Photo Credit: Yeshiva University
Dr. David Berger

He’s returning full-time to his true love – teaching.

On June 30, Dr. David Berger – who has authored several books and over 100 academic articles – stepped down as dean of Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies after serving in that position for 12 years. “I’ve never wanted to be an administrator,” he told The Jewish Press.

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Dr. Berger will remain, however, at the institution, doing what he has done for five decades now, teaching Jewish History. He is being replaced by Dr. Daniel Rynhold, who has served as a professor of Jewish philosophy at the institution for over a decade.

Dr. Berger is the author of, among other works, The Jewish Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages and Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations. The Jewish Press recently spoke to him about his background, academic career, and his primary area of expertise, medieval Christian-Jewish disputations.

The Jewish Press: You grew up in Brooklyn, but I imagine it was a very different Brooklyn than the Brooklyn of today. How would you compare the two?

Dr. Berger: Well, I grew up in Brownsville, which was a Jewish neighborhood when I was growing up. Today, there’s no Jewish community there at all.

It was actually already somewhat in Jewish decline in my youth. When we moved to Boro Park in 1961, only very few religious Jews still lived in Brownsville. The Young Israel of Brownsville, for example – where I had grown up – had already moved to East Flatbush.

Boro Park is largely chassidic today. I imagine it wasn’t when you moved there.

When we moved, the Young Israel of Boro Park was thriving, and the other large shul was Beth El. Neither of these were “charedi” shuls. There was also a major Conservative shul in Boro Park. So it was certainly quite different from what it is today.

For college, you went to Yeshiva University. Which rebbe’im did you study with there?

My first year, I studied with Rav Henoch Fishman, who had learned in the Mir Yeshiva in Europe. He was one of the greatest tzaddikim I have ever come across.

His shiur was in Yiddish, but I understood Yiddish, and he was a very significant influence on me. I had gone to Flatbush High School, and when I arrived at Yeshiva [University] and was told to find a chavrusa, I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea what a chavrusa was. In Flatbush yeshiva, Gemara was taught like a regular class. There was no chavrusa learning.

In any event, I was deeply influenced by him, and one of the great compliments he gave me was when he urged me to become a rosh yeshiva. He was a wonderful, wonderful human being.

My second year, I was in the shiur of Rav Ahron Soloveichik, who probably had more of an impact on me than any teacher or rosh yeshiva I ever had – including the Rav [R’ Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik], with whom I studied the following four years. Now, I don’t need to say what a gigantic figure the Rav was – he was one of the great minds of the 20th century – but his brother actually had a greater spiritual influence on me. He was an extraordinary person.

You subsequently got semicha from YU and a PhD from Columbia University in 1970, and taught Jewish History for many decades at Brooklyn College, the CUNY Graduate Center, and Yeshiva University. How would you compare teaching Jewish History to mostly non-frum students at Brooklyn College to teaching Jewish History to mostly frum students at Yeshiva University?

You can tell more stories and jokes at Yeshiva. In Brooklyn College, I told plenty of jokes, but they didn’t always go over as well.

There’s also a much more heimishe atmosphere at Yeshiva. There’s a sense of being at ease and having a commonality of culture and purpose that makes teaching at Yeshiva different. In Yeshiva, you can also expect a certain knowledge of Judaism and Jewish texts that you can’t expect at Brooklyn College.

You announced in May that you would be stepping down as dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. What prompted that decision?

Twelve years of being dean were enough.

In 1975, when Haym Soloveitchik [Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s son] became dean of Revel, I started teaching there part-time, and then I was offered a full-time position at Revel in 2006. It was an attractive proposition since my heart was in Yeshiva all along, so I retired from CUNY after 36 years and came to Yeshiva.

A year later, I was persuaded – almost pressured – to accept the deanship of Revel on the grounds that I was the only appropriate person to succeed Dr. Arthur Hyman who [was in his mid-80s and] wanted to step down. So this is a job I undertook out of a sense of obligation, and I think that, after 12 years, I’ve fulfilled the obligation. I’ve never wanted to be an administrator.

One of your areas of expertise is medieval Christian-Jewish debates. What would you say is the one feature of these debates that most Jews don’t know about?

I don’t think they know very much about them at all. The ordinary educated Orthodox Jew has not been exposed to polemical literature. Some very knowledgeable Jews might have [at best] read the Vikuach HaRamban.

But in a broader context, going beyond the debates themselves, one example might be how Judaism classifies Christianity. Is it avodah zarah? Some authorities say that associating G-d with another entity – “shituf” – is permitted to non-Jews. What does that mean? To what degree does it apply to Christianity?

It’s a very complicated, important, and central issue in halacha, not just polemics. But most people who know about it only know about it in an extremely superficial way.

What do you think would surprise contemporary Jews the most about medieval Jewish-Christian disputations?

I think they might be surprised by the fact that sometimes Jews may have said things they didn’t mean in order to avoid persecution. In his disputation in 1240, for example, Rav Yechiel of Paris said that when the Talmud says nasty things about Jesus, it’s referring to a different Jesus from the one Christians believe in. Is that a sincere statement? It’s a very interesting question and a matter of dispute among historians.

Here’s another example: In Rav Yechiel’s disputation, he says the Talmud’s discriminatory laws against non-Jews don’t apply to Christians. They only apply to the nations of antiquity. Once again, the question of Rav Yechiel’s sincerity has been raised.

But the Meiri, who did not have a disputation with Christians, actually says the same thing even more vigorously and systematically. He says these laws don’t apply to “umot gedurot b’darchei hadatot,” which literally means “nations who are limited by the ways of religions” – that is, nations that have decent moral codes and believe in one G-d. So that means Christians and Muslims are exempted.

Christianity has changed to a great extent from the medieval period, yet many Jews remain distrustful of it – perhaps because we’re constantly reading about Christian persecution of Jews in the past. Can you describe some of the differences between contemporary Christianity and medieval Christianity vis-à-vis such matters as the crucifixion?

There has been an extremely important transformation in Catholic teaching and in some Protestant teaching as well. The famous turning point was the Second Vatican Council declaration, which goes by the Latin title “Nostra Aetate.”

Section 4 of Nostra Aetate deals with Jews, and it says only those who were actually present at the crucifixion and urged that Jesus be crucified are responsible for his crucifixion. This guilt does not apply to other Jews at that time and does not apply to subsequent Jews. That was a transformative moment in the history of the church. The Vatican’s recognition of Israel, for example, could not have happened without it.

The degree, however, to which this change affects general attitudes towards Jews among ordinary Catholics depends very much on the degree to which it is taught in Catholic schools – and that varies from country to country. In the United States and some other Western countries, it has penetrated to a decent extent, but in places like Poland and Latin America, many Catholics still believe the old theology.

Despite this change – and despite the extreme pro-Israel sentiment among many Protestant Christians – many Jews remain fearful of Christians, believing they must have a larger agenda. Is this fear warranted?

It’s a very interesting question. The attitude toward Israel in Christian circles today has very little connection with what Christians believe or don’t believe about Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion.

Very liberal Protestant circles, for example, tend to be deeply hostile toward Israel even though many liberal Protestant churches don’t blame Jews theologically for what they did to Jesus.

Meanwhile, evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants are generally very pro-Israel. And that has to do with their belief that G-d blessed anyone who would be good to Jews. That’s the blessing to Avraham: “v’nivrechu vecha kol mishpechos ha’adamah.”

Some Jews [argue] that these Christians favor Israel because it’s a step toward the second coming of Jesus. Some of them believe that, but there are broader reasons for their support. Now, if you asked them behind closed doors, “Do you think a Jew who doesn’t believe in Jesus will be saved?” many of them will say, “No.” And yet, at the same time, they are pro-Israel and genuinely friendly toward Jews.

So the theology here is kind of mixed up. It’s not straightforward anymore.

Your field is Medieval Jewish History, but if I may ask a question about Modern Jewish History: Right now, it’s possible to get a PhD in this subject and be an ignoramus when it comes to sephardic history and frum history. You can know next to nothing, for example, about the Breslover Rebbe, the Chidushe HaRim, the Netziv, Rav Akiva Eiger, and numerous others. Is that a problem?

Let me say a number of things. Outside of Yeshiva University, I think what you say is absolutely correct – and it’s unfortunate. It’s possible to get a PhD and even be a professor of Modern Jewish History without knowing what a properly educated Jew should know. That’s certainly true.

In Yeshiva, the situation is [better]. At YU, there are a number of ways that pretty much force students to know more about these subjects. We offer a course, for example, on the rabbinic culture in Vilna. And the reading list for PhD students in Modern Jewish History now includes readings that require knowledge of elements of rabbinic and chassidic history.

I don’t dismiss what you’re saying even for Yeshiva – there’s an element of truth in it – but there is also a great deal of truth in the affirmation that it’s no longer as true as it once was.

How about sephardic Jewish history? It seems that one can graduate knowing nothing about the history of Jews of Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Morocco. Are these Jews ignored because their numbers in modern times were tiny compared to the ashkenazic populations of Europe and the United States?

Well, at Revel, we now have a full-time professor whose field is the sephardic world under Christendom in the early modern period. He teaches the early modern Sephardic disapora, including Latin America and what he calls “the Sephardic Atlantic.” So we cover that extremely well now.

Sephardic history in the 19th and 20th centuries is not covered very well – that’s true. But we did have a professor, Daniel Tsadik, who for the last five years or so taught courses on the history of Jews in Islamic lands. Unfortunately for us, he decided to move back to Israel this year, and at this point he won’t be immediately replaced. I hope he will be able to be replaced in the foreseeable future.

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