Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884–1966
By Marc B. Shapiro
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 288 pp. $49.50
By the standards of academia, it was an extraordinary, even impossible, gesture.
The editor of a scholarly journal feels guilty about an article that he ran in a previous issue. Rather than letting the matter pass, he visits the grave of the person who was the subject of the article, and asks his forgiveness. And to make sure it becomes publicly known, he pens a follow–up article in which he recounts his action and again asks forgiveness for his “sin.”
At Harvard or Yale, a thing like this could not happen. But at New York’s Yeshiva University, which combines a four–year college program with preparation for the modern Orthodox rabbinate, it did, and just recently. Jacob J. Schacter, a rabbi and Ph.D., edits the Torah U–Madda Journal, a scholarly compendium that strives to integrate the perspectives of Jewish tradition—hence “Torah”—and the findings of modern scholarship—hence “madda,” the Hebrew term for “science.” “Torah U–Madda” is the official motto of Yeshiva University, and speaks to the particular brand of religious and cultural synthesis that the school advocates.
Schacter was so anguished because of the 1997 article “Scholars and Friends: Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and Professor Samuel Atlas.” The title seems innocent enough, and its content consists of nothing more than a group of letters written by a renowned twentieth–century Orthodox rabbinic scholar. How could such letters prove problematic in any way? Part of the answer is that they are highly personal in nature, and give voice to an embittered sense of life. Still another part of the answer is that the letters are filled with biting criticism of trends within Orthodoxy. And compounding all this, the letters are addressed to a non–Orthodox professor teaching at a Reform seminary.
The storm of criticism that followed upon the publication of Rabbi Weinberg’s letters hardly came as a surprise to Schacter. He understood from the outset that their appearance in print would be seen in some Orthodox quarters as an act of gross disrespect toward a revered Orthodox figure of the previous generation, and as a calculated insult to the larger Orthodox community. Indeed, the vast bulk of Schacter’s follow–up article (which runs to 76 pages, and includes 193 footnotes) is given over to a spirited rebuttal of just these claims on both academic and halakhic grounds. Generally speaking, Schacter remains a determined advocate of “Facing the Truths of History,” as the title of his article has it.
But why then Schacter’s pained sense of guilt with regard to Rabbi Weinberg? This is directly attributable to a letter he received from Weinberg’s “closest, most beloved, and fiercely devoted disciple,” stating categorically that the rabbi would have been horrified to know that his letters to Atlas had found their way into print. In the face of this assertion by a person whom Schacter saw as “uniquely suited to attest to the feelings and desires of his illustrious rebbe,” the editor of the Torah U–Madda Journal felt compelled to acknowledge his “sin.” “The elementary courtesy of maintaining Rabbi Weinberg’s personal privacy,” Schacter concluded, “dictates that if he would have been opposed to their publication, [his letters] should not have been published.” Hence the visit to the grave.
Schacter’s actions speak well of him. But Weinberg’s letters still need some explanation. Weinberg was a talmudic scholar of the first order, and his published volumes quickly assumed canonical status in the eyes of the Orthodox rabbinic elite. His halakhic rulings were closely attended to by all sectors of Orthodox Jewry, and as such played an important role in the evolution of Jewish law in the twentieth century. Weinberg’s death in 1966 was mourned by Orthodox Jews around the world as the loss of an exemplary religious personality. How is it then that this rabbinic giant penned a series of letters that give voice, as Schacter describes it, to a “lonely, frustrated, bitter, and tragic life?” How is it that this pillar of the Orthodox establishment wrote letter after letter in which, to quote Schacter again, he lashed out against the “hypocrisy, extremism, and unethical behavior he found within Orthodoxy”? Clearly there is a puzzle here, one that badly needs solving.
Rabbi Weinberg’s letters in the Torah U–Madda Journal were assembled by Marc B. Shapiro, who holds a chair in Judaica at the University of Scranton. Shapiro has now come forward with a full–scale study of the life and writings of Jehiel Weinberg—Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy—that goes a long way toward clearing up the mystery surrounding the man. Shapiro’s signal contribution is to present Weinberg in the round: both the public and the private figure. With regard to the public dimension, Shapiro’s central focus, as indicated by the title of his book, is on Weinberg’s sustained attempt to bridge the gap between the traditionalist Orthodoxy of Eastern Europe and the more Westernized version that had taken root in Germany. In this context, Shapiro devotes considerable space to Weinberg’s role as chief talmudist at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, and to the legal rulings he issued on such “modern” topics as the bat–mitzvah ceremony and coeducational youth activities. With reference to the private side, Shapiro makes good use of Weinberg’s substantial and remarkably candid unpublished correspondence to tell the story of a man frustrated by life’s difficulties and left completely shattered by the Holocaust. The mere narrating of it, which Shapiro does with great sensitivity, makes the reader wince.
Shapiro’s aim of providing a “complete study of Weinberg’s life and achievements” takes him, of necessity, in many different directions. To begin with, there is the need to situate Weinberg in the two sharply divergent religious–cultural contexts in which he was immersed in the early decades of the twentieth century: the world of East European Jewish piety and the assimilationist milieu of German Jewry. As a prolific author, Weinberg produced not only volumes of responsa (legal rulings written in the form of letters), but also polemical essays and—unusually for a traditional talmudist—works of modern academic scholarship. Still further, Rabbi Weinberg played an active role as a communal leader, participating in debates involving such wrenching issues as the rise of Nazism and the struggle to create a Jewish state. Shapiro acquits himself well in dealing with all of these matters by drawing on his broad knowledge of Jewish history, and by deploying the specialized skills needed to unravel rabbinic texts. He does not shy away from taking a firm stand on particular points of interpretation, even when the sources remain somewhat murky. Finally, Shapiro’s open championing of the modern Orthodox in their struggle with traditionalist Orthodox elements makes for a presentation that, if obviously biased, has strong narrative zest.
Shapiro’s book is developed along chronological lines, taking in the four major periods of Weinberg’s life: his years in Eastern Europe (1884–1913), in which he trained as a talmudist at a number of great yeshivas, and then served in the rabbinate; his first two decades in Germany (1914–1932), during which he obtained an advanced secular education and assumed a leading place at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary; the Nazi period (1933–1945), in which he was thrust into an important communal role in Germany, spent time in the Warsaw ghetto, and was ultimately transferred to a Nazi detention camp in Bavaria; and the postwar years in Montreux, Switzerland (1946–1966), where he lived quietly, seeking to restore the broken strands of his life. Shapiro works a discussion of Weinberg’s writings into this chronological structure, making clear the context in which individual responsa and essays were penned. This is most welcome, as all too often the analysis of rabbinic writings takes place in a historical vacuum. Shapiro, however, could well have gone further in teasing out the elements of commonality that cut across Weinberg’s major responsa.
Shapiro properly observes that Weinberg, time and again in his life, “found himself pulled in opposite directions.” This certainly applies to his youth in Eastern Europe, in the course of which Weinberg dreamed of obtaining a secular education even as he was immersed in advanced Talmud study. Even in the small town of Ciechanowiec, Poland, where Weinberg was born in 1884, traditional patterns of life had begun to break down by the turn of the century. In his adolescent years, Weinberg was exposed to a Jewish society that was “fragmented,” and in which “the abandonment of religious tradition was widespread.” Most painfully for him, the guardians of Torah, as represented by the yeshiva heads, took an either/or approach in this context: they viewed the slightest accommodation to secular trends as anathema. Thus, Shapiro relates the remarkable fact that when Weinberg, who had already obtained ordination, went to Grodno in 1904 “in order to study Russian,” Rabbi Nathan Zvi Finkel, the head of the Slobodka yeshiva, and one of the greatest scholars of his generation, followed him there in order to dissuade him from this action. (Finkel soon had his way.)
Even within the confines of the yeshiva, where Weinberg enjoyed phenomenal success as a student, he found himself pulled in different directions. His years of study coincided with the raging debate in rabbinic circles about the proper place of mussar (pietistic literature) in the yeshiva curriculum. One side, led by Finkel, argued that the study of mussar would enrich Talmud study and make for more fully developed religious personalities; the other side maintained that mussar was a wasteful distraction that would undermine the ideal of Torah study for its own sake. While attending Slobodka, Weinberg grew very close to Finkel and other leading personalities of the mussar movement. Still, when it came time to secure a certificate of ordination, Weinberg made sure to have it drawn up by two leading anti–mussar rabbis.
The process by which Weinberg entered the rabbinate in 1906 was impossibly wrenching. In order to secure the post of town rabbi in Pilwishki, Lithuania, he was forced to take as a bride the sixteen–year–old daughter of the former rabbi—it was a package deal. For Weinberg, Shapiro indicates, this forced marriage was the “most tragic event of his life.” Shapiro explains:
[Weinberg] simply did not care for his bride, who was very young and uneducated, probably knowing little more than how to read the prayerbook. She was a typical Orthodox woman of the old generation, whereas Weinberg, despite his yeshiva training . . . read modern newspapers and books. . . . The relationship between Weinberg and Ester Levin appeared doomed from the start.
Weinberg separated from his wife when he went to Germany in 1914, and divorced her eight years later. He never remarried.
Weinberg’s arrival in Germany just before the outbreak of World War I was the crucial turning point of his life. He had already gained a smattering of secular education by reading on his own, but now Weinberg was able to enroll at the University of Giessen, where he ended up with a doctorate in biblical studies, and served as a lecturer in Judaica. (Shapiro reproduces a wonderful picture of Weinberg, sans skullcap, sitting with his academic colleagues.) In the East European context, Weinberg’s push into the secular realm would have meant a break with Orthodoxy, but in the German Orthodox environment it could prove religiously enriching. Orthodox Judaism in Germany—called “neo–Orthodoxy”—took its lead from the philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a nineteenth–century Frankfurt rabbi who advocated the mix of ritual observance and cultural openness. Hirsch was unapologetic in endorsing secular education, even as he denounced the heresies of Reform Judaism. For Weinberg, Hirsch’s “Torah and secular culture” outlook was just right, permitting him to harmonize his talmudic interests and his broader cultural aspirations. “It was only in Germany,” Shapiro rightly observes, “that Weinberg’s full talents began to flower.”
If Weinberg found in Germany a culture–friendly Orthodox milieu, the German Orthodox found in him an authentic representative of the East European talmudic elite. Neo–Orthodoxy in Germany was very successful in nurturing a committed and knowledgeable laity, but, with a few notable exceptions, it fell short of the mark in producing Talmud scholars of the first rank. Weinberg, therefore, newly fitted with academic credentials, stood out as a figure of note, since he commanded both traditional talmudic learning and modern critical scholarship. In 1924, Rabbi Weinberg was named lecturer in Talmud and codes at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, a position that made him, in Shapiro’s words, “the supreme halakhic authority for the numerous communal rabbis who were seminary graduates.” As his fame grew, Weinberg became an ever more important player on the German Orthodox scene.
Weinberg’s leadership role at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary was cruelly tested during the Nazi era. Shapiro offers the shocking revelation that Weinberg acted as an apologist for Hitler in the period immediately following his appointment as chancellor. In March 1933, Weinberg gave an interview to a newspaper in which, as Shapiro summarizes it, “[Weinberg] played down the anti–Semitic nature of the new regime, denied that Jewish political rights or livelihoods were at risk, and expressed optimism for the Jewish future in Germany, a country based on the rule of law.” Shapiro adds tellingly that “Weinberg’s comments differed from those of other Jewish figures in Germany in that he was not subjected to governmental pressure to portray the regime in a positive light. On the contrary, his opinion was expressed voluntarily.” Shapiro is completely baffled by this, and can only attribute Weinberg’s behavior to extraordinary political naiveté. In any case, as the Nazi assault on German Jewry grew in intensity, Weinberg sobered up and acted responsibly in dealing with a host of matters—from trying to preserve some form of kosher slaughter in the country to finding places of refuge for the scholars and students affiliated with the Seminary. Weinberg himself remained in Germany throughout the decade, turning down an offer to become head of the rabbinical court in London.
Following Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary was permanently closed, and Weinberg was ordered to leave Germany. He made his way to Kovno and then to Warsaw, where he was trapped by the start of World War II. Weinberg was asked to serve as chief rabbi of the city, but he refused, fearing that he would become a tool of the Gestapo. In the Warsaw ghetto, Weinberg was daily witness to a landscape of horror, which he later described:
There the German beast showed itself with all its ferocity, violence, and cruelty never seen or heard since the heavens and earth have been created. . . . May I not live to see the consolation of Zion if I have not seen men, women, and children thrown to the ground and trampled by people fleeing for fear of death, or persons collapsed from hunger and cold and murderous blows. They lay on the ground helplessly and breathed their last with no one to bring them to burial.
Weinberg’s own survival is directly attributable to his being sent, in October 1941, to a Nazi detention camp in Bavaria, where he remained until the end of the war.
Weinberg emerged alive from the Holocaust, but the religious worlds of Eastern Europe and Germany that had nurtured his Orthodoxy in very different ways were utterly destroyed. While Weinberg gloried in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, illness, fear of change, and a concern about being drawn into Orthodox factional struggles led him to put aside the thought of settling there. Instead, Weinberg moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where he lived quietly with the family of one of his former students, in a Jewish community numbering some one hundred. Weinberg remained very active on the literary front, producing numerous responsa and an occasional academic monograph. However, this scholarly output could do nothing to heal the deep wound in his heart, a wound that turned his personal letters to Samuel Atlas into an orgy of complaint about life—about the “fraudulence, hypocrisy, and flattery that fills our world,” about the “despicable charlatanism” that afflicts Orthodox life, and about his own “frozen heart.” The letters reproduced in Torah U–Madda Journal give voice to the private agony of a man broken in spirit.
Shapiro shrewdly points to a major irony of Rabbi Weinberg’s career: even as the Holocaust shattered Weinberg’s personal religious world, it created the conditions for his emergence as an Orthodox figure of international renown. Weinberg was one of the few top–caliber talmudists to survive World War II, and as such, was increasingly sought after to rule on matters of Jewish law. This consultative process took on a strong international dimension as Weinberg’s students, who had fled from Germany to the United States, England, and Palestine, made his name known to ever–widening circles of Orthodox Jews. Finally, as the rare halakhic scholar who was seen as open to the secular realm, Weinberg became the legal decisor (posek) of choice for the modern Orthodox leaders who set the agenda for Orthodoxy in the immediate postwar decades.
But was Rabbi Weinberg, in his own right, a modern Orthodox Jew? This is the key interpretative question that needs to be addressed in any critical assessment of Weinberg’s career.* Given his reputation as a talmudist, traditionalist Orthodox Jews—those opposed to cultural openness—have been understandably reluctant to cede him as a prize to their modern Orthodox opponents. Engaging in damage control, they have argued that Weinberg’s secular education was a mere surface element, and that it had no impact at all on his basic religious outlook. Shapiro is easily able to refute this view by citing chapter and verse from Weinberg’s responsa, essays, and letters.
Still, it must be said that at times Shapiro seems overzealous in claiming Weinberg for the modern Orthodox camp. In his eagerness to hold up Weinberg as a legitimating role model for Orthodox modernists, Shapiro tends to set aside any evidence that suggests a more complicated picture, relegating some relevant complicating facts to the footnotes.
The strongest evidence for Weinberg’s modern Orthodox stance is his growing identification over time with the “Torah and secular culture” philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Shapiro does a fine job of tracing Weinberg’s evolving position on this matter, from firm opposition during his years in Eastern Europe, to qualified support during his early German period, to wholesale endorsement during his years at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary and thereafter. We noted above Weinberg’s strong desire as a youth to gain exposure to secular education. Thus, it comes as a surprise to learn that Weinberg, while serving in the rabbinate in Pilwishki, penned an essay defending the traditional yeshiva approach of zero tolerance for secular studies. Most likely, this is to be explained by the same conformist pressure that led him to marry against his wishes. Whatever the explanation, Rabbi Weinberg’s essay is unequivocal in rejecting any accommodation with secular trends:
Those whose major purpose is a career go forth from the yeshiva and wander in other fields. Those who stray into foreign territory will not return because of a little European education which is given to them in a superficial manner on the stools of the yeshiva. Not from these shall Judaism be built and not in them shall Jews put their national trust. At the sound of the first shot these weaklings will abandon the battle. The fulfillment of the Torah requires great sacrifices from us. . . . Our entire life must be a sacrifice.
No sooner had Rabbi Weinberg arrived in Germany, Shapiro is quick to note, then he began to back away from his stated opposition to secular education. In part, this was a corrective move necessitated by his enrollment at the University of Giessen. Also contributing to this shift, however, was Weinberg’s living encounter with Hirschian Orthodoxy, which made clear to him just how successful Hirsch’s disciples had been in producing a Jewishly committed laity. At a time when hordes of young people in Eastern Europe were abandoning Orthodox Judaism for secular ideologies of every stripe, German Orthodoxy managed to retain the loyalty of its youth despite their exposure to secular education. Clearly then, a “Torah and secular culture” approach could prove effective, even if Weinberg at this juncture was still not prepared to endorse it openly as a cure for the ills besetting Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.
It was during his years at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary that Weinberg emerged as a full–fledged Hirschian. In this culminating phase, Weinberg lavished praise on German Orthodoxy for producing, as he termed it in a 1927 speech to Jewish academics, a “complete synthesis of Torah and life.” While Orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe struggled in vain to keep modernity at arm’s length, Weinberg argued, Hirsch’s followers in Germany pursued a positive course, forging strong bonds between traditional Judaism and secular culture. The key to the success of this enterprise was the development of a cadre of rabbis fully in touch with the modern spirit:
As bearers of the word of God, it is the obligation of rabbis to explain to the nation and to the world the view of Judaism with regard to all problems of ethics, law, and social reform with which the new generation struggles. It is their obligation to demonstrate that Judaism is not merely a compendium of religious laws and customs, but is a decisive spiritual force in the life of humanity. . . . It is not possible for a rabbi in our day to evade [problems] and shrink in a corner of his study. . . . He must know what is transpiring around him in the world of science and literature. . . . Without systematic training and without knowledge of the language of modern intellectual thought he will not be able to find the path and the spiritual connection to the inner world of youth and the members of the new generation.
At this point a caveat needs to be entered. While it is certainly the case that Weinberg, in his mature phase, happily operated in a “Torah and secular culture” framework, he in no way surrendered his belief that Talmud study, as carried out in the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe, represented the touchstone of authentic Judaism. Shapiro acknowledges this, but fails to make enough of its implications. Weinberg never for a moment suggested that advanced institutions like Slobodka and Mir alter their educational programs to make room for secular studies—their mission was the maintenance of Torah study in its pure form. Moreover, even in a “Torah and secular culture” context, Weinberg took it for granted that Talmud study had strong precedence over secular pursuits. While Weinberg regarded the latter as worthy in their own right, there was no question in his mind that the study of Judaism’s sacred texts had full axiological priority. All this comes to the fore in a letter that Weinberg sent to a newly–ordained student at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary:
I have one request of you, that afterwards you should travel to the yeshiva of Mir or the yeshiva of Slobodka. There you will devote all your time, day and night, to sacred subjects and only sacred subjects. . . . It is my desire to bring you to the wellspring from which I myself drank. Now that you have satiated yourself with European culture more than enough, it is your obligation to return to the pure and holy wellspring of the yeshivot. There you will attain the gates of wisdom and enhanced knowledge of our holy Torah.
Clearly, Weinberg’s endorsement of Hirschian philosophy was not without qualification.
There is a similar element of equivocation in Weinberg’s role as a rabbinic decisor. While many of his rulings strongly point to a modern Orthodox sensibility, there is evidence as well of a more conservative dynamic. While all four volumes of his collected halakhic rulings, Seridei Esh (Remnants from the Fire), appeared in the 1960s, they include a significant number of responsa dating from before World War II. In immediate terms, the title alludes to the fact that the bulk of Weinberg’s early responsa were destroyed in the Holocaust. More broadly, however, the title speaks to his image of himself as a lonely survivor from a lost world. That someone operating with this self–image could go on to produce a series of forward–looking responsa in the postwar period is nothing short of astonishing.
Weinberg’s most innovative responsa deal with issues related to women, and this in itself is a telling indication of a modern Orthodox sensibility. Women’s issues pose a special challenge for Orthodox leadership because of the vast gulf separating traditional norms and modern expectations. Weinberg’s key concern in this area was to upgrade the religious participation of women so that they would feel less like second–class citizens within the halakhic system. (This formulation of the matter may appear as excessively wedded to current feminist perspectives, but it is exactly how Rabbi Weinberg saw the issue.) He endorsed the bat–mitzvah ceremony, as well as coeducational youth groups and youth choirs, and strongly advocated substantial religious education for girls.
In still another bow to modernity, Weinberg often would foreground sociological factors that he saw to be central to a given halakhic issue. Take, for example, how Weinberg approaches the matter of bat–mitzvah:
It is disappointing that in general education . . . we concern ourselves with girls as much as with boys, but we totally neglect religious education, i.e., Bible study, the mussar literature of our sages, and instruction concerning the commandments in which women are obligated. . . . From the standpoint of logic and pedagogy it is almost imperative to celebrate the attainment of the age of religious obligation for girls too. Moreover, the discrimination which occurs between boys and girls with regard to the celebration of maturity makes a very hurtful impression on the feelings of the maturing girl, who in other areas has been granted equality.
Or take his ruling on mixed youth choirs:
In countries like Germany and France, women would feel disgraced and deprived of their rights if we would forbid them to participate in rejoicing over the Sabbath by singing holy songs. This is evident to anyone familiar with the character of women in these countries. A stringent ruling could cause women to become disaffected from religion, heaven forbid.
Implied in Weinberg’s sociological glosses is a call to halakhic action. Shapiro is thus fully justified in maintaining that on an assortment of cutting–edge issues Weinberg “did not consider pros and cons objectively. Rather, he approached the discussion with a set goal and went about finding the halakhic sources to justify it.” Crucial to this process was Rabbi Weinberg’s heavy reliance on minority opinions within the corpus of Jewish law. Shapiro pointedly observes in this context: “Halakhic interpretation was not in dispute, but rather how the needs of contemporary Orthodoxy were to be evaluated and what the role of posek should be in responding to those needs.” Given his worried reading of the “sociological realities,” Shapiro concludes, Weinberg was prepared to “explore the outer limits of halakhic propriety.”
Still—and Shapiro is fully alert to this—there is quite another side to Rabbi Weinberg’s labors as a rabbinic decisor. Not infrequently, Weinberg shied away from issuing liberal rulings when he was unable to gain the support of other rabbinic scholars for his proposed course of action. This cautious approach reflects a conservative dynamic inherent in the halakhic process, but the relevant point is that Rabbi Weinberg was hardly exempt from it. As Shapiro explains:
Weinberg took his place with many other posekim who are characterized by a lack of confidence in their own authority and hesitancy in reaching significant decisions. . . . It is only the rare halakhist who can declare that a posek must fearlessly answer all queries, and once convinced of the correctness of his argument is obliged to rule in accordance with it. Weinberg’s position was much more in line with traditional patterns of halakhic decisionmaking, which explains why he was reluctant to issue independent rulings in a number of areas, in particular concerning family law, even though he felt strongly that halakhic leniencies were possible and desirable.
The conservative component in Weinberg’s stance as a rabbinic decisor is strikingly evident in his refusal, as late as 1960, to issue an unambiguous ruling permitting women’s suffrage. Here was an instance of rank discrimination against women. Here also was a situation in which Weinberg saw no direct halakhic impediment to a permissive ruling. Still, when he took up the issue in a published responsum, he waffled, taking note of those decisors who opposed suffrage for women on grounds of “female modesty.” Under the circumstances, Weinberg was only willing to suggest, as Shapiro puts it, that the “matter be left alone as it would eventually be worked out by itself.”
The one area of Rabbi Weinberg’s involvement that places him unreservedly in the modern Orthodox camp is in his embrace of academic Jewish studies. From the traditionalist Orthodox standpoint, this is a forbidden domain, since it entails exposure to all kinds of “heretical” ideas. Weinberg, however, would have none of this. Not only did he write a doctoral dissertation on the Syriac translation of the Bible, he formed a close personal and professional relationship with the Christian scholar Paul Kahle. He drew a sharp distinction between religious belief and scholarly conclusions, arguing, as Shapiro puts it, that “there was no place for religious polemics in the realm of scholarship.” It was this open intellectual approach that permitted him to write with respect about such academic scholars of the Talmud as Louis Ginzberg, Saul Lieberman, and Samuel Atlas.
Shapiro works overtime to establish Rabbi Weinberg’s bona fides as a modern Orthodox role model, and seems to expect that his biography will contribute to the Weinberg “legacy.” But he fails to follow this up by asking a crucial question: Are Orthodox Jews today interested in what Weinberg has to offer? Is there a significant audience at present for an Orthodoxy built around “Torah and secular culture”? Framing these questions is important because modern Orthodoxy’s stock is currently at an all–time low. Indeed, the movement is in deep crisis—its leaders demoralized, its institutions weakened, its mass base shrinking rapidly. This holds true both in Israel and the United States, the two great centers of contemporary Jewish life.
Shapiro’s failure to reckon with modern Orthodoxy’s current agony robs him of the ability to shape a meaningful conclusion for his book. Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy, in embarrassing fashion, simply grinds to a halt following a discussion of Weinberg’s responsa. In failing to relate Weinberg’s intellectual enterprise to the situation of Orthodoxy today, Shapiro leaves his hero beached in the historical past. That is hardly the place where a presumed role model should find himself.
What accounts for modern Orthodoxy’s fall from grace? The two operative factors here are strong competition from the traditionalist sector of the Orthodox community and modern Orthodoxy’s own feelings of inadequacy. Traditionalism has proved more than a match for modernism in winning the allegiance of Orthodox Jews. This development is surprising when one realizes that traditionalist Orthodoxy was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. Yet through sheer will the traditionalists established a network of intensive Jewish schools and have since staged an extraordinary comeback. What traditionalism offers the Orthodox is “Torah–true” Judaism without a secular additive. From the traditionalist standpoint, “Torah and secular culture” is not an expansive religious ideal, but a formula for religious compromise. The basic logic is clear: since everything valuable already exists within Torah, cultural exposure is either an unnecessary duplication or a dangerous snare.
Traditionalist Orthodoxy’s strongest asset is the confidence born of believing that it is the one true Jewish way. In contrast, modern Orthodoxy is often shadowed by self–doubt, since it only claims parity with Orthodox traditionalism. Adding to the anxiety of the modern Orthodox is the fact that few outstanding rabbinic authorities are willing to endorse a “Torah and secular culture” approach, while many are eager to denounce it. In a worst–case scenario, the modern Orthodox end up internalizing the critique of their opponents, thus coming to see themselves as hopelessly compromised. All this is very much in evidence on the Orthodox scene today, making for a situation in which modern Orthodox spokesmen are simply unable to stand up to the challenge presented by Orthodox traditionalism.
The situation of modern Orthodoxy at present is at the furthest possible remove from the one that I encountered as an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in the early 1960s. In those years, as I have had occasion to recall, the dream of a modern Orthodox utopia danced before our eyes:
It seemed clear to everyone I knew . . . that modern Orthodoxy was here to stay; that, indeed, it was only a matter of time before all the Orthodox joined the modernist camp. Who could resist something as appealing as modern Orthodoxy? Who in his right mind would spurn a form of Orthodoxy which held out the promise of a successful integration of Judaism and Western culture, tradition and modernity, Jewish and American living? Who could be so hopelessly narrow–minded as to choose to live in one world—the world of Jewish tradition—when modern Orthodoxy offered the best of two worlds—the truths of Torah combined with the insights of secular knowledge? It was an inspiring vision, and one that my friends and I fully expected to become a universal reality in Orthodox life.
The great exemplar of modern Orthodoxy at Yeshiva University was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), who combined phenomenal talmudic learning with deep philosophical knowledge. My own guide in this domain, however, was Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (currently chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), who had just arrived at Yeshiva as a Harvard–trained historian. Central to Greenberg’s message was the call for a culturally engaged Orthodoxy:
Orthodoxy must change its identity from a fundamentalism to a religion, from preserving Judaism to affirming it and its sovereignty in modern culture. . . . There is a need for the renewal of the process of imbuing the contemporary experience with religious import by applying religious values and practices to all areas of secular life. But this can only be done when Orthodoxy works through, in depth, the modern experience so that it speaks to this generation and in it. . . . It must be crystal clear that [Orthodoxy’s] affirmations do not proceed from being a cultural backwater, or because [it] does not yet recognize the problems that have been raised.
Greenberg’s sense of what Orthodoxy might become—and it was a view shared by such others as Emanuel Rackman, Eliezer Berkovits, Michael Wyschogrod, and David Hartman—elicited an enthusiastic response among a broad segment of the Orthodox public during the glory years of modern Orthodoxy in the 1960s and 1970s. After that, however, the ground began to shift rapidly, as traditionalist Orthodox elements started making their presence felt. By the 1990s, the fortunes of modern Orthodoxy were in sharp decline, with the word “modern” actually becoming taboo. (“Centrist” was now the term of choice.) Today modern Orthodoxy is, so to speak, on the respirator. It is no accident that an organization currently working to revive the modern Orthodox enterprise has as its motto “the courage to be modern and Orthodox.” Courage indeed!
In a very real sense, the private agony that Rabbi Weinberg experienced in the last years of his life has become the public agony of today’s modern Orthodoxy. But it is precisely a modern Orthodoxy in crisis that has need of Weinberg as a positive role model. Crucial in this context is not this or that particular of Weinberg’s intellectual stance, but the overall trajectory of his career. To a modern Orthodoxy suffering a collapse of faith in its own legitimacy, Weinberg offers the edifying example of a traditionalist Orthodox Jew who freely chose to embrace modern Orthodoxy. Having begun his career as an apologist for the culture–negating Orthodoxy of Eastern Europe, Rabbi Weinberg became a champion of the culture–embracing Orthodoxy of Germany. With his University of Giessen doctorate in hand, Weinberg defended Hirsch’s “Torah and secular culture” philosophy against any and all in the Orthodox world who sought to delegitimate it. Weinberg’s standing as a world–class talmudist—something fully acknowledged in the ranks of Orthodox traditionalism—guaranteed him a respectful hearing as an advocate of modern Orthodoxy.
In his prime, Weinberg held forth the vision of a modern Orthodoxy that would achieve “a complete synthesis of Torah and life.” Is it still possible to hope that such an Orthodoxy may yet emerge?
David Singer is a staff member of the American Jewish Committee and editor, with Lawrence Grossman, of the American Jewish Year Book.