Faith and Freedom – a book review
The Passover Haggadah of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits
Compiled and Edited by Dr. Reuven Mohl, Urim Publications, 2019
One of the tragedies of Modern Orthodox Judaism is the fact that the thoughts and halachic insights of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) were never sufficiently recognized by the mainstream Orthodox world and its leadership, which often snubbed, attacked, or simply ignored him. By doing so, Orthodoxy and the Jewish people at large did not realize that they paid a heavy price. They overlooked a major figure that could have been their leader and greatly advanced Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Berkovits received his rabbinical training (and semicha – rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Akiva Glasner (1885-1956), who took over as Chief Rabbi of Klausenburg when his father, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924) left for Israel. The latter—a staggering, daring figure in the world of Halacha—authored Dor Revi’i, one of the most remarkable works ever written, suggesting an entirely different approach to Jewish Law. The elder Rabbi Glasner had a major influence on Rabbi Berkovits’s halachic thinking and approach. Rabbi Berkovits later studied at the famous “Rabbiner Seminar” (Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary) in Berlin, under renowned halachic authority Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966), best known for his famous work of halachic responsa Seridei Eish, as well as works on Jewish ethics. Rabbi Berkovits became their most important student. I have been told that when studying at the Seminary in Berlin, he often had fierce discussions with the brilliant teachers there, while the rest of the class was silent because they could not follow the high-level Talmudic debates taking place between the young Eliezer and those supreme teachers and halachists. Rabbi Berkovits served as rabbi in several communities for about 24 years and in 1958 became chairman of the Jewish philosophy department at Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, where he taught for some 18 years and where several other teachers tried to convince their students not to attend his classes! He spent the remainder of his life in Israel.
Rabbi Berkovits was far ahead of his time. He saw the maladies of Orthodoxy and suggested many original ideas that could have helped it make a much greater contribution.
In my humble opinion, his magnum opus is his Hebrew HaHalacha Kocha VeTafkida (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1981)—later partially translated as Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha (Ktav Publication House, 1983)—in which he proposed to remove the defensive galut mentality from Halacha and return it to its authenticity, preserving its organic nature. Another outstanding work of his is T’nai B’Nissuin u-V’Get (Conditionality in Marriage and Divorce), published by Mosad HaRav Kook in 1966. Both works are a breakthrough in our understanding of Halacha. They solve many serious halachic issues, not only regarding the notorious aguna problem and the status of women in Jewish Law in general—on which he later wrote the book Jewish Women in Time and Torah (Ktav Publication House, 1990)—but even in matters directly related to problems of democracy in the Jewish State, as well as issues concerning Shemita and conversion. If Orthodoxy would have listened to his voice it would have been much more successful in its mission, having inspired many more and given Jewry at large a boost to be committed to Torah and mitzvot.
When attacked, he never disavowed his opinion so as to be more popular with his rabbinical colleagues, but patiently explained himself in a cogent way and tried to persuade his opponents to see his point of view.
He no doubt felt lonely and unappreciated, as were his teachers Rabbis Weinberg and Glasner in their days. He must have been a man of tremendous strength, as it is very difficult to live with those feelings.
In my humble opinion, there was nobody in his generation—not in Modern Orthodoxy and not even among its most famous leaders—whose learning, courage and insights could be compared to his. Being at home with general and Jewish philosophy, as well as with the entire range of Talmudic and halachic literature, he tackled problems that even the greatest avoided for fear of being rejected by mainstream Orthodoxy. He confronted issues head-on and stated his opinion without any fear. He penetrated major problems in Jewish thought and Halacha that nobody else was prepared to handle.
While one does not have to agree with him on every matter (see Tamar Ross’s critique in her book Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism, Brandeis University Press, 2004, pp. 21-22; 69; 189-190), he constructed a foundation on which others could build and expand. Above all, he taught all of us intellectual, philosophical and halachic courage. (See also my book Jewish Law as Rebellion [Urim Publications] where I quote Rabbi Berkovits’s views frequently.) While his ideas are more known now than they were during his lifetime, there is still little attention given to this remarkable, lonely man’s thoughts and boldness.
It is therefore a great joy to study Faith and Freedom: Passover Haggadah, With Commentary from the Writings of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, compiled and edited by Dr. Reuven Mohl, who studied at Yeshivat HaKotel under Rabbi Aharon Bina and Yeshiva University. He received his rabbinic ordination from the well-known Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Yerushalayim. He is a dentist in New York City.
In this Haggadah, not only do we find very interesting insights by Rabbi Berkovits on themes that relate to Pesach, but we also get somewhat of an introduction to his philosophy and unique halachic approach in general.
Dr. Mohl is clearly completely at home with Rabbi Berkovits’s entire oeuvre, including his teachings and his many books and essays. He knows what the rabbi’s essential contributions are and places them exactly where they belong in this unique Haggadah.
These are not just sweet observations on the Haggadah, to be repeated at the Seder table. Rather, they require proper study and contemplation to fully grasp what Rabbi Berkovits is trying to convey on a much larger spiritual and halachic canvas.
Below are a few examples:
In his book Faith after the Holocaust (Ktav Publishing House, 1973), he deals head-on with the question of how one can remain religious after being faced with such colossal, unprecedented evil when 6 million Jews, including over a million Jewish children, were tortured and murdered. Instead of explaining this as a punishment for the lack of Torah observance, as so many of his rabbinical colleagues did, he rejects this approach out of hand as completely inadequate and, in fact, as a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). He lays the guilt at the feet of the perpetrators. (To fully understand Rabbi Berkovits’s treatment of the Holocaust one needs to read his entire book.)
Rabbi Berkovits’s following observation is striking: “God’s relation to human history is such that He needs a chosen people….Why the Jews? No matter whom He would have chosen, they would have to become [i.e. they would be called] Jews” (Faith after the Holocaust, p. 115 / Haggadah, p. 25).
As a strong Zionist thinker, he warns Jews and Israelis not to believe for one moment that we are a “normal” people like all the other nations. We are not! And convincing ourselves that we are would be our demise:
“We can make no greater mistake than to normalize our condition. The moment we sever our link with the historic destiny of the Jewish people which has its roots in the dimension of the spirit and faith, we cease being the ‘great nation’ and are left with the attribute of ‘you are the few.’ We become then a mere cumbersome adjunct to the affairs of the world, a small, weak, insignificant people in world-historic context. This reduction to ‘for you are the few among the nations’ has happened in the State of Israel as the result of the widespread secularization and materialism of Israeli society. In the realm of the secular and material, little Israel is inconsequential indeed” (Crisis and Faith, p. 135 / Haggadah, p. 29).
When discussing Halacha, Rabbi Berkovits advises us to adopt an approach of persuasion— never coercion—taking into account the fact that many Jews have sincere religious doubts and that only searching and questioning will make people appreciate Halacha:
“In struggling with the problems of the day, Halacha must once again reveal itself as the wisdom of the feasible, giving priority of the ethical…. Alas, those who have the authority to impose Laws of the Torah do not care to understand the nature of the confrontation with the Zeitgeist. They take the easy way out. They do not search for the Word that was intended for this hour, for this generation. If they have the authority, they impose the Word meant for yesterday and thus miss hearing the Word that the eternal validity of the Torah was planning for today” (Not in Heaven, pp. 178-9 / Haggadah, p. 40).
In his observations on the chacham (wise son) in the Haggadah, Dr. Mohl quotes Rabbi Berkovits’s distinction between halachot that are for the meantime “tolerated” and the Torah’s ideal. The former are a kind of compromise while waiting for better days when the Torah’s authentic ideals can be implemented.
“It is obvious that the Talmudic opinions regarding the inadequate intelligence of women no longer have any validity. The view that a woman’s knowledge extends only to the spindle might have applied in a society which provided women with only a limited education but it does not hold today… Rabbi Eliezer’s statement (in the Talmud) that one should not teach Torah to one’s daughter because she will craftily misuse her knowledge has lost all its meaning” [now that women study at universities and become professors] (Jewish Women in Time and Torah pp. 59-60 / Haggadah p. 48).
In his severe critique of Christianity—which he holds responsible for the Holocaust—and its failure to understand the nature of the human being, Rabbi Berkovits writes: “At the root of it all was despair over man and the world. In the philosophy of the Christian apostle, man and the world stood in the sign of hopelessness” (Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism, p. 139 / Haggadah, p. 49). Judaism holds the belief that it is the deed, not just contemplative faith, on which the world should be built. One can have the most elevated thoughts and dimensions of faith, but it won’t make the world any better without the human deed. There is no place for despair, not even after the Holocaust. What is needed is action to make the world a more pleasant place – something the Jews experienced with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and its enormous successes, despite the animosity of a large part of the Arab and Western world. This does not lead to behaviorism or to idol-worship of the human deed at the expense of faith but to the realization that—to borrow an expression from Rabbi Aharon HaLevi in his classic Sefer HaChinuch, and from Franz Rosenzweig— we must be able to “hear in the deed”; that the deed, as in the case of a ritual, can touch on faith that cannot be reached in any other way and can give meaning to the deed, which by far surpasses its external aspect.
Most important is Rabbi Berkovits’s point that the greatest value of Halacha is that it was given into the hands of the Sages to determine its outcome. It was no longer left in the hands of God Who had once given the Torah but now demanded of the Sages to develop and even improve it. Withdrawing from its further development, God, on His own initiative, became halachically paralyzed. (See Bava Metzia 59 a-b.) “This means that it is not objective truth but pragmatic validity” that moves the halachic world (Not in Heaven, p. 70-72 / Haggadah, p. 43).
All in all, here is a Haggadah very different from any other. For many readers, it will be an eye-opener, perhaps a bit of a shock because of its challenging ideas, its honesty, and its willingness to give a new understanding of Judaism, Halacha and the Haggadah. It requires courage to read it and contemplate it. Those who take the challenge will realize that the works of Rabbi Berkovits are deeply traditional and simultaneously innovative. And the readers will be blessed because of it. Thanks to Dr. Mohl!