belkin, his successor at Yeshiva, and for Harry Wolfson, the first chair of Judaic Studies at Harvard. After World War II, Philo would not be as prominent a topic of research—Maimonides came to replace him as the model of integration between Western and traditional Jewish thought. My own theory of this is that one couldn’t easily write on Maimonides in the context of a basically Christian university, since knowledge of Maimonides requires Talmudic knowledge, which had been avoided in university life. Philo can be read as a Bible commentary through a Greek philosophic lens, and therefore was an acceptable topic in early-20th century American academe. For several reasons, not least of which was the development of university Talmud scholarship, Maimonides could become the exemplar of synthesis, displacing Philo, after World War II. More on this later.)
Revel’s vision received similar critiques to those leveled against Newman’s idea—essentially that it was un-American to develop parochial education; but Revel was also attacked by traditionalists who saw the idea of Yeshiva College as leading on a dangerous path away from tradition. Yet the idea for Yeshiva College was initially a concession to reality: students at the Yeshivat Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan (RIETS) needed to get college degrees in order to get decent jobs. Their choices were thus to attend night school or drop out of yeshiva. Revel himself had some loftier visions for what the institution could be, and invoked language of integration and synthesis, but largely he was alone in this effort, one of only a handful of men with deep Talmudic backgrounds and PhDs. With the founding of Yeshiva, he began to collect others who shared similar training and commitments, but it would be left to Samuel Belkin and the generation after World War II to make Yeshiva into a University and truly flesh out a vision of synthesis.