Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy

The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966

By Marc B. Shapiro

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

London, England 1999

283 pages

Reviewed by Rabbi Berel Berkovits


This is a fascinating biography of an extraordinary man, who lived through, and left a remarkable imprint upon, tumultuous periods of Jewish history.  Although I never met Rabbi Weinberg, I did learn something of him from my uncle, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, who was his talmid muvhak [close disciple].  And I well remember the powerful impact that his Teshuvot Seridei Eish [book of responsa] made upon me.

I was instantly captivated by its unusual brilliance and striking originality.  Here was mastery of all rabbinic literature:  Shas, Talmudic sources, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, poskim, responsa, and modern scholarly writings, distilled through traditionally penetrating Lithuanian analysis.  The sources were meticulous, the presentation vibrant, the reasoning remorselessly logical, the style clear and vivid.  The issues were real and relevant, reflecting the whole gamut of human experience.  And above all, they were discussed with a captivating freshness, as well as remarkable sensitivity and humanity.

Professor Shapiro gives us a complete and realistic biography.  This is no popular hagiography, in which the subject is uniquely holy as a child, unusually precocious as a young man, and sublimely faithful and unblemished as an adult.  Rabbi Weinberg is depicted as flesh and blood:  a man who wrestled with the questions, uncertainties and dilemmas of mortal man.

The book takes us from Rabbi Weinberg’s birth in 1884, through his early education and his years in the great Lithuanian yeshivot under the masters of learning and mussar.  It depicts an alleged early flirtation with haskalah and modern Hebrew literature; a tragic and failed marriage; Rabbi Weinberg’s rabbinate in Pilwishki, Lithuania; his move to Germany in 1914; and his early literary output.

Professor Shapiro describes Rabbi Weinberg’s admission, at the age of 35, to the University of Berlin (armed with a recommendation by Albert Einstein), his studies, and simultaneous lectureship under Paul Kahle at the University of Giessen.  From there we move to his appointment as lecturer, and subsequently rector, at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, whence he exercised a seminal influence over Talmudic and halachic studies in Germany.

We read of his naïvely optimistic attitude towards the Nazi regime; his stay in Warsaw at the beginning of the war; and his incarceration during the war in the Bavarian fortress of Wuelzburg.  Professor Shapiro tells us of Rabbi Weinberg’s liberation, and traumatic discovery of the extent of the Holocaust; his subsequent illness and depression; his retirement to Montreux, Switzerland, where he became one of the world’s leading poskim, and the supreme halachic authority of Europe; and his post-war pessimism over the increasingly narrow direction of contemporary Orthodoxy.

All this information is set against a history of the intellectual trends of the time.  There are fascinating glimpses of the Lithuanian yeshivah world, and the attraction of the haskalah in its various manifestations.  We read of the political and intellectual ferment of secular Zionism, the Mizrachi movement, and the establishment of Agudat Yisrael; the reduced status of the Lithuanian Rabbinate; and the clash between East European and German Judaism.

Finally, Professor Shapiro contrasts the Hirschian synthesis of Torah im Derech Eretz, with its strongly separatist tendencies, against the broader Berlin school of Rabbis Ezriel Hildesheimer and Dovid Hoffman (Weinberg’s predecessors in the Seminary).  In this context, he identifies various stages in Rabbi Weinberg’s attitude towards the Hirschian philosophy: from initial opposition, to cautious understanding, and subsequent total endorsement.

This is, without doubt, an impressive book, reflecting meticulous study and careful research.  There are, of course, the occasional careless lapses:  Rabbi Weinberg, for example, could not have been “the oldest of five children”1 if “it is known that [he] had at least two brothers and three sisters.”  Maimonides’ Code (even as studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot) is not a “commentary on the Talmud.”2  There are also fanciful speculations as to possible “influences” upon Rabbi Weinberg.3

Somewhat disturbingly, Professor Shapiro seems very ready to cast doubts upon the accuracy of biographical information given by Rabbi Weinberg himself; or to suggest that he was “ambivalent” about “many of the issues” which he publicly defended. 4 Likewise, he gratuitously attributes personal motives to some of Rabbi Weinberg’s negative assessments of others’ scholarship,5 whilst making no mention of the generosity of spirit, and free praise, evidenced in many of his teshuvot.6

But there is much information of considerable interest: for example, the discussions of the controversy at the turn of the century over the Mussar movement, the nature of the Jewish press, and religious life in Germany, as compared with Eastern Europe.  And yet, I came away from the book with a distinct sense of unease.  Some of the unease is due to specific reservations.

I am not sure, whatever the norms of secular society, that the Jewish public is entitled to read selective, and often incomplete, extracts of a great man’s private correspondence.  I, for one, had an uncomfortable feeling of unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of someone who is no longer here to speak for himself.  And do we know the circumstances and context of such writings, so that we are in a position to judge whether they are accurate reflections of the writer’s real viewpoint?  In his introductory Note on Sources, Professor Shapiro admits that he has not had access to “some important collection of letters written to leaders of the yeshiva world,” but insists that they would not have led him to re-evaluate his conclusions.  How can he be so sure?  And is it fair, under these circumstances, to publish other collections of a different kind of correspondence?  The book is also peppered with numerous uncomplimentary allegations about Rabbi Weinberg’s personality, which conflict with everything else we know about him.  This, too, prompts in the reader a feeling of unfairness.

But these criticisms are not the major cause of my unease.  Principally, it is prompted by the feeling that despite its comprehensiveness, the book fails to depict the true Rabbi Weinberg.  A biography of an ish ha’eshkolot such as Rabbi Weinberg must do more than give factual information; it must accurately assess and evaluate his personality, and his enduring contribution.  And it is here that the book is both unconvincing and disappointing.

To some extent, these defects may be an inevitable result of the genre:  an academic biography is, perhaps, not the appropriate medium in which to portray a gadol ba’Torah, and halachic greatness cannot be described by reference to a historical-intellectual perspective, or socio-economic trends.

More fundamentally, however, they seem to arise out of the inability of one who has not himself been totally immersed in the world of Torah learning to understand or appreciate that world, let alone to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.  It is obvious that someone who has never studied physics, heard music, or read literature, cannot assess the importance of an Einstein, a Beethoven or a Shakespeare.  So too, — indeed, more so, in view of the total human experience that Torah is to its adherents — anybody who has not experienced the joy of Torah study (so movingly described by Rabbi Weinberg7) cannot possibly understand the nature of a true Torah personality.  He is looking — to borrow one of Professor Shapiro’s own phrases — at “a self-sufficient world, which outsiders simply could not fathom.”8 Professor Shapiro’s failure to enter the experiential world that made Rabbi Weinberg who he was also accounts for his misplaced questioning of his status as “a critical scholar, in accordance with how this term is currently understood.”9

Professor Shapiro’s failure to depict the true Rabbi Weinberg breaks down, upon analysis, into three distinct areas.  Firstly, there is the question of exactly who Rabbi Weinberg was: a harmonious whole, or a conflicted and convoluted personality; a man of spiritual nobility, or a petty and embittered figure.  It is possible, of course, that these questions cannot be satisfied by simple answers. (Most people are complex, and great people are often greatly complex.)

To achieve a smooth synthesis of the disparate elements in Rabbi Weinberg’s personality and background might be thought a well-nigh impossible task.  The impression one gets, however, from Professor Shapiro’s book is that Rabbi Weinberg was essentially — and remained throughout his life — a split personality, pulled in conflicting directions and torn by dichotomies which he could never resolve.  Hence, in Professor Shapiro’s opinion, Rabbi Weinberg’s decision to stay in Montreux instead of going to Israel was because he did not want to have to choose between “the academic world and the traditional yeshiva world,”10 to each of which he was attracted in equal measure.   “Only in Montreux,” says Professor Shapiro, “was [he] able to continue his commitment to Torah im Derekh Eretz, academic Jewish scholarship, and the rebuilding (sic) of the Land of Israel.”

Professor Shapiro adduces scant evidence, however, for this somewhat unworthy suggestion.  Certainly the brief quotations he cites from Rabbi Weinberg’s correspondence11 do not suffice to support his interpretation.  As he himself notes, it is equally plausible that the decision was based on purely financial considerations.  It may indeed be the case that Rabbi Weinberg had early periods of vacillation (as most people do) during his late teens or early twenties.  But is there really sufficient evidence to suggest that he continued to agonize over his identity, or that he carried on suffering an existentialist crisis in his maturity, and indeed throughout his entire life, into old age?

Despite his undeniable breadth of vision and outlook, there is no doubt that Rabbi Weinberg saw himself, quintessentially, as a man of Torah, and that he is to be defined, primarily, as a gaon in learning, a rosh yeshivah, and posek.  The measure of the man is, perhaps, best gauged from the fact that he was still capable, shortly after the war, of writing a profound and comprehensive teshuvah, despite years of deprivation of all seforim.12  We do not find a similar devotion to academic pursuits, nor indeed is there any evidence of such interests during his years in Montreux.  He seemed to have dedicated his last two decades almost exclusively to Torah and halachah, which as Professor Shapiro himself writes, “despite all other interests always remained the central focus of his life.”13

Secondly, there is the question of the nature of Rabbi Weinberg’s halachic output.  With customary thoroughness, Professor Shapiro describes the context, and takes us through the contents of Rabbi Weinberg’s teshuvot.  For example, he details how, following Hitler’s ban on shechitah in Germany, Rabbi Weinberg attempted to find a halachically acceptable method of stunning.  Rabbi Weinberg’s monograph on this subject, reproduced in the first volume of Seridei Eish together with the replies of all the leading rabbinical figures of the time, provides a most fascinating insight into his halachic brilliance, as well as the stark dilemmas of that terrible period.

Professor Shapiro then surveys some of Rabbi Weinberg’s more original teshuvot (such as that on head-covering for married women), which demonstrate his unique blend of traditional halachic sources and general Semitic scholarship.  Finally, he discusses Rabbi Weinberg’s attitude towards abortion, agunot, his approval of Bat Mitzvah  celebrations, and condoning (under certain circumstances) of mixed youth groups and mixed singing of zemirot.  Somewhat surprisingly, however, he relegates to a footnote what is probably Rabbi Weinberg’s most daring teshuvah, in which he suggests the theoretical possibility of effecting a get on behalf of a husband, without his express consent.14

Professor Shapiro, however, does more than merely describe the issues covered in Rabbi Weinberg’s teshuvot; he seeks to analyze and elucidate, through them, the nature and methodology of the halachic process itself.  In so doing, however, he reaches conclusions which not only are unsupported by the evidence, but which radically misrepresent the halachic process as it ought to be, and which greatly demean — perhaps even defame — a man who was characterized by a passion for truth (as noted by the Chazon Ish).

There are very few poskim, by way of example, who publicize a retraction of their own views because “the words of my friend are directed to the truth.”15  Not many, either, publish the words of their opponents, but “refrain from responding to them, out of concern of personal desire to win.”16

Despite this, however, Professor Shapiro feels free to state categorically, that, “Weinberg did not consider pros and cons objectively. Rather, he approached the discussion with a set goal, and went about finding halachic sources to justify it.”17  By way of example, he cites the issue of Bat Mitzvah celebrations.  “It is clear,” he says, “that he did not give the issue an objective and detached treatment.   He had made up his mind that the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was a positive manifestation, and he then set out to find the means of justifying it halachically.”18

“Clear,” one might ask, to whom?  To the objective and detached reader, or to academics who have made up their minds on the issue?  What evidence does the professor have for these assertions, other than the simple observation that Rabbi Weinberg, at the end of a detailed halachic exposition, also refers to so-called “meta-halachic factors”?

That fact, alone, certainly does not support Professor Shapiro’s assertion that Rabbi Weinberg consciously adopted personal and subjective criteria, outside of halachah itself, to reach his conclusions.  It merely shows that Rabbi Weinberg understood the nature of, and took seriously, the numerous facets of the problem with which he was dealing.  The status and viewpoints of modern woman, for example, are as much a part of the halachic factors to be considered as are the textual sources themselves.  Chazal expressly allowed women to do semichah on their offerings, after all, “kedei le’hafis da’atan shel nashim,” [in order to appease women’s sensitivities regarding this matter].  What is that if not a “meta-halachic” consideration?

Halachah, in its most profound sense, consists of the delicate balancing of different goals, varying strands of thought, and conflicting logical principles.  There is almost no halachic decision, however minor, which does not require such a process (even though this may not always be apparent).  What any posek worthy of the name does is to weigh up all the varying factors as honestly and objectively as possible, with a view to arriving at what he perceives to be the true halachic balance and conclusion.

It is, of course, true (as pointed out by no less a figure than the Ketzot Hachoshen in the introduction to his work) that halachah is, of necessity, distilled through the prism of the human intellect.  Different poskim reach different conclusions on the same facts, and there is no doubt that their personality may play some part in the process.  Exactly how the distillation passes through the prism is a subject that has long exercised writers on jurisprudence.  In a certain sense, indeed, there is no such thing, even in Torah, as “absolute” truth: the Rambam, after all, “ruled” against the view of the Almighty Himself (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzora’at 2:9).

But that is very far indeed from saying that a posek can simply form a subjective opinion as to what is a desirable outcome, and then use halachic sources to justify his pre-determined conclusion.  By no stretch of the imagination can it justify the view of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman — whom Professor Shapiro cites in this context — that “in the deepest strata of halachic thinking, logical judgement is preceded by value judgement, and intuitive insight gives impetus to the logic of argument.”19  To attribute such a view to Rabbi Weinberg is to ascribe to a man of truth a process which is essentially illegitimate; nor is it supported, upon proper analysis, by any of the other examples cited by the author.

Professor Shapiro is, of course, correct in saying (as I know from cases in my own experience) that a posek “devotes all his energy to finding a halachic way” to free an agunah or mamzer.  But it certainly does not follow therefrom that he is “not objective” when dealing with such issues.  If his lenient approach is based on making proper use of appropriate halachic rules which direct him to be lenient, he is certainly applying halachah objectively.  If, however, his personal desire to help the unfortunate allows him to ignore or misapply relevant halachic criteria, he is misrepresenting and distorting the halachic procedure.

Professor Shapiro evidently believes, as indicated by the very title of his book and by its Afterword, that Rabbi Weinberg either bridged, or alternatively was ineluctably pulled between, the two worlds of the Lithuanian yeshivah and of Modern Orthodoxy.  Once again, however, this conclusion is not supported by the evidence; at best, it remains a subjective and dubious proposition.

In the first place, Professor Shapiro does not make it entirely clear what he means by Modern Orthodoxy.  If it means dedicating one’s life to a profound study of Torah, with a view to mastering it in its breadth and depth, and applying it to contemporary issues, or the willingness of a posek to understand and address important issues of contemporary society then, yes, Rabbi Weinberg undoubtedly fits the definition.  But so do, in their own ways, many other poskim (Rav Moshe Feinstein, for example, or Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach), whom one would certainly not describe as Modern Orthodox.

If it means a favorable appraisal of the State of Israel; openness to secular studies; and a positive approach towards emancipation of women, the question arises as to the degree to which Rabbi Weinberg identified with these criteria.  Were they such significant elements in his outlook, to the exclusion of many others, that they aptly place him in the Modern Orthodox world?

Professor Shapiro, moreover, sees Rabbi Weinberg not simply as one who belongs to the Modern Orthodox “camp,” but as “a guiding light” of the movement.  This assertion is certainly questionable, if it is intended to define the rabbi’s Weltanschauung.  It may indeed be that the Modern Orthodox movement looks to Rabbi Weinberg as a role model; but does that equate to Rabbi Weinberg seeing himself as a leader of the movement?

It seems to me, moreover, that there is a fundamental question mark over Professor Shapiro’s attempt to fit his subject into certain categories of thought, specific shades of Orthodoxy or conventional parameters.  Great men, almost by definition, do not fit neatly; they do not easily wear religious or political labels.  They are distinguished precisely because they transcend the usual boundaries.  By seeking to fit them into a given mold, we reduce and diminish them.

A true assessment of the diverse and multi-faceted person who was Rabbi Weinberg requires a kind of suspension of disbelief.  Here was, at one and the same time, a traditional Lithuanian gaon, with a German university education; a master of practical halachah, and yet a man who was familiar with scholarly examination of texts.  He was a Hirschian thinker, who could also plumb the introspective depths of mussar; a Westernized rabbi, who yet appreciated the warmth of Polish Chassidut.

He was essentially an intellectual, but had the turbulent soul of a poet; a sensitive and caring man, who could yet be highly critical of lesser mortals.  Although fundamentally conservative, he was yet in many ways radical; uniquely eclectic, and yet highly respected by all the leading and traditional rabbis and halachic scholars.  Like many gedolim of yesteryear, he could maintain friendships and correspondence with those who were far from his ideology.  And without in any way compromising his burning love of Torah — perhaps precisely because of it — and because of his deep awareness of its essential essence, and his passion for its sense of social justice, he could express concern about aspects of halachah which appear to contradict its underlying humanism.  This is a reflection of refinement of character, rather than of doubts about the truth of halachah.

A person who is whole cannot abide moral contradictions, or tolerate conflicting standards of ethical norms.  That there is nothing essentially new or radical in such a viewpoint is evidenced by the Rambam’s trenchant comments on the undesirable consequences of unethical behavior towards non-Jews (Peirush ha’Mishnah, Keilim 12:7).  Similar considerations apply to Rabbi Weinberg’s strong comments about undesirable Jewish traits: which Professor Shapiro interprets as “bitterness,” “eternally suspicious,” and even “almost anti-Semitic.”20  A truer reading would see them as expressions of distress by a spiritually sensitive person.

It is extremely doubtful, in short, whether one can properly define Rabbi Weinberg, a man who throughout his life retained independence in thought and outlook.  We come back to where we started.  Rabbi Weinberg was a fascinating individual, living in an era of great change.  He was a man of unusual greatness of mind and spirit, who defies neat analysis or conventional categorization.  A gadol ba’Torah in the classic mold, he was at the same time a person of many other facets.

Perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay him is to recognize and acknowledge that here was somebody from whom we can all learn, irrespective of where we stand in the Jewish religious kaleidoscope.  He challenges us to reach for excellence, both as human beings and as Torah Jews, and I think he would have been content in the knowledge that that was his legacy.


Rabbi Berel Berkovits is a dayan of Great Britain’s Federation of Synagogues.

1 p. 3

2 p.11

3 For example, G. K. Chesterton: pp.74-75 ; 207

4 p.37

5 n.17 on p.20; n. 50 on p. 183

6 Seridei Eish 3:94

7 cited at pp. 8-10 and 27-30

8 p.30

9 p.145.

10 p.175

11n.16 on p.176

12 Seridei Eish 2:31

13 p.173

14 n. 69 on p.188

15 Seridei Eish 2, p.361

16 ibid, 2, p.191

17 p.215

18 p. 212

19 p. 212

20 n.51 on p. 183

This article was featured in the Fall 2000 issue of Jewish Action.