Konvitz, Milton Ridvas

views updated


KONVITZ, MILTON RIDVAS (1908–2003), U.S. legal scholar. His father and maternal grandfather were distinguished rabbis. He was born in Safed in Ereẓ Israel and taken to the United States in 1915. He received his B.A. (1929) and law degree (1930) from New York University and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell University (1933). He practiced law for a number of years in New Jersey as general counsel for the Newark and New Jersey housing authorities; he was also staff counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, and assistant counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp). After teaching law and public administration at New York University, he joined the Cornell faculty in 1946 as an associate professor in the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, was made full professor in 1949, and was appointed professor in the law school in 1956. He retired from Cornell in 1973 and was named professor emeritus.

At Cornell, Konvitz was a founder of the university's Department of Near Eastern Studies and Program of Jewish Studies. He also helped to initiate Young Israel House, where Orthodox Jewish students could reside, have kosher meals, conduct daily prayer services, and study religious texts. Konvitz was renowned for his two-semester American Ideals course, which introduced students to the great thinkers and philosophers throughout history whose writings had shaped those ideals. In teaching the course to more than 8,000 students during his career, he is said to never have delivered the same lecture twice.

His article "Judaism and the Democratic Ideal" appeared in The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (ed. by L. Finkelstein (19603), 1430–51). In the article he points out that although Judaism has often had to accommodate itself to the accidents of time and place, the spirit and energy of democracy are at the very heart of Judaism; the Torah is its constitution; and, as elaborated in the Bible and by the rabbis, Judaism has as one of its fundamental precepts the equality of all men before God.

Konvitz was director of the project that drew up the official body of statutory law now used in Liberia. In 1959 he went there to advise the government on new labor legislation. The Liberian government honored him with the Grand Band of the Order of the Star of Africa, the highest award given to foreigners. In 1998 Cornell established the Milton R. Konvitz Professorship of Jewish and Near Eastern Studies in the university's Jewish Studies program.

Konvitz wrote a number of articles and books dealing with civil rights. He was co-founder of the periodicals Midstream, Judaism, and Journal of Law and Religion. He also served as the Encyclopaedia Judaica departmental editor (first edition) on law and on socialism in the United States. Among his books are The Constitution and Civil Rights (1947), Fundamental Liberties of a Free People (1957), A Century of Civil Rights (1961), Expanding Liberties (1966), Religious Liberty and Conscience (1968), A Century of Civil Rights (1983), Torah and Constitution (1998), and Judaism and Human Rights (20012). He also edited Bill of Rights Reader (19684), First Amendment Freedoms (1963), and Aspects of Liberty (with C. Rossiter, 1958).


Contemporary Authors, 1–4 (1967), 549.

[Charles Reznikoff /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]