Category Archives: History

Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and the Modern Challenges to Faith

Many of the challenges confronting the Jewish world today first took root at the dawn of the 20th Century. The reflections of those who first sensed these impending trials are thus not only of interest to the historian, but also to those seeking to shed light on contemporary goings-on in Jewish life. One thinker acutely aware of these novel perils was the Polish born rabbi, Jehiel Jacob Weinberg (1884-1966).  Weinberg believed that modern Jewry suffered from a deep estrangement from halakhah. Many might still be observing the strictures of the halakhic system, yet modernity had  somehow quashed man’s inner spiritual drive, what Weinberg termed ‘religiosity’. This disconnect between modern man’s inner passions and his outward religious life was seen as the fundamental problem confronting Judaism in the 20th Century. To rectify this problem, Weinberg encouraged a return to the inner experience of halakhah, to the personal world of faith. A return to the self through psychology, rather than philosophy or metaphysics, would ultimately rekindle modern man’s muted sacred passion. Weinberg’s diagnosis would have very real practical implications for Jewish education policy today.

Weinberg is perhaps most well known for his extensive contribution to halakhah in the modern world.  Weinberg’s collection of responsa, compiled into a multi volume series called Seridei Eish, present a compendium of eclectic essays tackling a wide array of halakhic issues in the modern world. These responsa combined fastidious Torah scholarship with an almost unparalleled sensitivity to communal needs, human dignity and broader ethical extra-legal concerns. Weinberg’s  originality as a halakhic thinker alone suffices to place him among the pantheon of ‘great rabbinic thinkers’.  However, Weinberg also penned a number of essays on Jewish philosophy and the state of Judaism in the 20th Century that have gone almost unnoticed in the province of Jewish thought. These writings add an original and much needed voice to Jewish philosophy, a dimension particularly pertinent to the challenges Jewish faith faces in the modern world.

One of Weinberg’s few publications dedicated to Jewish philosophy was composed during his tenure as rector of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer. In this 1924 essay, entitled ‘Thoughts on Judaism’, Weinberg sought to shift the focus of Jewish thought from metaphysics and halakhic analysis,  the long-established arena of Jewish philosophy, to the inner world of the individual. Weinberg’s proposition gains additional meaning given his lifelong devotion to halakhic analysis and his dedication to its application in modern society. Traditional Jewish philosophy, according to Weinberg, has focused largely upon the key beliefs and principles which form the very heart of Judaism. Thinkers ranging from Maimonides and Saadya Gaon to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Maharal devoted much of their lives to understanding God’s essence, the nature of His interaction with the world and His manifold commandments. Whilst these ideas are indeed central to Jewish thought, Weinberg felt that this excessive concern for metaphysics and correct belief had ignored a fundamental element of Jewish life, our very selves.  A  return to the dynamics of faith found within the individual was equally vital for the flourishing of Judaism in the modern world.

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Rabbi Jechiel Jacob Weinberg as a young rabbi.

Weinberg believed deeply that Judaism should exhibit a harmony between our inner lives and outward practice. The life of halakhah, Weinberg argued, should ideally flow out naturally from the wellsprings of our core personality. Religious performance ought to wed the age-old Jewish tradition with one’s own present unique character. This core assumption led Weinberg to the radical conclusion that no person observed a mitzvah in precisely the same fashion as another. Each religious performance was the marriage of an objective halakhic act  with one’s own subjective personal feeling. From an outsider’s perspective, halakhah might appear blandly uniform and void of individuality. Yet, upon closer inspection, each religious act bears the unique hue of the individual. Each halakhic act thus acquired a distinctively personal dimension. Weinberg believed that a core part of Jewish practice resided within one’s self. No two people experienced shaking the lulav or donning tefilin in identical fashion. Weinberg’s thoughts are worth citing:

“Every period of Jewish history has enriched the practical fulfillment of our religion with its own spiritual contributions. Every single Jewish community and every single Jewish individual lives the very same mitzvoth in a peculiar way, which reflect his own particular beliefs and his unique mentality… every single generation and every single community was compelled to inject religious practice with a new power, a new spiritual quality and a new life-force.”

Weinberg believed that previous generations of Jewish thinkers had struggled to successfully achieve this personal connection to Judaism. Indeed, Weinberg utilised this theory to explain why specific movements within Jewish history flourished during particular periods. The emotional Hasidic movement of the late 18th Century served the unique “romantic” character of Polish Jewry. The drier intellectual disposition of Lithuanian Jewry, on the other hand, proved more fertile for the flourishing of the somewhat more intense Musar movement during the 19th Century. These distinct movements took part in the same halakhic system and yet experienced that very same life in a distinct manner in tune with their own special sensibilities.

The core dilemma facing Jewry in the twentieth Century, Weinberg argued, was that this utopic harmony between personal religious feeling and overt practice had yet to occur. Judaism’s manifold commandments and rituals were sadly fulfilled almost mechanically, a rote exercise dislocated and alienated from core passions and true selves. In short, the life of the modern Jew had become fragmented. “Judaism and its many commandments”, Weinberg writes, “have never been practised as a dry, cold, heartless  religion. There was always a fresh strong impulse for Judaism which arose from the depths of one’s heart and generated renewed energies within…. In our days this personal religious impulse has been lost.”

Weinberg was not the only modern figure to encourage authentic inner experience of Judaism. R. Simchah Bunim of Przysucha  (1765-1827), the early Hasidic master, and R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), who incidentally studied under Weinberg in Berlin, also promoted a Judaism which blended personal feeling with objective halakhic observance. Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) also argued that Judaism’s emphasis on command, Mitzvhah, rather than law, reflected Judaism’s vision of halakhah as a personal encounter with God rather than pure lifeless fulfillment of regulations. In the modern world, Rosenzweig believed, halakhah “must again become commandment.”

Yet, Weinberg appears unique in his scathing criticism of a modern Jewry which failed to ignite man’s inner passion for religion. Weinberg felt that society succumbed to two extreme tendencies, either quashing the inner life of the individual under the  hefty yoke of formal halakhah or completely moulding halakhah to the fit the subjective will of the individual. The ideal, Weinberg believed, was to unite respect for this ancient tradition with an authentic youthful and creative vigour. The old and the new ought to merge elegantly in our practice of halakhah.

For Weinberg, this notion had a very real practical application for contemporary Jewish education policy. Weinberg believed that Jewish education had focused too exclusively on pure halakhic legal analysis. The vigorous and youthful world of Aggadah had sadly been ignored by the majority of yeshivot and schools. For Weinberg, Aggadah promoted a religious life of passion and intuition. The world of Aggadah thus provided the ideal compliment to the legal and intellectual world of halakhah. In short, the Jewish education system ought to do more to cultivate and embrace the personal and emotional religious inner lives of its students.

Weinberg felt that no other issue accosting Judaism could be tackled without first solving this key dilemma.  Weinberg charged all individuals with the task of finding one’s own personal voice within this rich transcendent tradition. The critical challenge facing Jewish leaders and thinkers was thus to rekindle this connection and forge a profound  dialogue between this tradition and our selves once again. Only once this feat was accomplished would Judaism regain its inner beauty and potency.

Yirat Shamayim: Fear and Trembling?

In today’s age, we tend to instinctively recoil from fear. Perhaps the rise of science and the advance of technology has convinced us that we can master our fate and rid ourselves of situations which expose our weaknesses. Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, confidently declared that modern civlization had finally conquered the terror of the daunting universe: “when I look at Paris and London I see no reason to fall into this despair… I see a place where men are as happy as human nature allows.” It remains unclear whether the Paris and London of today would still inspire Voltaire with such quixotic optimism. Nevertheless, Voltaire thought that modern society had finally vanquished the mystery and fear that gripped past societies.

Where science has not granted mastery over life, society has seemingly grown evermore uncomfortable with uncertainty and anxiety. When confronted with today’s genuine dangers, be it the threat of violent extremism or the silent spread of disease, the fear we do experience is compounded tenfold. In many ways, we are unable to live with fear.  A comment made by Montaigne almost five centuries ago still rings true today; “The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone” (Essays, Vol. 1).

Jewish thought, however, seems to place fear at the very heart of its worldview. Not only is it something not to be avoided at all costs, but something to be actively pursued. Rabbinic thought in the Talmud is replete with statements underscoring the many virtues of fear, particularly that of yirat shamayim, fear of heaven.

First and foremost, fear is a trait which God Himself cherishes: “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stated: God has nothing [of man’s deeds] in His treasury except a store of the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b). Fear is also seen as the keystone of knowledge: “Where there is no fear, there is no wisdom” (Avot, ch. 3). Torah scholars who lack fear of heaven are “considered to have the inner treasures, but lack the keys to the outer door” (Shabbat 31a). After decrying the futility of all human endeavours and the vanity of man’s efforts to change his world, Kohelet issues one final instruction to mankind: “When all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole of man” (Kohelet 12:13). Fear is nothing less than the very essence of man.

Given our innate inclination to escape fear, either by removing the objects of fear or by avoiding frightening encounters, the first question that pops to mind is not necessarily why people don’t fear God much these days, but why would they want to fear God at all? In short, why does fear attain such prominence in Judaism?

Many seem to contrast fear with the experience of love. Love draws people near to one another, removes barriers, spawns intimacy and grants security. Fear, on the other hand, reflects distance, isolation and often breeds insecurity. Translated into the religious realm, moments of love reflect our closeness to God whereas fear represents our incalculable distance from the Divine.

And yet, a strong strand within the Jewish tradition attempts to diminish the supposed distance between love and fear of God. Fear need not necessarily lead to alienation and insecurity. The proper dosage of fear actually encourages closeness and empowers. Love and fear can indeed co-exist as part of the very same complex experience of God.

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Kaplan was born in Lithuania, studying at the famed Telz and Slobodka yeshivot before his move to Germany.

One figure who sought to bridge the gap between love and fear of God was Rabbi Abraham Eliyah Kaplan (1890-1924). Kaplan was a budding Orthodox rabbi who sought to combine the intensely passionate world of Lithuanian Mussar with the academic and scholarly environment of German Orthodoxy. Kaplan was a remarkably creative and eclectic figure; he  composed poetry, began an extensive and novel commentary to the Talmud and wrote numerous philosophical tracts. Kaplan headed the esteemed Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary for four years until his sudden death at the tragic age of just 34. In 1925, Kaplan wrote an essay  entitled “In the Footsteps of Fear [Yirah]” where he presents his understanding of fear in the Jewish tradition.

Kaplan argues against those who connect fear with the negative feelings of dread, with those who associate fear with a “bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels.” Fear should never be debilitating. Such associations, Kaplan argues, are “heretical” and disfigure the appropriate experience of fear.

Properly understood, fear offers us the sobering experience of seeing things as they truly are, without charm or illusion. “Fear”, Kaplan writes, “is to see things as they really are… Fear [Yirah] of God’s majesty is in truth the vision [Reiyah] of God’s majesty….Yirah is not pain, not anguish, not bitter anxiety. What does Yirah resemble? The tingle of the concern a father has for his beloved son while he carries him on his shoulders, dances with him, to be careful of him lest he fall… you have here an incomparable joy, incomparable gratification, and pleasurable concern is entwined within them.”

In Kaplan’s worldview, Yirah is the dampening but ultimately rewarding realisation that one is inherently limited, finite and, well, human. To cite another modern rabbinic thinker, Rav Tzadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin; “the very essence of fear is recognition of one’s shortcomings” (Tzidkat Haztadik, 212). Knowledge of one’s flaws allows one to approach life with honesty, sobriety and pragmatism. Unlike dread, which makes us shrink away, those who learn to fear in this positive manner grow ever closer to the feared object. In this work, Kaplan tackles the issue of fear in relation to the Divine, yet he believed it to apply to our wider experiences in life too.

Understood in this sense, love and fear are not as opposed to one another as we might have initially thought. Without Yirah, a sense of perspective, one loses touch with reality and remains less attuned to  one’s own weaknesses and human frailties. Confronting our fears admittedly might deprive us of our charmed and fantastical visions of our selves, but, embracing positive fear ultimately grants us a self-awareness that empowers us to experience life in a more genuine fashion. Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1988) compactly summarised this sentiment: “Fear without love, surely there is a deficiency here of love; love without fear, there is nothing here at all” (Letters and Writings, 346).

Extraordinary People: Parashat Pinchas and Heroism

Thomas Carlyle, the great Scottish historian, once said: “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History the Great Men who have worked here.” Carlyle believed that the driving force behind history is its heroes, those unique individuals who rose above ordinary expectations to push mankind forward. Carlyle felt that heroism could be found in poets and politicians alike. There is no single model for heroism.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) delivered these famous lectures 'On Heroes and Hero Worship' in 1840.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) delivered these famous lectures ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ in 1840.

Importantly, Carlyle believed that heroism did not require perfection. All human beings have their many flaws and imperfections. And yet, the heroic figures in our ranks manage to channel their energies to seize the moments that shift our paradigms, truly moving history and society forwards. They overcome their human flaws, sometimes surprising even themselves, to alter the world in which they live.

In many ways, the theme which endures throughout this week’s parasha is the idea that extraordinary people can indeed transcend probability and change the world around them. This parasha begins with the story of Pinchas, a figure who went beyond all societal expectations, perhaps even beyond the letter of the law, to fatally punish an insubordinate leader who jeopardised the very integrity of the nation. The Torah describes how the entirety of society, Moses included, simply wept by the sanctuary in despair at the sight of their prince publicly succumbing to temptation.

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) Moses, Israel’s greatest leader,  simply forgot the relevant laws and thus had no response to this calamity. The man who confronted Pharaoh and shattered God’s tablets was caught in a moment of personal turbulence, leaving a momentary harrowing void of leadership. In the midst of all this havoc, it was only Pinchas who understood what needed to be done, and acted. “Pinchas the son of Elazar , the son of Aharon, saw, and arose from within the congregation…” Pinchas had both the vision to see what was wrong and the audacity to arise from the among of the masses.

No one else expected Pinchas to take such a drastic course of action. Interestingly, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) explains that had Pinchas asked the court what to do, “they would never have said to do such a thing.” Had Pinchas asked for legal counsel, the course of action he ultimately took would have been rejected. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) states that the court even considered excommunicating Pinchas had Prophecy not suddenly come to vindicate him.

A few verses later, a similarly extraordinary act is undertaken by the daughters of Zelaphchad.  Zelaphchad’s five daughters raised the right and obligation of women to inherit property in the absence of a male heir. Void of any male offspring, the inheritance laws dictated that Zelafchad’s legacy would be lost. In a moment of extraordinary courage, the daughters of Zelaphchad bring their plight to Moses and question the unfair treatment of their father. After the daughters of Zelaphchad issue their complaint, Moses conveys their cause to God.

In a remarkable parallel to the case of Pinchas, Chazal note that Moses also did not know what to answer the daughter’s of Zelaphchad. The leader of Israel once again had suddenly forgotten the particular laws in question. Ultimately, it is only the word of God that tells us that both Pinchas and Zelaphchad’s daughters acted properly: “And God told Moses: The daughters of Zelafchad speak correctly…” and “And therefore I will give him [Pinchas] a covenant of peace.”

Acts of heroism, which  shatter the expectations and paradigms of wider society, often appear inexplicable to onlookers. The power of societal norms and of deeply entrenched cultural habits are often difficult to transcend. Sometimes moments of crisis leave all in a crippling state of paralysis. What is clear is that both Pinchas and the daughter’s of Zelaphchad were unwilling to succumb to the norm, to mundane predictable prospects. They sensed that a critical moment was glaring right at them and rose to the occasion.

One problem with Carlyle’s writings is that he viewed heroes as objects of worship. Carlyle’s approach leaves one marveling at the splendid heroism of history’s great men, whilst expecting little or no heroism from oneself. Indeed, extreme admiration of others often leads to a sense of personal inferiority. Heroism becomes an innate quality rather than something attained through struggle. The message the Torah seeks to awaken within us is that we all have heroic potential. We certainly ought to admire and appreciate the extraordinary people that have graced the world. Yet, they should also serve as a reminder as to what energies lie latent within us too.

Wishing a Shabbat shalom to all.

May Shabbat bring peace and safety to all those in Israel and the extraordinary soldiers who risk their lives to protect it.