Essential Essays on Judaism
by Eliezer Berkovits
editied by David Hazony
Shalem. 393 pp. $22.95 paper.

During the second half of the twentieth century, three significant traditionalist Jewish thinkers were at work in America, if by “traditionalist” one means thinkers who affirm the divine revelation of the Torah, and who thereby accept the authority of Jewish law based on that revelation. The three were Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), Joseph Baer Soloveitchik (1903-1993), and Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992). They had much in common. All were spiritually and intellectually nurtured by the still-vibrant talmudic culture of their youth in Eastern Europe. All of them studied philosophy in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, each receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Berlin just before the Nazi regime made that impossible for Jews. Each of them lost many family members in the Holocaust. All of them did their major work in America. And, most important of all, all three addressed the same general question: How could modern, secularized Jews be brought back intelligently to classic Jewish faith?

Heschel and Soloveitchik were luckier in their careers than was Berkovits, partially because of their more important institutional affiliations: Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary (then still a traditionalist institution), Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University. Berkovits, by contrast, spent many years as a rabbi in out-of-the-way pulpits, and the latter part of his career teaching at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, a rather minor Orthodox rabbinical seminary. The last seventeen years of his life were spent in virtual retirement in Israel, where he continued to write. But, although a prolific writer in English and Hebrew, his writings received scant attention during his lifetime.

David Hazony of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, a neoconservative think tank with a strong interest in theology, is leading an effort to win for Berkovits’ thought the attention it never received when he was alive. Essential Essays on Judaism is an anthology of some of Berkovits’ major writings between 1943 and 1983. The volume’s short introduction by Hazony describes Berkovits’ thought in a way that is helpful to the contemporary reader. In fact, the introduction suggests a full-length monograph on Berkovits may be in preparation. That would be a most welcome addition to the growing literature on modern Jewish thinkers and their thought.

The leitmotif of Berkovits’ writing might be described as “the ethical reform of traditional Jewish law and practice.” In situating this project, it is useful to contrast Berkovits’ approach with those of Heschel and Soloveitchik, which Hazony begins to do in his introduction, though without mentioning names. Since most theologians are, in fact, engaging in philosophical reflection on their religious traditions, it is useful to recognize how the major philosophical influences on these three theologians helped determine their theological positions. For Heschel, it was Kierkegaard. For Soloveitchik, it was Kant. For Berkovits, it was Hume. This identification helps explain Heschel’s concern with the inner intention that could inspire observance of the commandments. It also helps explain Soloveitchik’s interest in early-twentieth-century neo-Kantian “moral axiology,” with its emphasis on the formal, a priori status of the principles of law, from which practical deductions could continually be made.

Berkovits’ major concern, by contrast, was far more empirical. It had to do with the effects of observance of the law on society. Hazony describes this as a concern with “consequences of actions.” Whether Berkovits would qualify as a “consequentialist” is an interesting question that Hazony might want to explore in his attempt to revive Berkovits’ voice in current discussions of normative issues. Indeed, like some current consequentialists, Berkovits was more concerned with what actually happens as a result of moral action than with what one’s inner intention is, or how well one’s action conforms to abstract, formal principles.

Berkovits’ overall idea of Jewish law led him to criticize much of modern Orthodox interpretation and application of that law. He was convinced that most of the Orthodox were unaware of or afraid to face the true purposes of the law. In this sense, Berkovits’ approach was more teleological than that of either Heschel or Soloveitchik. And his courageous candor in openly criticizing the myopia of many of his fellow Orthodox rabbis made Berkovits an outsider in the Orthodox world. There the more theologically inclined looked to Soloveitchik’s formalism for any theory of the law. But unlike Berkovits’ more empirical, pragmatic approach, Soloveitchik’s formalism provided a ready rationale for the status quo rather than a critique of it. In fact, in a 1974 essay, at a time when Soloveitchik was at the height of his influence, Berkovits, a professor in an Orthodox seminary, was willing to say that Orthodoxy had put “halacha [traditional Jewish law] in a straitjacket.” This view stems from Berkovits’ theological assumption that the purpose of the law is to bring about a heightened ethical climate in Jewish religious life.

Berkovits was especially critical of the vulnerable position of women in the current state of Jewish law. Specifically, this meant the lack of rights a married Jewish woman has in relation to her husband, a disparity that often places her at the mercy of her husband’s whims in issues of marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, Berkovits’ approach was very different from the one favored by liberal Jews today, with their wholesale espousal of egalitarianism. For them, there is no notable difference between men and women (which might explain why, in general, they are so confused over sexuality in Judaism). Berkovits, on the other hand, affirmed the equity of women and men within the institution of Jewish marriage. He never advocated any abrogation of existing Jewish law.

In his later writings, Berkovits did call for certain safeguards of women’s rights already present in principle in the law. The result would be, he believed, the ethical enhancement of Jewish marriage. What was needed, according to Berkovits, was ethical courage on the part of Jewish legal authorities to put what already exists in principle into practice. Viewed in retrospect, Berkovits’ work on this issue turned out to be a major inspiration for many traditional Jewish women who sought to carve out for themselves a new role within the boundaries of the Jewish religious life governed by the law.

During his lifetime, some of Berkovits’ Orthodox critics accused him of being, in theory if not in affiliation, a “Conservative” Jew. Didn’t Conservative Judaism also talk about the development of the law and how it both changed and had to change in order to remain a vital cultural force? Here Hazony (himself an Orthodox Jew) comes to Berkovits’ posthumous defense by emphasizing that “Berkovits understands change in halacha . . . to further moral ends that are themselves intrinsic to Judaism and unchanging.” In other words, unlike the “Conservatives” (who today, in principle if not yet in practice, are indistinguishable from Reform Jews), Berkovits affirmed the revealed foundations of the law. Thus in his 1959 essay “Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition,” Berkovits argued that not only Jewish law but normative morality in general requires a grounding in the will of God.

For an empiricist like Berkovits, God’s will cannot be derived from data in the world. That would require metaphysical inferences foreign to his philosophical orientation. God’s will can only be known from direct revelation to the world. Its expression must have been experienced in history. Unlike medieval Jewish theologians, Berkovits himself did not, to my knowledge, reflect on Christianity and Islam, which also claim to be based on revelation. He was quite anti-Christian, but that opposition was based on a moral judgment of the history of Christian behavior towards Jews rather than on a theological judgment of the claims of Christian revelation. In my view, Berkovits was quite simplistic in that moral-historical judgment.

Jewish tradition is the medium whereby the revealed datum is transmitted and developed throughout history. It is the flexibility of that process of transmission and application that gives Jewish tradition its historical relevance, while also avoiding the relativistic historicism that characterizes liberal Judaism today. For Berkovits, the law’s foundation in revelation saves the reforms he advocated from becoming Reform Judaism, which, he consistently maintained, is antinomian.

Much of Berkovits’ thought is incomplete, probably due to the fact that he was primarily an essayist rather than the author of treatises. One wishes he had been able to write a definitive work like Heschel’s God in Search of Man or Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man . Nevertheless, what Berkovits did leave behind are many powerful insights and suggestions for further exploration. Who are his heirs? They are today’s traditional or orthodox Jews who are convinced that Judaism’s active engagement with modernity does not require a formalist escape into an ideal world any more than it requires making “the demands of modernity” our prime authority. Rather, Berkovits maintained that traditional or orthodox Jews needed to develop a theology based on the grandeur of the eternal in the Torah, above all in its creative ability to bring God’s voice to bear on temporal reality and reveal its true purpose and destiny. In that important quest, Eliezer Berkovits can continue to be a guide, now more easily because of the devoted efforts of David Hazony.

David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.