From The Commie Archives (May 5, 1976; Memorial Issue) — Belkin Overcame Hardships: Served As A Great Leader
Editor's Note: This is taken from the first Commentator edition after the death of YU’s second president, Dr. Samuel Belkin, whose yahrtzeit was observed this week by the YU community.
When a true leader has fallen, there is left a void and the rest of us are left enshrouded in a cloud of helplessness and insecurity with no sense of direction. “Dr. Belkin’s death,” remarked Professor Irving Linn to his English Class last week “is the kind that will be felt more and more as time passes.” For here stood a man who singlehandedly developed and molded Yeshiva University, and consequently, one might be led to say, the modern Orthodox Jewish community.
Samuel Belkin, born December 12, 1911 in Swislicz, Poland was the son of Solomon, a rabbi, and Minna Belkin. Of his early childhood, we know little, but his later life, we know to have been scarred with tragedies and so it might seem reasonable to expect much of the same when he was a youth. His father who was also his rebbe was dragged off and murdered for being a “Communist.” When Samuel was 6 his mother, brothers and sisters were barely able to sustain themselves by scrounging in the woods for berries and mushrooms. One can easily understand Dr. Belkin’s reluctance to speak about himself or his childhood.
On his own already at the age of 13, he learned under Yisroel Hakohen, a leading scholar in Europe, and a man whom Dr. Belkin only recently said “left the profoundest influence on me of anyone.” He went on to learn at the yeshivas of Mir and then Radin where he received semicha from the Chofetz Chaim at the age of 17.
Sensing the new crushing wave of anti-semitism he decided to leave Europe and with the aid of relatives in Canada, he arrived at Windsor, Ontario only to come to the US a year later in 1929. Only 18 years old, he could speak Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew, but no English. Five years later, having mastered the language, he was accepted to Harverd and a year later in 1934 he was awarded an honorary fellowship to Brown where he soon received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Greek, his fifth language, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. Appointed an instructor and later full professor at Yeshiva College, he soon became a rosh yeshiva in RIETS under Yeshiva’s founder, Dr. Bernard Revel, first president of Yeshiva College and the seminary.
With Dr. Revel’s death in 1940, Dr. Belkin became Dean of RIETS and three years later on May 25, president. He began an expansion program that led to the granting of university status to Yeshiva by the State Board of Regents in November, 1945.
As an instructor of Greek and as the school president, Dr. Belkin formed indissoluble bonds with other faculty members and students, many of whom are faculty members today and recall his warmth and sincerity. He knew all of his students and referred to them by their first names. It was perhaps the most painful part of being president of a rapidly growing university, and though he tried, it became simply impossible to maintain close personal relationships. It hurt him greatly, as Prof Linn put it, that his students now had to make appointments weeks in advance to speak with him, and that his time was no longer his own. Now he had new obligations to the school and the community and the simple life of Torah and scholarship and the direct transmission of knowledge to the next generation was past. For here was a man of extraordinary genius and talent and charm. Gritting his teeth, he endured the formalities that the presidency of a growing institution called for and all the protocol which he hated so. With single mindedness of purpose he forged on ahead with an aggressiveness that bordered on “arrogance.”
Under his leadership the university rapidly rose to gain prominence in the worlds of religion, science, and liberal arts. In 1954, Stern College, the first liberal arts college for women under Jewish auspices was established. A year later, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the first medical school in history under Jewish sponsorship opened its doors in the Bronx. In the past twenty years it has mushroomed into an expansive campus with a mark of excellence and achievement noted around the world, all under the watchful eye and guiding light of Dr. Belkin. This past year, AECOM was rated by medical school deans as being one of the top ten medical schools in the United States. The list of “firsts” goes on and on.
Dr. Belkin’s famous “Blueprint for the Seventies,” adopted on YU’s 75th anniversary in 1961 ended in 1970 and the university, which at the time consisted only of the one domed structure in Washington Heights, now consisted of four complete campuses. Rubin Residence Hall was followed by Furst Hall and Morgenstern Residence Hall. In the spring of 1969 the Mendel Gottesman (central university) Library was completed and a half year later, the $20 million Belfer Graduate School of Science was dedicated. The Brookdale Graduate Center at 55 Fifth Avenue consists of the Ferkauf School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Its newest addition is Dr. Belkin’s final work, the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The Midtown Center (Stern College) was expanded and various research centers were added: the Ulman Research Center for Sciences, the Rose F. Kennedy Center for Research in Mental Retardation and Human Development, and the Educational Center for Health Sciences. Ground has also been broken for the $8.5 million Irwin S. and Sylvia Chanin Institute for Cancer Research
Almost everything a visitor sees on any one of YU’s four campuses is the product of Samuel Belkin; this is a Belkin University. While ultra-rightists, who couldn’t possibly understand, angrily maintain that “synthesis” is impossible, under Dr. Belkin’s eyes, YU grew never too big for its “britches” and he sternly admonished YU’s schools from RIETS to AECOM to keep this in mind.
While the American campus was a scene of unrest in the 60’s, YU remained calm. As Dr. Belkin put it during a CBS-TV interview with Alexander Kendrich in 1969, “students have the right to protest, to criticize, to demand… but no violence —because violence produces violence, when the sword ascends, the book descends. So the violence of the sword cannot live together with the reason of the book.” if today’s child had been taught to love his parents first, then relatives, the people among whom he was born, then the country, and after these particulars, the universals, instead of the other way around there would not have taken place the insurrections of the day. Yet, Dr. Belkin never advocated authority or possessive rights of a parent over a child. When a Jewish boy reaches the age of thirteen, the father has completed his obligations, but while he may not control the child, he still has responsibilities to him; he must give them guidelines. The failure of the American family is due to a lack of cohesiveness in this country on wheels.
Dr. Belkin reflected on the problems man faces in this age. “Our modern age has produced many tools, new things, but the modern age cannot produce a new man, a new woman… The destruction which can be produced in the modern age in our day would have taken thousands of years in previous ages. So whatever man has created by his ingenuity can be used for his benefit and for his destruction, for his service and for his disservice.”
Dr Belkin’s achievements in the world of Torah, his remarkable insight into the Talmud and his dissemination of its teachings, greatly overshadowed his second love Hellenistic literature. “You see this library?” he remarked to an interviewer. This library consists half of hebraic studies and less than half of Greek studies.” He studied and wrote extensively on the works of Philo and is the author of Philo and the Oral Law, published as part of the Harvard Semitic Series. He was an acknowledged leading authority on the Greek contribution to Western civilization.
Dr. Belkin discussed the relationship between the Jewish and Greek contributions to the Western world. “The Greeks were philosophers. They were interested in theory, metaphysical speculation… Plato, Aristotle.” They were interested in the nature of man, the universe, G-d, the body, the soul. But they lived in ivory towers; they were not interested in the community in its totality, in the average man. The Hebraic heritage is one of moral activism… his brother’s keeper. And the difference between philosophy and religion is that religion tries to do something about it. Therefore, Judaism became the fountainhead of all the great religions, and Greece became the fountainhead of all the great philosophical schools. One was interested primarily in theory, and one was interested in translating theory into practice.
A self-declared “divine optimist,” Dr. Belkin advocated a return to family life. “The fall of the Roman Empire was primarily due to the fact that the family had disintegrated. Once the family had disintegrated, the empire became disintegrated. We must go back to the family, we must go back to the home. If the home will become better, parents will become teachers, teachers will become parents.” Seven years later, in an interview with Mr. Kendrick last January, Dr. Belkin attributed the quiet campuses to a growing sense of pragmatism. “They realize that those who were engaged in destructive activism never found a place for themselves, and they are now concerned only with studies.” Somewhat remorseful, he added that the new approach is also harmful. Students find society filled with corruption and come to the conclusion that there is no purpose in rebelling; so they become isolated and choose to “live in an ivory tower and forget the needs of the community in general. If this is the case, I think it is almost as bad as destructive activism.”
Israel and the Jew
Was it ironic or purposeful that Dr. Belkin never visited Israel since his arrival here 46 years ago? Speaking on Zionism on CBS-TV last fall, Dr. Belkin felt that a Jew in America is not a Zionist “in the sense that his loyalty is to the government of Israel. He has loyalty to the land of Israel, but not to its government.”
In his essay “What Makes a Good Jew” Dr. Belkin explained that a good Jew is one who observes the Torah not merely as a book of theological dogma but follows its design for living “a harmonious blending between his moral obligations to humanity and his divine attachment to God; a synthesis between his contemporary environment and his sacred heritage.”
The Talmud prescribes the basic philosophy of the Jew, the emphasis on the individual. “When one man causes a single soul to perish, the Torah imputes to him the destruction of the world… a single man was created to proclaim the greatness of God, for man stamps many coins with one seal and they are all alike, but the King of Kings has stamped every man with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore, it is the duty of every man to say, “for my sake the world was created.”
Dr. Belkin, who was quite fond of quoting this passage, wrote, “these immortal words of our sages, concerning the immortal dignity and worth of the human soul, contain the basic philosophy of the Jew, and such a philosophy, which is the essence of any democracy, helps toward the making of a good Jew!”
To us, today, “synthesis” means little more than Jewish studies in the morning and secular studies in the afternoon. To Dr. Belkin, though, it was his greatest goal in life. Social activism was very noble indeed, but could not succeed without these social responsibilities being based upon Divine laws, the authority of one’s heritage. Today’s houses of worship make distinctions, he claimed, one as a social part and the other as a religious part, with the result that “we have a dichotomy that will not serve any good.”
“Let us hope and pray that, in the not too distant future, the world will rid itself of tyranny in every form, and that every individual and every nation will be able to proclaim: For my sake the world was created!”
On April 18, 1976, the scholarship dreams and energy came to an end. Dr. Samuel Belkin died at the age of 64 at the Hospital of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. A gina in Torah scholarship in our day, his tragic loss, which represents the stilling of one of orthodox Jewry’s most brilliant and eloquent voices, will be keenly felt.
Photo Caption: The Commentator Archives
Photo Credit: The Commentator