Opinion: Harvard’s new atheist ‘rabbi’ spells trouble for Jewish students

The problem is not that Greg Epstein is an atheist; that’s his business. The problem is that he presents himself as a rabbi.

By Moshe Phillips

The news media had a field day recently with the man-bites-dog story of the self-proclaimed atheist who was recently named Chief Chaplain at Harvard University.

After nearly 400 years of having chief chaplains who believe in G-d, Harvard has gone in a surprising new direction. Not only that, but the new head chaplain, Greg Epstein, is Jewish and a graduate of the rabbinical ordination program at something called the “International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.”

Undoubtedly some parents of Jewish students at Harvard will be troubled at the prospect of their sons or daughters coming under the influence of a passionate advocate of atheism. Active rejection of the most basic concept in Judaism—belief in G-d—is pretty fringe stuff in the eyes of most American Jews.

The problem is not that Greg Epstein is an atheist; that’s his business. The problem is that he presents himself as a rabbi, even though his core belief system is rejected by every Jewish religious denomination.

The power of the “rabbi” title is that it confers Jewish legitimacy and respectability on whatever the rabbi, even a self-proclaimed one, says. Jewish students at Harvard who don’t know better will hear that “the rabbi” said something, and assume that what he said represents Judaism, not just a tiny fringe element on the Jewish spectrum.

Whether Greg Epstein will influence Jewish students’ religious beliefs remains to be seen. It could be argued that these students are more likely to be influenced by their professors, whom they often perceive as experts and authority figures.

But where Epstein’s influence may well be felt even more strongly, I fear, is on Jewish students’ perceptions of Israel, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism.

Because he is Jewish, and because of the power of his new position, Epstein will have significant new platforms from which to share his views on Jewish issues—at campus events, in the news media, and well beyond. And Epstein’s views on Jewish issues are disturbingly extreme.

A Tweet from Epstein on April 28, 2021 employed the ugly term “Jewish supremacists” to demean Jewish nationalists who were marching in Jerusalem. That slur was coined by neo-Nazis and then more recently adopted by the radical left.

One indication of Epstein’s shallow understanding of the Holocaust was his 2019 tweet calling American detention facilities for illegal migrants “concentration camps.”

If you think I am exaggerating, and that Epstein could not possibly have meant literally that those facilities are similar to concentration camps, note that he wrote they “can LITERALLY [his caps], in a historically accurate way, be called concentration camps.”

No, they can’t be, which is why the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other scholarly Holocaust institutions strongly denounced those comparisons.

As for Israel—when Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Epstein was part of a group of leftwing rabbis who rushed to urge President Obama to refrain from rejecting the terrorist victors. “We urge you to maintain a cautious approach” toward Hamas, in order to advance the goal of a Palestinian state, they wrote to the president.

I guess since Epstein is a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, that’s pretty much what we should expect. J Street, the controversial Jewish pressure group that was created to lobby for a Palestinian state, consistently supports Palestinian Arab demands against Israel. The leaders of J Street always seem to blame Israel for what goes wrong, no matter how extreme or violent the Palestinians are.

Is this the kind of person whom Jewish parents want influencing their college-age children? That doesn’t seem like a very attractive return on their $51,925 in annual tuition payments.

Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs whose writings appear regularly in the American and Israeli press. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020. His views are his own.