Defenders of the Faith: Studies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodoxy and Reform

By Judith Bleich
Touro University Press
New York, 2020
442 pages

“Either to be a rabbinic Jew and live outside the times or live within the times and cease to be a rabbinic Jew . . . . ” So wrote Samuel Holdheim, ideologue of radical Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany.

Dr. Judith Bleich’s 2020 book Defenders of the Faith: Studies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodoxy and Reform tells many stories, but they each have a common theme: how rabbinic authorities who regarded themselves as guardians of the mesorah responded to the challenges of modernity and thereby demonstrated the fatuousness of Holdheim’s prognosis.

Dr. Bleich is this writer’s academic mentor, and it is a privilege to write about a book that reflects the breadth of her scholarly research. As her student, I was fortunate to hear the Torah sheba’al peh of her analysis of many of these topics.

The book makes for an engrossing read from beginning to end. The essay on rabbinic responses to nonobservance in the modern era is an indispensable study of the topic. The early struggle between the nascent Reform movement and its traditionalist critics was waged in the language of rabbinic literature: responsa-style essays were written to justify the reforms, and the Orthodox responses were in the form of halachic teshuvot. Dr. Bleich chronicles this struggle from the perspective of the Orthodox more sympathetically than any previous writer; many of the earlier accounts were written by scholars associated with the Reform movement.

Particularly interesting are the various comments of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (“the Maharatz Chajes”—1805-1856). Like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,1 Rabbi Chajes boldly places some of the blame for the success of the early Reform movement at the feet of the Orthodox. The failure of the Orthodox leadership to grapple with the challenges of modernity led to disaffection for traditionalism among the youth.

In one incisive passage, Rabbi Chajes writes sarcastically of the low qualifications for rabbinic positions in Galicia. Students study a few select portions of Shulchan Aruch’s Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah, and “this constitutes their entire course of study. If one of them has a smattering of proficiency in these areas, even if he does not know that David reigned after Saul, he will be recommended by the Rabbis as the most qualified candidate for even the most prestigious cities” (46). Rabbi Chajes berated those of his contemporaries who, in Dr. Bleich’s words, completely failed “to understand the spirit that animates contemporary society and the very real social, ideological, and intellectual problems with which their coreligionists were confronted,” and their failure to establish appropriate educational institutions (47). Although the twenty-first century has largely improved in rabbinical training programs, many men’s yeshivot continue to provide no instruction in Tanach outside of Chumash.2

Rabbi Chajes’s devastating critique of the Orthodox leadership served as a harbinger of the agenda of what Dr. Bleich terms “the movement for counter-Reform,” that is, the Torah im Derech Eretz approach that became the hallmark of German Orthodoxy in the second half of the nineteenth century. This ideology did not emerge from a vacuum but from a real need to grapple with contemporary society in a way that previous Orthodox leaders had failed to do. Dr. Bleich’s essay presents both the Orthodox polemic against Reform and the internal soul-searching of the Orthodox.

Another essay chronicles the creation of an Orthodox press in mid-nineteenth century Germany. While we are today all accustomed to various Orthodox journalistic publications (you are reading one now!), prior to Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger’s Der treue Zionswächter and its Hebrew supplement, Shomer Zion haNe’eman (both roughly translate to “faithful guardian of Zion”), it was only the non-Orthodox who had ventured into this territory. Sensing the void, Rabbi Ettlinger pioneered the Orthodox journal, while his disciples, Rabbis Hirsch and Hildesheimer, did the same in Frankfurt and Berlin (along with Rabbi Marcus Lehmann in Mainz). Dr. Bleich utilizes Rabbi Ettlinger’s journalistic endeavors as a portal into the world of nineteenth-century German Orthodoxy, much as later writers will use these pages to understand twenty-first-century American Orthodoxy.

Dr. Bleich masterfully portrays the underlying issues of the circumcision controversy that erupted in Frankfurt in the 1840s. Dr. Bleich breaks down the objections on the part of both Jewish and non-Jewish critics of circumcision into conceptual categories. The critique of circumcision on the part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal thinkers—Jews and non-Jews—was that it was an archaic remnant of barbaric times. Abraham Geiger, German Reform rabbi and ideologue, described milah as “a barbaric, gory rite . . . ” His more radical Reform colleague Samuel Holdheim declared that he is opposed in principle to circumcision, which he regarded as an expression of Jewish chauvinism, and declared all like-minded Jews absolved of the obligation on his religious authority (!). Eighteenth-century French Enlighteners such as Voltaire had attacked circumcision along the same lines. Dr. Bleich demonstrates that despite the pressures to abandon this rite, even assimilated German Jews—for the most part—continued the practice. This may be due, argues Dr. Bleich, to the emotional attachment to brit milah as a mark of Jewish identity. This is corroborated by comments of the novelist Philip Roth. Having asked his secular Jewish friends if they could imagine not circumcising their sons, “they all said no . . . sometimes after the nice long pause that any rationalist takes before opting for the irrational” (cited on 106, n. 70).

The failure of the Orthodox leadership to grapple with the challenges of modernity led to disaffection for traditionalism among the youth.

The longest essay in this volume is about Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966), author of Seridei Eish. Dr. Bleich’s analysis of Rabbi Weinberg focuses on his published writings, with reference to those of his letters that were previously published. This does result in a somewhat different portrayal of Rabbi Weinberg than that of Dr. Marc Shapiro, whose meticulously researched study3 utilizes previously unpublished personal correspondence, particularly that with Samuel Atlas (a professor at the Reform HUC seminary who was raised Orthodox and was Rabbi Weinberg’s childhood friend).4 Ultimately, both works are indispensable for a proper understanding of Rabbi Weinberg’s biography5 and worldview, and readers will decide for themselves which portrayal captures the Seridei Eish more convincingly.

In Dr. Bleich’s words, Rabbi Weinberg “stands out as a singular personality venerated by, and exercising a profound influence upon, both traditionalist and acculturated sectors of the Orthodox community” (243). Indeed, Rabbi Weinberg’s training in the premier Lithuanian yeshivot, his close relationships with the preeminent Chareidi gedolim of both pre- and post-War Europe, and his writings—which are studied throughout the yeshivah world and evidence both profound Talmudic erudition as well as great enthusiasm for Torah and mussar study—have rendered Rabbi Weinberg a gadol who is revered in the Chareidi world.6 At the same time, the Modern Orthodox community has developed a keen interest in Rabbi Weinberg’s writings and ideas.7 His defense of the Torah im Derech Eretz approach—and of the legitimacy of secular studies, more generally—from its right-wing critics, his use of Wissenschaft methodology in some of his Talmudic essays, combined with his enthusiastic reaction to the creation of the State of Israel (alongside a sympathetic view of the non-Orthodox Zionist pioneers), and his broadminded approach to challenges facing the Jewish community, have made Rabbi Weinberg a figure who can be revered by the halachah-centric Modern Orthodox community.

Rabbi Weinberg uniquely harmonized different intellectual orientations in modern Judaism in ways that precious few of his peers—to the present day—have done. (Dr. Bleich refers to “the unusual intellectual synthesis achieved by Rabbi Weinberg” [294].) Known as one of the world’s supreme halachists in the two decades following WWII, Rabbi Weinberg’s chief literary contribution is his responsa collection Seridei Eish. Though a reference to surviving the fire of the Holocaust, “the title is . . . appropriate in more ways than one. There is a poetic, lyrical strain in Rabbi Weinberg’s prose, a passion and enthusiasm that leaps from the page. The embers are aglow with fire” (246).

In Dr. Bleich’s account, Rabbi Weinberg’s congenial personality comes to life. His boundless love of the Jewish people and tireless devotion to not only preserving the mesorah but making it relevant to those outside his immediate sphere of influence, is illustrated in the following quote:

Tolerance—a modern invention! I can love my brother or hate him; but under no circumstances am I, or can I be, tolerant of him. From my brother I demand—and have the privilege to demand—that he not deny me the opportunity to love him properly, as one loves a brother . . . Not tolerance and indifference but love and brotherhood we ask and demand of you! (258).

Rabbi Weinberg teaches us that making demands of our brethren is okay so long as it is clear that this is engendered by our love and concern for them. Not zealous denunciation of alleged “heretics” nor religious apathy toward those we regard as lesser than us, but insistence on unity of purpose to serve God as devotedly as we can, even if this is achieved by myriad ways by the myriad of Jews across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.8

Space constraints do not allow for elaboration upon all of the essays in this book, but mention should be made of Dr. Bleich’s analysis of the curious phenomenon, so prevalent among German Orthodox rabbis of the nineteenth century, of wearing clerical robes which resembled—in varying degrees—Christian vestments. Not only Rabbi Hirsch and his younger colleagues but even Rabbi Ettlinger—esteemed in yeshivot as the author of the Talmudic novellae Aruch LaNer—wore these. Dr. Bleich examines the halachic9 and ideological components to this practice and, while taking due note of its opponents and the eventual abandonment of the practice, argues that rabbis such as Rabbi Hirsch believed that it was important to “demonstrate an understanding and acceptance of the cultural trends of the time,” and that adapting to modern sensibilities in the realm of aesthetics projected an image of a “forward-looking Orthodoxy” (134).

Other essays treat intermarriage in the early modern period, an overview of reforms to the siddur and Orthodox responses, and varying attitudes toward military service among halachists. Patriotism was a ubiquitous feature of nineteenth-century Jews of all stripes, including the Hungarian architects of ultra-Orthodoxy. The question of whether observant Jews should enlist in the military of a non-Jewish state is an halachically weighty one, but it is also inextricably linked to attitudes toward one’s country.10

Dr. Bleich draws the reader’s attention to “what in rabbinic writing is a rare approach”—the view of Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Leiter, rav of Pittsburgh (1891-1974) who, concerned about the loss of life that war inevitably entails, called upon every God-fearing Jew to engage in activism to bring about world peace and the cessation of all warfare (188). Let us pray that we merit to see the era in which this view will be realized.

Dr. Bleich’s contribution to our understanding of modern Jewish history, and particularly how Orthodoxy has responded to the challenges of modernity and the emergence of non-Orthodox movements, is enormous. As a student, I have benefited from hearing many of these topics masterfully taught in graduate seminars. Additionally, I have enjoyed illuminating conversations with Dr. Bleich over the years regarding these topics. For those who are unable to experience the Torah sheba’al peh of Dr. Bleich, this engaging and erudite book provides access to the Torah shebichtav of her scholarship and wisdom.


1. See Rabbi Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters, especially Letters 1, 15, 18 and 19.

2. This is striking in light of the unambiguous championing of Tanach study on the part of the greatest rabbinic luminaries of the last few centuries. See, for example, the letter of Rabbi Yosef Te’omim, printed as part of the preface to his Pri Megadim on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim. Although the Haskalah’s focus on Bible is often cited in this context, this does not suffice to undercut the authoritative words of luminaries like Pri Megadim. Besides, there is no Haskalah in 2021.

3. Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg 1884-1966 (Liverpool, 1999).

4. As those letters were not intended for publication, they sometimes present tentative expressions of Rabbi Weinberg’s feelings at the time of their composition. Since Rabbi Weinberg had no wife or children with whom he could confide, he did so with Atlas, and thus utilization of those letters presents Rabbi Weinberg in a more “liberal” light than Dr. Bleich’s analysis of his published works does.

5. Dr. Bleich’s essay is a study of Rabbi Weinberg’s thought. Dr. Shapiro’s book, based upon his Harvard University doctoral dissertation, chronicles his life in painstaking detail.

6. New editions of his sefarim have been graced with letters of blessing by leading Chareidi gedolim such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, and Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, among others.

7. Dr. Shapiro asserts that Rabbi Weinberg “stands out as an icon of Modern Orthodoxy and shows that this brand of Orthodoxy has its own authority figures whose renown must be acknowledged in all circles” (Between the Yeshiva World, p. 222).

8. In a personal communication from 2005, Rabbi Avraham Abba Weingort of Jerusalem, the closest living disciple of Rabbi Weinberg, told me that his rebbe told him that one of the greatest shortcomings of his generation (most likely, the early 1960s) was the tendency to denigrate other Jews with different ideologies even though they are all united in the goal of le’taken olam be’Malchut Shakkai.

9. This writer would add that a most pertinent source, not noted in this book, for the halachic justification of rabbis donning robes widely in vogue among gentile clergy is Rabbi Yisrael Moshe Hazzan, Shu”t Krach shel Romi (Livorno, 1876), no. 1.

10. Dr. Bleich argues that the majority of halachists opposed military service when it could be avoided, and that only a minority took a contrary position. Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Glasner, author of Dor Revi’i, comprise this minority. In referring to Rabbi Hirsch’s patriotic sentiments in Horeb, Dr. Bleich wonders “to what extent Rabbi Hirsch was carried away by the rhetoric of the time and to what extent he internalized these sentiments” (187). This writer argues in a forthcoming book that Rabbi Hirsch’s patriotic sentiments can be explained differently, which resolves Dr. Bleich’s query.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Y. Miller is assistant professor of Judaic studies at Lander College for Women and assistant professor of Jewish history at Lander College for Men and the Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.