A Closer Look into the History and Context of YU’s Investitures

By: Leah Klahr  |  September 14, 2017

On Sunday, September 10, Yeshiva University celebrated the investiture of its fifth president, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Leading up to the event, YU students joked about the word “Investiture”, often needing to explain its meaning to others when discussing the event. The word investiture originates from the Latin preposition in, and the verb vestire, which means dress. An investiture refers to a formal ceremony in which a newly presiding official is “vested” with the authority and symbols of a high office. The concept of an investiture is traced back to the Middle Ages, when religious clergy were dressed in specific garments upon their election to office—although, similar ceremonies took place far before the Middle Ages as well. In the 11th and 12th centuries, investitures became a symbol of the power struggle, and conflict between church and state, as the pope, rather than the monarch, began to elect local church officials. The Investiture Ceremony was later extended to universities, and is among the oldest and most honored traditions in academia.

This historical context lends an interesting perspective to Yeshiva University’s Investitures. In accordance with Yeshiva University’s Investiture tradition, the newly elected University President is presented with a medallion, and with two charters: one from Yeshiva University, and one from RIETS, Yeshiva’s Rabbinical School. In fact, in 1915, at the Investiture of Yeshiva University’s first President, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, Yeshiva University did not yet exist as a university. Dr. Revel was invested as President of Yeshivat Eitz Chaim and RIETS, which had been chartered by the NY State Board of Regents in 1897. It was only in 1928, under the vision of Dr. Revel, that Yeshiva College was founded; the establishment of Yeshiva College marked the existence of the first college of liberal arts, sciences, and Jewish religious study. From Dr. Revel’s creation of a Torah Umadda institution in 1928, to President Berman’s Investiture speech about the five forms of Torah which Yeshiva University must generate and share with the world, Yeshiva University stands as an institution in which “church and state”, or religious and secular ideas and values are intertwined.

This was portrayed through the diverse Investiture speakers, ranging from Myriam Gilles, Vice Dean of the University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, to Rabbi J.J. Shachter, Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University and Senior Scholar for YU’s Center for Jewish Future. The Lamport Auditorium rung with ideas of academic excellence and diversity, rabbinic quotations, and Torah discourse, harmonizing in a movement that departs from the premises of the medieval “Investiture Conflict”.

Professor Jeffrey Gurock, Jewish History Professor at Yeshiva University, shared with The Observer that though the University has had five president Investitures, President Berman is “not the fifth president of Yeshiva, but the ninth.” He explained that in the early years of the 20th Century, before Dr. Revel was invested in 1915, three Rabbis served as temporary heads of the institution; they were Rabbi Dr. Phillip Hillel Klein, Moses Sebulun Margolies, and Rabbi Bernard Levinthal. Gurock added that late in the 1910s, when Dr. Revel left the Yeshiva for several years to help out his family in Oklahoma, Rabbi Meir (Bar Ilan) Berlin served as the temporary president. These four Rabbis, who also served as temporary Presidents of the Institution, similarly reflect the unique structure of Yeshiva University, in which Rabbinic and secular academic positions are interwoven.

While Investitures are a hallowed academic tradition, in recent years there has been movement to minimize expensive investiture festivities; some universities skip the tradition altogether. However, President Berman and other administrators explained the importance for students and faculty to be involved in the beginning of a new era for the University. In The Observer’s coverage of the Investiture, it was written that an outside source informed The Observer, that when Dr. Berman saw the original budget for the festival he slashed it, feeling it was too much of an expense. Similarly, Provost Dr. Selma Botman, chair of the Investiture Committee reported to The Observer, “Dr. Berman wanted something modest and so the board [of the investiture committee] acceded to his request.” However, the Investiture did still include festivities in the InvestFest street festival that followed the ceremony. Rabbi Brander explained that the street festival was a good forum for attracting students to be involved with this historic moment for the University. Additionally, as per Investiture tradition, Yeshiva University will host a series of inaugural year events following the Investiture covering topics which will, in following the same pattern, touch on issues in secular academics as well in social, religious, and cultural topics in the Jewish world.