Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot ● Jewish Standard
On the bookshelves of the contemporary young and not-so-young college-educated modern Orthodox Jew, one most often will find the theological works of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his esteemed son-in-law, my revered teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, both of blessed memory.
On another shelf one will probably find works of Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president of Yeshiva University, as well as the increasingly popular (in both senses of the word) writings of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. On another shelf one also may find some writings of Rav Kook and in some instances the newly translated works of Rav Shagar. These thinkers rightly occupy a pride of place in the pantheon of modern Orthodox thought leaders. The dominance of these voices, however, sometimes has come at the price of relegating other significant voices from the 1950s to the 1970s that contributed significant ideas to our thinking about the engagement of halachic Judaism and the modern world.
Leading thinkers of those decades, such as Drs. Michael Wyschograd and Eliezar Goldman, and Rabbis Walter Wurzburger, David Shapiro of Milwaukee, all of blessed memory, and Rabbi Shubert Spero of Cleveland, and others, have not enjoyed the same fame or study of their writings in the contemporary area as they deserved. Chief among those who were significant thinkers during those bygone decades and whose writings have done much to enrich our thinking is Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits z”l.
R. Berkovits (1908-1992) was a profound philosopher, rabbinic scholar, and theologian, who was a close student of the renowned Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin where he received his ordination, while also earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Berlin. He served in the rabbinate in Berlin before escaping to England, where he served in the pulpit in Leeds. He later served in congregations in Australia and Boston before settling in Chicago in 1958, serving as chair of the department of philosophy at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie.
In 1976 he made aliyah to Israel, continuing his writing even as he settled into retirement. He was the author of 19 books in areas of Jewish philosophy, ethics, the Holocaust, halacha, and Zionism, as well as hundreds of significant articles in all areas of Jewish studies and life. To take one example, in my view, his seminal essay on prayer, written in the mid 1960s, is one of the best — if not the best — presentations on Jewish prayer in the English language. His formulation that “Halakha must once again reveal itself as the wisdom of the feasible giving priority to the ethical” (“Not in Heaven,” pg. 178) was a guidepost for much of his writings since the early 1940s till his death in Israel in 1992, and it serves as motto to many till today.
A number of years back, the Shalem Institute in Israel reprinted a number of R. Berkovits’s writings, reigniting interest in his work and introducing a new generation to his stimulating and engaging thought. This year, the Jewish world was blessed with the publication of another volume that I hope will encourage even more study and engagement with this important contemporary Jewish thinker. Reuven Mohl of Bergen County, a dentist who grew up hearing his own father discuss ideas formulated by R. Berkovits and became intrigued by them, has compiled and edited a commentary to the Passover Haggadah culled from R. Berkovits’s work. The volume, titled “Faith and Freedom,” includes the entire Passover Haggadah in Hebrew, with an English translation, in a clear and appealing font. It is prefaced with a moving introduction by his sons, themselves educators and rabbis. On the bottom of the page, the editor has created a commentary directly citing relevant selections from the writings of R. Berkovits.
The Haggadah, of course, deals with major theological themes of Judaism, such as God’s involvement in history, suffering, redemption, and the covenantal history of the Jewish people. These are all themes that R. Berkovits wrote about at length during his prodigious career and so the Haggadah is an excellent springboard to enter into his thoughts. The citations have been well chosen, and in most cases are neither too short nor too long, giving the reader the chance to digest a full idea but not overwhelming her with a lengthy treatise. A nice example of this is R. Berkovits’ insightful reading of the section in the Haggadah describing the rationale for the matzah as being bread that had not leavened as the Israelites were being driven out of Egypt and “could not delay” (Ex. 12:39). R. Berkovits cites a comment of the Midrash Yalkut that interprets the phrase in two ways: “the haste in which the Children of Israel had to leave Egypt… Another opinion the haste meant is that in which the glory of God left the country.” Developing this dual theme, R. Berkovits suggests: “Redemption came before its time; the people were not prepared for it.… Had the Egyptian slavery lasted any longer, it would have completely broken the nation and rendered them, for all time to come, unfit for their mission for which they were destined… “In haste,” remarks the Yalkut, is the haste of God. Before the date originally intended, God had to hasten their help…. Israel was saved from destruction; it was not yet mature for its mission. Hence failure followed upon failure. The nation even lost its homeland and was sent into exile once more, to learn the rest of the lesson.”
All the selections are cited with the exact source and page number, so the interested reader can further research R. Berkovits’ full treatment of the idea. It is, however, critical to remember as you read this volume that R. Berkovits did not write a commentary on the text of the Haggadah. This is a compilation taken from other works written with other purposes in mind. This volume, then, is part of the growing genre of works published in recent years that cull ideas from the writings of thinkers and append them into a running commentary on this most popular of Jewish texts, which is so central to the Jewish historical experience. As such, it is no surprise that some readers may find some of the citations only tangentially related to the specific text at hand, feeling that it has taken them far afield from the immediate context of the words of the Haggadah. At the same time, the rabbis of old did praise those who speak about the Exodus “at length.”
Expanding the contours of your discussion in new and unexpected directions may fall under the rubric of that rabbinic encouragement. “Faith and Freedom” is a wonderful gateway into the thinking and writings of a leading voice of Torah and ethics of the 20th century, a man whose ideas should continue to resonate in the ongoing conversations about modernity, Judaism, the State of Israel, the role of women, and so many other critical topics that continue to engage us all.
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, the chair of the department of Torah SheBaal Peh at SAR High School in Riverdale, and the author of a number of volumes on Jewish studies, in both English and Hebrew, including “Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation” (Koren/Maggid, 2011).