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Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and the Modern Challenges to Faith

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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.

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.