Torah and Western Thought

Edited by Soloveichik, Halpern, & Zuckier

Maggid Books, 2015, 329 pages


In this age when pulpit rabbis speak almost solely about medrish (despite the correct form being midrash) and the moralistic comments by medieval Bible and Talmud commentators rather than the true meaning of the biblical words and statements, it is a Godsend to read about modern highly respected intellectual rabbis and a woman who are part of this world and time, and not of some idealistic amorphous past. This volume offers an intellectual, yet easy to read, portraits of how Orthodox thinkers made both Torah and modern thinking part of their lives and how it affected their thinking and behavior.

The three editors collected nine biographies of: Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935) who became the first chief rabbi of Israel, then still retaining the name the angered Romans gave the land, Palestine. He was a mystical thinker, but much of his writings are accessible to rationalists. Contrary to many pulpit rabbis, he stressed that not only Torah students but even farmers and other laborers are loved by God and should be thanked for their contribution to the survival of Judaism. Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog (1888-1959) who served as chief rabbi of Israel. I remember that in 1951, when my family were in Jerusalem to bury my grandfather, I asked him to give me his autograph on a Lira note (the early monetary system of Israel). He said he would like to do it but it would violate the law of bal tashchit, that we may not waste what God created. I replied that it was just the opposite. If he did not sign the note with his autograph, the note would disappear within a few years. If he signed it, it would be valuable, and would be saved. Rabbi Herzog laughed out loud. He signed the note and called in the Sephardic chief rabbi and others to tell them the story. The man had a sense of humor. He was of this and the Torah world, and because of this way of thinking and his approach to people, he made an enormous impact upon Judaism, as this book shows.

The others include: Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) who Yeshiva University was hesitant about hiring, and who became a great influence upon modern Judaism. Many books are written about him and by him. Maggid books just released another book of his writings. I have an entire shelf of his books. When he came to Baltimore where we lived, he slept in my bed – without me, of course. One might disagree with his view that ancient Jewish customs should not be changed, including the idea that a woman would rather be married to a husband who is an abuser, than live alone. This led to the retention of the agunot situation. I disagree with this notion, so did his son-in-law, Rabbi Isadore Twersky.

Among the others are Professor Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) whose commentaries on the Torah are very insightful and enjoyable, and teach one way of reading and understanding the Bible. Also Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik (1917-2001) brother of J. B. but spelt his name without a t, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999) who, among much else, dealt with medical ethics, and with whom my dad worked after dad retired in publishing a book on the subject, Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) who established a school teaching, among much else, a modernistic rational approach to the Bible, Rabbi Norman Lamm (born 1927) who led Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky (1930-1997) was both a Chassidic Rebbe and a Harvard professor, an expert on Maimonides, whose books impressed me in the past, and I was impressed again after reading his bio and bought two more yesterday, and Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) who was unafraid to go beardless, who was like his father-in-law Rabbi J. B. Soloveichik an enormous influence upon a multitude of modern Orthodox Jews.