Unfortunately, as is often noted, attention spans have greatly diminished over recent generations. This is most obvious when contemplating the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, each of which spanned three hours. One candidate spoke for an hour, followed by a ninety-minute response, with a final thirty-minute counterresponse by the first candidate. In 2023, the world is a very different place. The two most recent sets of presidential debates were essentially two brief monologues with short quips and jabs. To a degree, a shortened attention span is the antithesis of Judaism, which is built on deep, meaningful ideas that require time to explain and develop. Nowadays, however, rather than take the time to work on understanding these ideas, many people look for shortcuts to get to the conclusion without considering all the steps along the way.
For those looking to continue the profound dialogues of yesteryear, the writings of Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg are like a healing balm to a dry soul. His most recent book, Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought: From the Holocaust to Halakhah and Beyond, includes fourteen essays covering six topics. A brilliant thinker and gifted writer, Rabbi Goldberg takes the reader on an exciting journey across a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from theology to halachah to musar, from the essentials of Jewish prayer to the challenges of free will to textual interpretations and much more. From the mathematics of the Vilna Gaon to personality insights of Rabbis Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and Isadore Twersky, Rabbi Goldberg takes readers into the inner corridors of Jewish thought, where surprising insights can be found.
The author’s style is not fire and brimstone but closer to what Eliyahu HaNavi heard, as detailed in I Kings 19:12, that the word of G-d was “a still, soft voice.” He attempts to convince and inspire, rather than criticize and berate.
While many books are encyclopedic in their breadth, they can be relatively easy to write as the process entails collecting and collating a range of sources, with little analysis. Not that Rabbi Goldberg doesn’t harness a vast amount of diverse sources. But with that, knowing that the topics at hand require more than a cursory drive-by reading, he brings an equally profound breakdown of the issues. Be it an analysis of the apocalyptic theology of Professor Emil Fackenheim to the blackbody radiation theory of Max Planck and how it relates to a mikvah, Rabbi Goldberg challenges the reader to think deeply.
Elie Wiesel astutely noted that one must realize that when it comes to the Holocaust, silence is more important than words. Yet there is a danger to that approach in that it surrenders the narrative to whoever chooses to speak about the subject.
Rabbi Goldberg introduces the book by explaining that his methodology draws on philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox. The essay’s title references the Greek poet Archilochus, who observed that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin used it to separate two classes of thinkers: hedgehogs who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and see the world with depth and complexity. Rabbi Goldberg uses Berlin’s analogy to describe his fox-like methodology in writing this book. And while he wasn’t using the fox in the analogy to refer to himself in particular, it certainly holds true. However, Rabbi Goldberg represents a unique case where the hedgehog and fox find themselves in the same person. He is a serious Talmudic scholar who is also well educated in secular studies, and he is able to integrate the big picture with the myriad nuances of the minutiae.
Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought starts with a topic that has questions only and no answers—namely, Holocaust theology. Elie Wiesel astutely noted that one must realize that when it comes to the Holocaust, silence is more important than words. Yet there is a danger to that approach in that it surrenders the narrative to whoever chooses to speak about the subject. When the experts are silent, non-experts dominate the conversation. The conventional narrative portrays the Holocaust as millions of Jews going like sheep to the slaughter. However, Rabbi Goldberg notes, there are many instances in which Jews put up significant resistance. This is often overlooked because the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of Jewish resistance. That has led to significant underestimation of the degree of physical resistance by the Jews against the Nazis. Rabbi Goldberg attempts to rectify this historical distortion through stories of courage and resistance, demonstrating that there were many different kinds of Holocaust experiences.
In a very different intersection of Jewish thought and history, Rabbi Goldberg explores his longstanding fascination with Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. His chapter “An Early Psychologist of the Unconscious” looks at Rabbi Salanter’s understanding of the unconscious, in which he held a lifelong interest, and the complex sources of his view. In developing his musar methodology, Rabbi Salanter sought information from all sources, including books on logic, law and medicine; he was also well versed in the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In Rabbi Goldberg’s view, Rabbi Salanter was a man of many influences, who brought them all together in the pursuit of ethical and religious excellence.
In addition to biography, Rabbi Goldberg also discusses Jewish practice. For example, he highlights the complexities within the laws of mikvah. Ultimately, the laws devolve into a structure of mutual exclusivity. Often, the attempt to make a mikvah more acceptable according to one halachic opinion makes it unacceptable to another. About this, Rabbi Mendel Kargau writes in Giddulei Taharah that “it is impossible for a mikvah, no matter its configuration, to be kosher according to all opinions.”
For the reader looking to engage in the intellectual depth and breadth of Jewish thought, this is a superb book from a unique thinker. Give yourself the time to read it slowly and carefully. You’ll be a much better person for it.
Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science.