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Eliezer Berkovits: Great Jewish Thinker
Eliezer Berkovits: Great Jewish Thinker
February 25, 2011
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood for The Chicago Jewish News
Even 28 years after his death, Chicago philosopher Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits' bold ideas on how to deal with the problems facing Jews in the modern world are still causing controversy. An upcoming conference looks at his life, and his thoughts on conversion, feminism, the role of the Torah today and more.
Gilbert studied with Berkovits for 16 years and worked with him on a number of projects both in Chicago and Israel. He calls him “one of the seminal thinkers on Judaism in the 20th century. His ideas were not always accepted by everybody. He understood halachah as an ongoing process.”
Gilbert, a lawyer with a particular interest in Jewish law, says Berkovits “was an instrument of change. He had a classical education and he was also well schooled in Western secular thought” - not always the case within the Lithuanian and German yeshiva world, he says.
Personally, Berkovits was “a very warm, nice individual,” Gilbert says, an assertion made by many who knew him. “He believed in what he believed in, but there were no rough edges. He was friendly with Reform and Conservative rabbis and he was a very warm, engaging individual. And his wife was the best Jewish cook you could ever meet,” Gilbert says.
Along with two other students of Berkovits, Bob Berger and Steve Landes, Gilbert is one of the organizers of the current conference, which is designed to capitalize on the process, already begun by Hazony and others, of giving Berkovits his due.
“His teachings and writing are gaining favor,” Gilbert says. “He was heavily concerned with morality and ethics” - topics of growing concern in a world that often seems to contain neither. A number of Israeli government officials Gilbert met were particularly interested in “how he integrated morality into his thinking,” he says.
“His ideas are catching on,” Gilbert says. “Orthodoxy is moving to the right, and he doesn't represent that. He is certainly not a right-wing Orthodox person.” But he says there is a group of younger Modern Orthodox rabbis who admire Berkovits' ideas, and he is heartened by that development.
Chicago's Lopatin is among them. “I'm a fan of Rabbi Berkovits,” he says. “I think a lot of his thinking is right for the times,” such as his teaching on agunot, still a thorny issue in the Orthodox world.
“He's an example of a gadol (revered rabbi) who has sensitivity. We do have gadolim who hit a brick wall (when dealing with halachic problems) and say, well, you can't do anything about it. He had a different approach: The halachah responds to needs. You can't just say, that's the halachah, there's nothing I can do about it. You need to look at it again. It's a very refreshing approach. His thinking is 30 or 40 years old or more, but it's as relevant today as it was then.”
Berkovits' teachings, Lopatin says, might be a particularly good fit for a Reform movement newly open to issues of halachah. The movement “to some extent rejected having to follow halachah, but now is more sympathetic to halachah and open to the power that it can give to Judaism, the meaning it can provide to Jewish life. For that, a Berkovits approach to halachah might be a good gateway,” he says.
Lopatin is enthusiastic about the upcoming conference as well. “If it can bring us together with an approach to halachah that can unify the different movements, that's great,” he says. He even believes that Orthodox leaders, who may reject some of Berkovits' teachings, “are open to education, being unified and together. They are a little squeamish about rituals but there's an openness to learning. This is seen as an academic conference, not a religious one - that's not as sensitive.”
No one could be more pleased about the conference than Bob Berger, one of the organizers. Berger, a Chicago attorney, had a long and close relationship with Berkovits, whom he first met when the rabbi was teaching an evening Talmud class at Berger's Conservative synagogue, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. Rabbi Sam Dresner, the synagogue's spiritual leader, recommended that Berger attend.
He did, and “I just fell in love with the man immediately,” he says. “He was a great scholar and thinker and a warm, humane, caring individual. I became a sort of disciple. I read all of his books I could find in English. I attached myself to him, and he to me.”
He later brought Berkovits back to the synagogue twice as a scholar in residence and participated in a Shabbat afternoon study group at the rabbi's home. Later still, he helped Berkovits edit some of his books and worked with him on some legal matters. He and his family later visited the Berkovitses in Israel and in Florida, where they sometimes came for the winter, and hosted them in their home when they came to Chicago, and kept in close contact with Berkovits' wife until her death.
“He was quite a remarkable, unusual man,” Berger says. “They almost don't make them like that anymore. He was old-school in the sense of training - he had an incredibly deep and strong traditional training in Talmud, rabbinics, Jewish law and history, and in addition was a participant in modern Western life. He wrote beautifully, spoke beautifully.”
Berkovits, who Berger says had a “warm personality,” “reached out into all segments of the Jewish community,” he says. “He became friendly with Reform and Conservative rabbis. Anyone who was serious about Jewish ideas he reached out to.”
Before the Berkovitses moved to Israel, a dinner in their honor was attended by hundreds of people, including many rabbis, Berger says. “It was one of the only public gatherings you've ever seen in the last 50 years in Chicago that was attended by rabbis of stature of all streams” of Judaism, he says. “They all paid sincere tribute to him.”
Berkovits, he says, “had a remarkable effect on people. People immediately sensed his scholarship, his warmth for humanity. He was unique in his sincerity and commitment and his love for Judaism and all the Jewish people, plus his human warmth and generosity of spirit. It's important when you find such a person - they're rare - attach yourself to them. Most people don't get that experience.”
He believes, along with others, that although Berkovits lived and taught within the traditional Orthodox world, his influence was stronger on “serious, traditional Conservative Jews and Modern Orthodox rabbis and young people than on (traditional) Orthodox (Jews),” he says.
Among the giants of 20th-century Jewish thought, the name Eliezer Berkovits isn't the first to spring to mind. Nor, perhaps, the tenth.
That may be about to change.
The last few years have seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in the work of Rabbi Berkovits, who headed the philosophy department of the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie from 1958 until he moved to Israel in 1976. He also founded Congregation Or Torah in Skokie.
David Hazony, the influential Israeli-American writer and editor, has been chief among those leading the revival of interest in Berkovits. In 2002, he began editing some of Berkovits' books (he wrote 19) and publishing them under the imprint of the Shalem Press.
Now, a prophet is being honored in his adopted home.
The Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Chicago and the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies are presenting a one-day conference dedicated to Berkovits' life and work.
“A Jewish Theologian in Chicago: Themes in the Thought of Eliezer Berkovits” takes place from noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, March 6 at Spertus, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.
The speakers include Hazony; Marc Shapiro, Weinberg chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton; David Shatz, philosophy professor at Yeshiva University; Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Jordanna Cope-Yossef, senior lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Law and director of the Advanced Talmudic Institute for Women of Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem. Cope-Yossef is from the Chicago area and graduated from Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
The fact that a Reform rabbi, Ellenson, is a speaker at a conference devoted to a Modern Orthodox theologian is a testament not only to the breadth of Berkovits' philosophy, but to his belief in inclusiveness among the Jewish people, conference organizers say.
By all accounts, everything about Eliezer Berkovits was unusual, including his education. Born in Transylvania (later Romania) in 1908, he received his rabbinical training at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, where he was a disciple of Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, known as the greatest interpreter of Jewish law of his generation. Berkovits also earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin.
He served as a rabbi in that city and published his first book there in 1938, but was forced to leave Germany the next year and came to England, where he and his wife adopted and raised a number of refugee children. His mother and siblings perished at the hands of the Nazis. Many of his later writings concerned the Holocaust.
After serving in the rabbinate in England and Australia, he immigrated to the United States in 1950, first serving as a rabbi in Boston. In 1958, he became chairman of the department of Jewish philosophy at HTC, where he remained until he and his family made aliyah in 1976. He was also the founding rabbi of Congregation Or Torah in Skokie. In Israel, he taught and lectured until his death in 1992.
His books, written in English, Hebrew and German, covered a wide variety of issues in the areas of faith, spirituality and Jewish law, but he is best known for his writings on halachah, religion and modernity, the Holocaust and the status of women in Jewish life.
Among his works are “What is the Talmud?” “G-d, Man and History,” “A Jewish Critique of the Philosophy of Martin Buber,” “Faith After Holocaust,” “With G-d in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettoes and Death Camps,” “Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha,” and “Jewish Women in Time and Torah.” He also wrote hundreds of essays and articles covering every aspect of Jewish life and philosophy.
His ideas were, and still are, controversial in some quarters. So were some of his practices.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin of the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago says that the Orthodox world holds a “begrudging respect” for Berkovits.
“He was somewhat of a marginal figure, but he was not able to be fully marginalized,” Lopatin says. “He was a figure who could never be dismissed by the Orthodox world” but was still “seen as being on the left” in a community that was moving steadily rightward. If that perception had not been the case, Berkovits probably would have become the rosh yeshiva or head of HTC, he says.
Still, Lopatin says, many in the Orthodox world disagreed with some of Berkovits' views, such as his approach to marriage. (He favored inserting language into the ketubah or Jewish marriage contract that would allow for an annulment if a husband refused to give his wife a get or Jewish divorce, thus solving the problem of agunot, wives abandoned by their husbands and unable to remarry under Jewish law. Such a ketubah is now known as a “Berkovits ketubah.)
Howard Gilbert, a former student of Berkovits and one of three men who are spearheading the conference, said he believes there were a number of reasons that his teacher sometimes drew fire from the Orthodox world - which were exactly the reasons others favored his approach.
“He was interested in eliminating divisions among the various people of Israel,” Gilbert, a Chicago attorney, says. “He crossed all the borders. He saw that (the divisions in the Jewish community) were meaningful, but he tried to find ways to eliminate the friction.” For instance, Gilbert says, Berkovits “came up with a form of conversion in which Reform, Orthodox and Conservative rabbis could participate in the process together.”
At Or Torah, the synagogue he founded, women were allowed to carry the Torah, a practice not always followed in other Orthodox synagogues; he was a close friend of Rabbi David Polish, a leading Chicago Reform rabbi and the founder of Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston; and he taught and lectured in Reform and Conservative synagogues, Gilbert says. “Those are some of the reasons why people didn't necessarily like him,” he says.
Berkovits' work “had a modern outlook, a sensitivity to human needs,” Berger says. He thinks that Berkovits is being rediscovered by a new generation of scholars and thinkers because “his work is responsive to modern ethical sensibilities.”
In a blurb written for the conference, Berger calls Berkovits “a truly remarkable man, a dear and caring soul who loved all of Klal Yisrael, a brilliant and humane Torah scholar who believed deeply in the G-d of Israel and in a living Torah and who labored skillfully and creatively to make halachah live and breathe in consonance with its best and most humane values in the mid- and late 20th- century.”
Much of the renewed interest in Berkovits can be attributed to David Hazony, a former fellow at the Shalem Center, an Israeli think tank started by his brother, and the author, most recently, of “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life.”
While at the Shalem Center, he launched the Eliezer Berkovits Institute for Jewish Thought, a project to translate and publish all of Berkovits' major works. So far, three books have been published, “Essential Essays on Judaism,” G-d, Man and History” and “New Essays on Zionism.”
Hazony says his interest in Berkovits began when he was at Yeshiva University shortly after Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik died.
“There was a sense that the entire whole of Jewish philosophy could be summed up in Rabbi Soloveitchik,” he says. “My exploration of Jewish thought later on led me to believe there must be some version of Judaism that was more focused on understanding human nature. Many pointed me to Berkovits.”
He discovered that the thinker was highly regarded in some circles but was generally not well known, for a number of reasons. “His books were published by sort of secondary publishers and a lot of them were totally out of print,” Hazony says. “He also was in Chicago. If you were going to be a Jewish philosopher in the last half of the 20th century, you had to be in New York.”
In addition, Berkovits did not head an institution and “preferred to stay out of the limelight and write.”
When Hazony, who is now pursuing doctoral studies on Berkovits at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, began reading his books, he discovered that “he was writing about every single major issue in Jewish philosophy and theology.” He started working with Berkovits' family to reissue some of the books, beginning with “Essential Essays,” which, he says, “touches on all the different subjects” and is a good introduction to Berkovits' thought.
“He was perhaps the only Orthodox thinker except Rabbi Soloveitchik who tried to articulate Judaism in the English language,” he says. “He took questions of modern philosophy very seriously.” His writing, Hazony says, “promotes a very humane version of halachah and a very Zionist approach to the importance of Jewish sovereignty.”
At the same time, Berkovits was “very much engaged with current events,” writing about such diverse subjects as the 1960s drug culture, existentialism, radical theology, historian Arnold Toynbee and Jewish thinkers Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“He saw the role of the Jewish philosopher as engaging with the place where the debate is happening, and he wants to be there,” Hazony says.
Today, he says, Berkovits is much better known, especially in the Chicago area, than when he began studying him, and the upcoming conference should further that goal for people who are “striving for a really authentic Jewish voice. The bottom line is, he'll take his rightful place if somebody sees in him something important and meaningful” - which Hazony clearly does.
So does Steve Landes, another organizer of the conference and a former congregant, student and friend of Berkovits.
“There has been a remarkable resurgence of interest in him, and it's a good time for it,” he says. “The problems Berkovits identified years ago are the problems we face today. His solutions were creative. It's important that the Jewish community be reminded what he predicted and what has happened.”
Berkovits, he says, “always talked about the need to deal head on with the questions of conversions, the role of women, and over all to instill a sense of the ethical backbone of halachah. He was deliberately controversial -- he attempted to suggest that many ways of thinking had become ossified, and that we were not taking broader issues into account and bringing forth solutions.”
Controversy followed Berkovits because there was a suggestion “that he was somehow going away from halachah,” Landes says. “But it was totally the opposite. He was reaching for the very essence ofhalachah. In every generation, the great rabbis reflected on what halachah was trying to accomplish. That was brave, and when you're brave, you attract controversy.”
Today, Landes says, “it's obvious - people are turning to his thinking because they recognize the solutions and the whole approach of today is not meeting the needs of the Jewish people.”
All three of Berkovits' Chicago “disciples” have high hopes for the upcoming conference. “The people who knew him are largely elderly and are passing from the scene,” Bob Berger says. “Many young people, unless they are scholars, don't know of his work. Broader audiences don't know him.”
His hope, he says, is that the conference “is attended by teachers, rabbis and serious lay people for whom this will strike a new spark and get them interested in reading some of his stuff, and spark renewed interest in his thought. I'm very pleased to see serious recognition of him and I hope it will spread,” he says.
“He was really something special.” #