Dr. Ari Kinsberg ● Jewish Press
Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) remains one of the most important Jewish theologians of the twentieth century.
Born in what is today Romania, he received semicha at the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin (where he was the talmid muvhak of the Seridei Eish) and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Berlin. While ministering as a respected rav in locales across the globe and later serving as the beloved chairperson of Jewish philosophy at Skokie’s Hebrew Theological College, Rabbi Berkovits also published an array of essays and books on halacha, philosophy and other topics of contemporary Jewish relevance. It is unfortunate that Rabbi Berkovits’ writings are today largely unknown to the larger Jewish public, even though the wisdom contained therein remains as relevant as ever.
We are thus indebted to Dr. Reuven Mohl, a recognized expert on the thought of Rabbi Berkovits, for performing an admirable service by compiling and editing Faith and Freedom: Passover Haggadah, with Commentary from the Writings of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.
The judiciously chosen selections from Rabbi Berkovits’s literary corpus that augment the haggadah text in this volume may be organized into various central themes. Among them are holiness, justice, morality, education, halacha (both as an eternal and defining characteristic of Judaism, as well as the imperative to innovate), worship, etc., but the most conspicuous subjects are theodicy (specifically Holocaust-related) and Zionism (particularly its religious mission).
The very first selection in the volume, on the Kiddush, relates moving accounts of concentration camp inmates dealing with the challenges of Kiddush on Pesach eve and the prohibition of chametz. It may seem jarring to open the haggadah commentary with such a somber tone, but it is impossible to ignore the indelible imprint of the Holocaust on Rabbi Berkovits’s thought.
Various passages in the volume grapple with Hashem’s ostensible indifference to suffering during that tortuous period. Rabbi Berkovits’s response expands to provide the bedrock of an overarching relationship between Hashem and mankind that is predicated on preserving free will as the defining element of humanity.
If the Holocaust features in Rabbi Berkovits’s writings as a challenge of comprehending Jewish tragedy, equally prominent (and inter-related) is the reconstituted State of Israel as a challenge of Jewish vitality. The Holocaust couldn’t crush the indomitable Jewish spirit, but has the State of Israel been able to elevate it?
The national renaissance represented an instance of Hashem interjecting himself in history for the necessary benefit of His people, which stood on the brink of total decimation (as in Egypt!), but the State too is a challenge. Many of the selections in Faith and Freedom postulate that only in an independent state in Eretz Yisrael can we fully actuate in totality what it means to be Jewish. (“Those Jews who attempt to separate Judaism from Zion, Torah from the land of Israel give up both Torah and the land.”)
What does this challenge entail? More importantly, have we met the challenge? Rabbi Berkovits explores these questions in many of the selections. A general optimism for Jewish potentiality is evident in some selections, but he is more cautious – and sometimes even critical – when addressing the shortcomings of the Zionist enterprise. In particular, Rabbi Berkovits was disappointed with the rabbinic leadership in Israel for remaining wedded to galut (exile) modes of dealing with contemporary halachic issues.
Faith and Freedom provides an inspiring modern commentary to an ancient text. Although Rabbi Berkovits never set out himself to produce a haggadah commentary, Mohl has succeeded in wedding Rabbi Berkovits’s insightful comments on the modern Jewish experience to relevant prooftexts and parallels in the haggadah.
Faith and Freedom includes the Hebrew haggadah text with an English translation and instructions, making it useful as a haggadah for use at the Seder table. The selections from Rabbi Berkovits’s writings appear on the bottom of each page and the reader knows to consult the commentary whenever words in boldface are encountered. The volume will hopefully open for readers the world of Rabbi Berkovits’s Torah beyond the haggadah-related selections and the appended bibliography is a helpful starting point.