This collection of essays brings together some of the greatest current Jewish thinkers to write about ten of the most innovative and inspiring leaders of the Jewish world in the twentieth century. The authors include; Rabbi Dr Meir Y. Soloveitchik, Dr Daniel Rynhold, Dr Yehuda Mirsky and Rabbi Dr. David Shatz. Their subjects include Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Amital, Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. (I chose to highlight these authors and subjects as I have been inspired by them over the years and did not mean to show preference over the other writers and thinkers).
Each essay is written in a different style and often deal with quite complex ideas, however, the book is very readable and extremely enjoyable. One of the highlights of the book is the section dealing with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“The Rav”) and his brother Rav Ahron Soloveitchik and the American Constitution. Whilst the analysis is fascinating, it is a poignant, human moment which reveals to us so much about the characters we are learning about. Rav Ahron, we are told, read a letter from his brother, the Rav, from many years before. The Rav praised him for his excellent question and his having grown up (Rav Ahron received the letter when he was ten). After a wonderfully proud letter from his older brother, Rav Ahron tells us that his older bother “then proceeds to destroy my peshat (exaplanation).” Not only do we explore the ideas of these great thinkers, but we are privileged to enter into their private lives as well.
In Dr Daniel Rhynhold’s excellent essay on Rav Kook he explains (in his conclusion p36) one of the novelties of Rav Kook’s thought and makes it relevant to us today:
“The clear lesson of Rav Kook’s writings is that as long as divisions exist, it is clear that we all have work to do. There is no smug self-satisfaction with his own particular version of Judaism, however much he may have firmly believed he had access to mystical insights that would unite the world in perfect harmony. In Orthodox circles, this level of pluralism was viewed as controversial at the time, and in certain Orthodox circles, it appears to be controversial still. But the idea that our human limits will always bequeath us such debates is, and always has been the legacy of Rav Kook. Our task is to render them debates for the sake of heaven.”
Each of the essays in this book clarify how each thinker interacted with the world at that moment in time, and how they proved to be innovative. They acknowledged that their brand of Judaism did not deal with a particular challenge or problem and found ways to move forward. Whether it was the new approach to Biblical interpretation by Professor Nehama Leibowitz or the approach to Jewish Medical ethics by Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits, Rabbi Herzog’s takkanot (new ordinances) for the state of Israel or Rav Amital’s development of the Hesder movement, each of these thinkers changed Judaism for all future generations.
Each of the subjects came from a traditional rabbinic background and yet had the vision, and in some cases bravery, to tackle difficult situations with novel approaches. Whilst we may agree that Torah is timeless and unchanging these thinkers saw the need to respond to the challenges that they faced at that time. This idea is clearly outlined by Isaiah Berlin in his book ‘The Power of Ideas’ (p9-10)
“…the questions asked by the Homeric Greeks are different from the questions asked by the Romans, that the questions asked by the Romans differ from those asked in the Christian Middle Ages or in the seventeenth-century scientific culture….The questions differ, the aspirations differ; the use of language, of symbols, differs; and the answers to one set of questions do not answer, do not have much relevance to, the questions of other cultures.” The questions that the Rav asked, and the challenges he faced, are clearly not the same as those that Maimonides had.
The challenge of great Jewish thinkers however, is to answer these questions in a new way whilst maintaining the traditions and values of old. Rabbi Norman Lamm dealt with this in his drasha on Parshat Korach in 1964 (published in the excellent Derashot Ledorot: Numbers pp108-9) where he sets out the distinction between Rebels and Revolutionaries as detailed in the writing of Erich Fromm:
“Fromm distinguishes between two types – the rebel and the revolutionary. The rebel is one who is innocent of any ideological convictions. This individual is resentful of authority and wants to overthrow it so that he can become the authority himself…
The revolutionary is completely different….The revolutionary is one who thinks independently.”
In a brilliant statement describing the twentieth century (just as applicable today!), Fromm tells us:
“Twentieth century political life is a cemetery containing the moral graves of people who started out as alleged revolutionaries and who turned out to be nothing more than opportunistic rebels.”
The subjects of this book should never be described as rebels. They were responding to challenges based on their ideals, not on a need for power or change for change’s sake. But why did they do it? Rav Amital (pp187-8) explains with a beautiful story:
“When the first group of students came to the yeshiva, they asked me, “What’s special about this yeshiva?” I told them the hasidic story about the Baal HaTanya, who was sitting and studying in the inner room of the house. His grandson, the Tzemah Tzedek, sat in the middle room. In the outer rom there was a baby in a cradle. The baby suddenly awoke from his sleep and began to cry. The Tzemah Tzedek was so immersed in his study that he did not hear the baby crying, but the Baal HaTanya, whose room was further away, did hear. On his way back, he passed the room where the Tzemah Tzedek sat and told him, “When a person studies Torah and does not hear a cry for help, something is deficient in his learning.”
In an interview years later, he (Rav Amital) elaborated:
“Every generation has its own cry, sometimes open, sometimes hidden; sometimes the baby himself doesn’t know that he’s crying, and hence we have to try to be attentive to the hidden cries as well.”
Every one of the ten thinkers explored in this wonderful book heard the cry of their generation. The cry came from the emergence of the State of Israel and from advances in Medicine. The cry from a need to advance Biblical scholarship and from the challenge of Torah Jews living in a secular world and many many cries both open and hidden. This excellent book helps us to understand some of the greatest thinkers of the last century, and how they, not only heard the cry, but responded to it and bravely approached Torah through the prism of Western Thought.