Jewish Thought

Rays of Wisdom: Torah insights that light up our understanding of the world

By Rabbi Mattisyahu Rosenblum, zt”l 

Eshel Publications

New York, 2022

548 pages

Reviewed by Rabbi Mark Gottlieb 

Nearly a decade ago, a panel discussion of young and accomplished Jewish thinkers was convened to address a question on the minds of many, if perhaps not many enough: Where have all the Jewish theologians gone? 

The premise of the panel was that in the mid-to-late twentieth-century American Jewish landscape, many prominent Jewish theologians were part of the popular discourse, and not merely writing from the academic or yeshivah margins. Some Orthodox and some non-Orthodox thinkers, among them Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, were well-known public intellectuals, household names in many circles. We might also include Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner and the Lubavitcher Rebbe—albeit writing in different styles than the preceding thinkers—in that list of prominent Jewish theologians of late twentieth-century America. The question posed to the panel that afternoon was who would step up and take the place of the Jewish theologians of the previous generation writing to, and for, a broader public? Who would provide the intellectual guidance to those in the larger Jewish landscape searching for systematic ways in which their Judaism might address the realities of G-d, man and world in the twenty-first century? 

For many, the late great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as this theological lodestar over the past few decades. But another figure has emerged, dominant for some decades in the yeshivah world but now, like many recent spiritual trends, finding a place in certain segments of the broader Jewish world. While Rabbi Moshe Shapira, zt”l, the modern master of machshavah and undisputed heir of a particular sub-genre in the Lithuanian derech on Aggadeta, was a giant of Torah who had a profound influence on the contemporary yeshivah world, our focus here is on his reach beyond the walls of the beit midrash into his surprising but influential place in the intellectual conversations of the global Jewish community. With the publication of Rabbi Mattisyahu Rosenblum’s compelling collection of letters and essays, Rays of Wisdom: Torah insights that light up our understanding of the world, Rav Moshe has another American-born, not to mention Yale-educated, popularizer to share his profound Torah worldview with contemporary Jews searching for meaning and depth in a world so obviously adrift. For the record, “popularizer,” applied in this case, is said without the slightest hint of a pejorative; Rav Moshe’s intellectually dense work, because of its richness and complexity, desperately needs unpacking for most, especially for those in the Anglo-American Torah world. 

The first to adapt Rav Moshe’s teachings for a wider Torah audience was the great kiruv educator, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz. (For a useful English-language introduction to the life and thought of Rav Moshe, see the recently published Looking into the Sun: A Taste of the Torah, Life, and Legacy of Rav Moshe Shapira through the Lens of One Talmid by Rabbi Menachem Nissel.) But more recently, Rabbi Rosenblum, because of his own intellectual virtuosity and moral excellence, has become an ideal vessel for this task of translation and synthesis. 

When Rav Moshe passed away just over seven years ago (10 Tevet 5777), his levayah saw tens of thousands of mourners lining the streets of Yerushalayim. This show of reverence is generally reserved for a gadol b’Yisrael, usually a prominent rosh yeshivah or posek. Rav Moshe was a different kind of gadol. His range and creativity in Torah scholarship was vast, encompassing even rarely studied corners of Seder Taharot but his unique imprint came through his shiurim on both the more esoteric parts of Torah and the more theologically resonant sections of revealed Torah, making him a world-class leader to those seeking a coherent and complex worldview out of the sources of within traditional Jewish texts. 

When Matthew Rosenblum, the youngest of five brothers from Highland Park, Illinois, graduated Yale College in the mid-1980s, the call of Orthodoxy was already strong in his family. Several of his older brothers including Jonathan, who would go on to a distinguished career in journalism and publishing, were paving the way for a re-engagement with serious and observant Judaism that had eluded the boys while growing up in the upper-middle class suburbs of Chicago. As Matthew became Mattisyahu, two of Rav Moshe’s closest talmidim—Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, now rosh yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, and Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the modern kiruv movement and co-founder of Machon Yaakov where Rabbi Rosenblum studied and later taught for many years—saw great promise in the young man and put his mind to work on behalf of the world of authentic Torah thought. 

But as much as the intellectual culture of Yale receded into the distance for Rabbi Rosenblum, the move to Har Nof did not excise his ability to deploy Western thought in the cause of kavod Shamayim. Indeed, the powerful dialectic of Jerusalem versus Athens, of faith versus reason, of the experiential and intuitive versus the cognitive and self-conscious, are prominent themes in the book under consideration. And while the work is obviously inspired by the teachings of Rav Moshe, it is inflected and channeled through Rabbi Rosenblum’s own intellectual pedigree—with all the tension and complexity one would expect of a talmid chacham engaging the West in a bracing and unapologetic fashion, in the fashion of a true ish emet. 

Tragically, Rabbi Rosenblum’s ability to champion the teachings of his rebbeim in machshavah was cut off too soon when he succumbed to cancer three years ago. But the new book gives readers not only a taste of his great teacher’s Torah but a sense of the humanity—and humor—of this devoted disciple. 

Rather than glibly claiming that the contributions of the West are a waste of time for a Torah Jew, Rabbi Rosenblum recognizes both the potential worth—and the possible danger—contained in these competing systems of thought.

Tellingly, some of these tensions are acknowledged, some unacknowledged. In a chapter aptly titled, “Finding Truth in Other Traditions,” Rabbi Rosenblum observes, with a candor and authenticity that is refreshingly relevant, “Did you really hope there was nothing there [in the wisdom of the gentile world, specifically classical Greek culture] that you might find intelligent and compelling?” Rather than glibly claiming that the contributions of the West are a waste of time for a Torah Jew, Rabbi Rosenblum recognizes both the potential worth—and the possible danger—contained in these competing systems of thought: “Though in the long run our Torah does not have to be scared of any branch of secular study—we can use what is true and reject what is false—that does not mean that all of us as individuals are safe when entering such areas.” Rabbi Rosenblum’s ambivalence feels honest, a recognition of the genuine power of ideas and their ability to lead us to places we may not want to go. But there’s a paradox here, too, that sometimes feels lost to the author. Rabbi Rosenblum closes the chapter on a decidedly cautious, if not outright pessimistic, note, practically taking away the license he earlier gave to “find truth in other traditions.” In counseling his young charge, Jordan, to carefully navigate the college curriculum, Rabbi Rosenblum offers this cautionary conclusion: “But, honestly, wouldn’t you be just safer taking accounting courses?” And here’s the irony, likely not totally lost on the intellectually honest author, a description that is ubiquitous when talking to Rabbi Rosenblum’s many students and admirers: If Rabbi Rosenblum would have taken his own advice, the advice given by him to his talmid, Jordan, the book under discussion could not have been written—at least not in its current sophisticated, learned and literate form. This insight was surely not lost on the author. But it is not totally resolved, either.

Rabbi Rosenblum offers several incisive observations about the dangers of relativism and its place in contemporary academia. Citing the Zohar Hakodesh to the effect that Bilaam’s threat to Bnei Yisrael stemmed from his ability to darken the intellectual luminosity of Bnei Yisrael, Rabbi Rosenblum makes the following remark: 

. . . the success of our intellectual opponent comes not through successful argumentation but from his ability to remove all clarity and utterly dampen any intellectual flame. His goal is to lull us to sleep. Let us never forget that Bilaam completely failed to harm us except for the idea to send Bnot Moav—the daughters of Moab—to seduce Klal Yisrael into sin. Not exactly an intellectual attack . . . Bilaam is clearly doing well on campus. 

He then goes on to generously cite the 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, by University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom: 

Professor Bloom already shows you the basic problem; if held consistently, moral relativism means that there is no basis to say that Mother Teresa is in some way inferior to Adolph Hitler. But this fact makes the idea no less dangerous; whatever its flaws are, relativism drugs most of our society into a complete moral and intellectual stupor.

One gets the sense that Rabbi Rosenblum already embraced Bloom’s critique of relativism before Rav Moshe gave him the gloss on Bilaam. Still, using Bloom as intellectual ballast is a powerful way to both help explicate the phenomenon in one’s own Torah parlance while presenting the apologetical turn to an intellectual rival or adversary not as dependent on Torah for guidance.

But perhaps Rabbi Rosenblum is at his best illustrating Torah concepts, enriching our hashkafic palate, and teasing out the contemporary implications of Ramban, Maharal, Ramchal, the Gra, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen and Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. Particularly noteworthy—and preternaturally prescient—is Rabbi Rosenblum’s unpacking of Rav Moshe’s concept of Galut Yishmael, the exile that in many respects supersedes Galut Edom, the war of the West on the Jews at the end of days. Understanding our enemies—not as cartoon characters but as complex and worthy adversaries—is something Jews have often struggled with. Rav Moshe’s teachings on this painful topic will allow us to better understand what we are really up against—spiritually, culturally and even strategically.

Finally, it’s possible that Rabbi Rosenblum’s epistolatory style—most of the present book is an exchange of letters between the author and a bright, Ivy-educated student of his from yeshivah—is less suited for the more systematic and architectonic elements natural to Rav Moshe’s teachings. In this respect, at least, the adaptations of another American-born interpreter Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, author of the 2012 National Jewish Book Awardee, The Choice to Be: A Jewish Path to Self and Spirituality, among others, feel more reflective of the systematic sweep of Rav Moshe’s own work. This difference in method or articulation is largely a function of the respective intellectual training of these students of Rav Moshe’s prior to their aliyah. While Rabbi Kagan studied philosophy under the esteemed epistemologist, Karsten Harries, Rabbi Rosenblum studied political thought with famed classical historian, Donald Kagan. Every talmid chacham has his own distinctive signon, his own signature pedagogical style, and talmidim of Rav Moshe, whether trained formally as philosophers or political scientists, are no exception. More striking is that two of the most-celebrated American interpreters of Rav Moshe are both graduates of that ivy-covered college in New Haven, Connecticut. Or perhaps not surprising at all: When the narrative of Western civilization feels exhausted and so-called higher education delivers on neither promise, genuine seekers of meaning—seekers like young Matthew Rosenblum—find genuine sources of meaning and truth. We are all the richer for Rabbi Mattisyahu Rosenblum’s uncompromising quest for truth through the foundations of Jewish thought. Rays of Wisdom is the intriguing roshei perakim, the chapter headings, for that rich, sophisticated Jewish journey, a journey more of our generation may now be inspired to take.  

Rabbi Mark Gottlieb is chief education officer of the Tikvah Fund.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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