Essential Essays on Judaism
by Eliezer Berkovits edited by David Hazony
Shalem Press. 393 pp. $22.95
In the first months of 1939, a thirty-year-old Romanian-born rabbi, soon to gain prominence as a scholar and theologian, arrived in London with his young family. He came from Berlin, where he had earned his doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on Hume and had studied at a renowned rabbinical seminary that combined loyalty to traditional Judaism with openness to secular learning.
Although Eliezer Berkovits had left his intellectual home, he brought his books with him. But the collection, too large to fit into his London apartment, had to be put into storage, and not long afterward it went up in flames, a casualty of the Nazis’ wartime bombardment. For the rest of his life—as a pulpit rabbi in Leeds, Sydney, and Boston, as a professor at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago from 1958 to 1975, and finally as a kind of religious éminence grise in Jerusalem—Berkovits wrote his own books, it seems, in an effort to recover what had been lost. There would be nineteen such books in all, thirteen in English and six in Hebrew or German.
Now, a decade after Berkovits’s death, David Hazony—senior editor of Azure, a conservative journal of politics and religion based in Israel—has edited an anthology of his writings. It ranges with impressive erudition over topics like “The Biblical Idea of Justice,” “The Encounter with the Divine,” and “The Spiritual Crisis in Israel,” but comes to rest on three main topics: halakha (Jewish religious law), Zionism, and the Holocaust. In the case of each of these subjects, Berkovits’s distinctive style is to apply an exacting moral standard of judgment. The exercise, sustained over hundreds of pages, gives weight to Hazony’s claim in his useful introduction that Berkovits “may prove to be the most significant Jewish moral theorist of the last generation.” But Berkovits’s uncompromisingly moral approach to Judaism can also produce quite unexpected results. For a thoroughly Orthodox thinker, writing largely for an Orthodox audience, he reveals an often surprising turn of mind, one whose inner tensions make him well worth reading by those not otherwise drawn to traditionalist forms of religious thought.
Berkovits is most thoroughly in his métier in his writings on halakha. Here he strikes out in a direction very different from the one followed by exegetes and sages from Maimonides in the Middle Ages to Samson Raphael Hirsch in modern times. After firmly establishing the centrality of law in Jewish thought—“revelation and law are inseparable,” Berkovits says, and “God’s involvement in the world and His law for the world are one”—he proceeds to understand the essence of divine law not in its relation to human reason, which is the usual approach, but in its relation to morality.
That relation is not as close as it once was, Berkovits laments, and the reason has to do with the long Jewish sojourn in the Diaspora. Starting with the writing-down of the Mishna in the 2nd century C.E., and ending with the decimation in World War II of the vibrant European talmudic culture of which he himself was one of the last surviving remnants, the exigencies of exile transformed a living oral tradition into a far less supple written one. By gradually reducing a system of moral values to a set of fixed rules, this process brought about a calamitous “violation of the essence of halakha.” “We have become Karaites of this new written Torah,” Berkovits complains, invoking the ancient sect that took an extreme literalist approach to Scripture and rejected the oral law altogether.
In some respects, indeed, halakha can impede moral progress—or so Berkovits argues, honing this view into a sharp rebuke of those who take an excessively legalistic approach to Judaism and so embrace its rules too unthinkingly. As one who devoted two scholarly books to the morally problematic aspects of the halakhic treatment of women, Berkovits goes so far as to characterize this form of uncritical adherence to the law as “halakha in a straitjacket.” But—and here his argument turns sharply dialectical—that hardly means he would take the side of those Jews, mainly Reform, who see halakha only as an obstacle to ethics, and so jettison it too readily. This second group he holds guilty of ignoring the “halakhic conscience”: the overarching values that give Jewish law its shape and without which Judaism as a whole cannot be understood, let alone practiced.
Moral considerations likewise pervade Berkovits’s reflections on the state of Israel, his second subject. It goes without saying that the Jewish state has, for him, immense religious significance: “without the return to Zion,” he asserts, “Judaism and Jewish history become meaningless.” This is so because the “breach between Torah and life,” a byproduct of the same “exilic rigidity” whose pernicious effects he traces in relation to religious law, can only be healed in an environment of national autonomy. Recalling the biblical injunction to the Israelites to become a “holy nation,” Berkovits rehearses the argument that Jews must have a state of their own in order to be able to set a moral example and to act, in Isaiah’s famous phrase, as “a light unto the nations.”
Nevertheless, in an essay written in 1943, five years before Israel’s founding, Berkovits offered the striking and even renegade thought that, on at least one ground, Jews had reason to be grateful to their long period of exile. In their homelessness, and despite the terrible sufferings they endured, Jews were also spared the moral burdens of nationalism: “We have been oppressed, but we were not oppressors.” And herein lay, as well, a warning for the future: if Zionism were not itself to slip into vulgar nationalism, it would have to avoid the worst, blood-and-soil aspects of European models of self-determination.
Lest one suppose that these ideas were but fleetingly held by a man seared by National Socialism, Hazony includes in this volume an essay from 1973 in which—his tone largely unchanged by the passage of three decades—Berkovits criticizes the way Zionism has in fact come to be practiced in Israel. There he argues instead for a new kind of Jewish nationalism, one based on ideals of religious fulfillment and on the realization of Jewish messianic dreams. Once again a morally flawed present is measured against the twin backdrops of a morally better past and a morally ideal future, and found wanting.
In his reflections on the Holocaust, many of these same threads converge in still another form. At the most terrible point of history—the nadir of Jewish exile and of human depravity alike—Berkovits finds solid reinforcement for his abiding doubt of the civilizing power of reason alone: the human being, he says repeatedly, “is not as easily led to goodness as humanism imagines.” More particularly, the Holocaust also reinforces a deep disappointment with Christianity as a moral counterforce. In a passage (not included here) from one of his best-known books, Faith After the Holocaust (1973), Berkovits contends that, “without the contempt and the hatred for the Jew planted by Christianity in the hearts of the multitude of its followers, Nazism’s crime against the Jewish people could never have even been conceived.”
But against these radical disenchantments, and amid the overwhelming barbarity of Nazi Europe, Berkovits also urges upon his readers stirring examples of moral heroism on the part of the Jewish victims: acts of spiritual courage, self-sacrifice, simple goodness, and the sanctification of God’s name. “In the camps and the ghettos,” Berkovits observes, “man sank to his lowest level yet, but there too he was exalted to his highest dignity.”
This book, rather slow-going and occasionally inaccessible to the general reader, is crowded with significant ideas. But it also leaves a number of puzzles unaddressed. Perhaps the central one concerns Berkovits himself. Despite the Holocaust, he remained a man of faith; despite trenchant and thoroughgoing reservations concerning the direction of halakha, he remained an Orthodox Jew; despite his suspicion of political Zionism, he remained an unwavering Zionist. Why?
We look in vain in Essential Essays on Judaism for an answer to this question. “The religious thinker,” Berkovits admits frankly, “starts out with a number of certitudes,” and in these essays he speaks primarily to those who not only share these certitudes but do not see the need for a defense of them. Others, however, will inevitably want to know why, for example, if halakha has indeed “lost its evolutionary strength,” Berkovits nevertheless insists on rejecting the Conservative and Reform movements in Judaism, which broke from Orthodoxy on precisely these grounds; or why, if “not every form of eretz yisrael [the land of Israel] is worth the trouble,” he felt impelled to pick up and settle there at the age of sixty-seven.
Nor are these the only matters left unexplained in a collection that, even as it reveals previously unnoticed connections within Berkovits’s thought, also exposes new inconsistencies. Take his treatment of exile: although it would seem by his lights to have had a disastrous effect on Jewish religious law, moving it far from the sources of its original vitality, exactly the opposite seems to have been the effect of exile on Jewish political life, which entered, he writes in one passage, “a greater, worthier period of our history than the time of our independence in the past.” Is exile, then, to be lauded (as it famously had been, for instance, by the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig) or deplored?
There is of course something exceptionally admirable in the spectacle of an ardent Zionist who can be intensely critical of trends in modern Zionism, a learned halakhist acutely troubled by parts of contemporary Orthodoxy. Having dedicated himself with such purity to these two great engines of Jewish life, Berkovits cannot help demanding purity in return. From the same perspective, one can also appreciate the impulse behind David Hazony’s desire to present this maverick figure as one who might bridge the all too evident fissures, both denominational and political, in today’s Jewish world. But ours is a moment when some of the most fundamental questions of Jewish existence press themselves with fresh urgency upon Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora; there is something deeply frustrating about a thinker who leaves these questions not only unanswered but for the most part unasked.