Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe by Hillel Goldberg by Professor Yoseph Udelson
Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe by Hillel Goldberg

Volume 3 , Issue 4


book reviews 3_4

Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1989. Hard cover, 269 pp. Notes, Bibliography and Index.

Contact between Eastern European Orthodoxy and contemporary Western secularism continues to be the source of an uncomfortable disorientation for many Jews. While feeling intellectually and professionally drawn toward Western culture, they nonetheless find themselves emotionally moored to the traditional Eastern European ethos. Many respond to these conflicting, often incompatible, attachments of head and heart by attempting to excise one or the other: either by choosing seclusion within a unicultural Yiddish‑speaking Orthodox community reminiscent of the vanished Pale of Settlement or by electing immersion in the secular Western melting‑pot to seethe away all conscious emotional vestiges reminiscent of Eastern European Orthodoxy. Most American Orthodox Jews, however, choose to avoid both extremes by pragmatically compartmentalizing their competing heritages within two non‑intersecting spheres, ignoring the philosophic and theological incongruities of such an arrangement. Unfortunately, these arrangements are, ultimately, neither psychologically satisfying nor culturally productive.

A very few remarkable figures within the Eastern European Orthodox tradition have deliberately elected to confront the challenge secular Western society poses for traditional Torah Judaism. In this fascinating, well researched study concerned with Western Jewry's twin heritages, Hillel Goldberg employs the term ?transition figure? to describe these cross‑cultural individuals who deliberately and consciously live within two milieux, their lives revolving around two foci, twin suns each possessing its own powerful magnetic attraction and forcefully repelling the attraction of its rival. Modern Jewish transition figures have each engaged in a radical re‑evaluation of Judaism while maintaining a tenacious attachment to Eastern European tradition. These figures, aware of the deep fissure within their own psyches and between the conflicting Western secular and Eastern Torah cultures, have devoted their lives to constructing a durable bridge between the two, a structure over which the Jewish people may confidently pass with assurance and integrity.

In this study of six of the most prominent such transition figures, Goldberg discovers certain biographical patterns characterizing them all. Each was deeply influenced by his association with either Slobodka ‑ the great Lithuanian Musar yeshiva combining Talmudic learning with the achievement of piety through intensive self‑examination ‑ and/or Berlin ‑ where, in the 1920s, Rabbi Hayyim Heller had organized an Orthodox circle combining Talmudic scholarship with secular university studies. All voluntarily moved westward and sought to communicate their teachings to a wide audience, yet simultaneously endeavored to conceal their own psychological struggles and often even their own personal biographies. Finally, although each of the six studied in this work achieved contemporary acclaim, as old age approached, each withdrew into himself under the gloaming of defeat, sensing that the unique bridge he had so laboriously constructed over a lifetime had not only proven too fragile for the Jewish people to traverse successfully, but had, even for himself, collapsed, stranding him alone and precariously dangling over the cross‑cultural chasm.

Goldberg's six biographies conveniently form two complementary triads. The first includes Rabbi Israel Salanter, Professor Harry Austyn Wolfson, and Rabbi Isaac Hutner, while the second includes Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rabbi Joseph Zev Lipovitz. In each triad, the first member articulates the issues confronting contemporary Jewish transition figures, the second represents a mode of response culminating in a philosophical and psychological cul‑de‑sac, and the third achieves a unitive integration, although at a costly price.

As Goldberg has demonstrated in numerous studies, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, was a pioneer in the study of the psychology of the unconscious. Recognizing that the Lithuanian yeshiva tradition, while capable of remarkable Talmudic scholarship, had no methodology for developing piety, Rabbi Salanter aimed at promoting character development through integrating intellectual Talmudic scholarship with the cultivation of piety through harnessing the emotional psychic powers of the unconscious. In this fashion he sought to absorb those positive aspects of the modernist Haskala movement while combatting the negative elements that undermined Torah observance. Thus, for Rabbi Salanter, intellectual endeavor requires the healthy integration of the human intellective and emotive faculties and therefore a programmatic analysis of human psychology within the realm of Torah.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, like Israel Salanter, devoted his studies to the intellective and the emotive. But for Soloveitchik, bridging the cross‑cultural fissure confronting modern Jewry requires intellectual integration as the means of eliminating emotional discomfort and distraction. Throughout his work, he therefore endeavors to translate the intellective critico‑conceptual methodology of Lithuanian Brisker Talmudic studies into the language of the intellective framework of Western neo‑Kantian philosophy. However, permeating his writings and discourses are striking contradictions between what is claimed and what is actually being expressed. What lies at the root of these contradictions is not the incompatibility of the two scholarly methodologies, but Soloveitchik's repudiation of his own violently passionate nature and the emotive source of his own intellective enterprise. As a result, the cognitive man ‑ Soloveitchik as philosopher ‑ and the religious man ‑ Soloveitchik as rabbi ‑ stand forever alone and isolated from each other.

Both Professor Wolfson, the widely esteemed late Harvard historian of philosophy, and Professor Heschel, the late scholar of ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sought to bridge the cross‑cultural fissure through the repudiation of Orthodoxy and the translation of their traditional Eastern European education into secular studies and causes. Wolfson, trained in the Musar method at Slobodka, applied the analytic Talmudic methodology acquired there to analyze with thorough detachment and impartiality the major philosophic contributions arising from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Heschel, heir to a Polish chasidic dynasty, devoted his career as scholar and social activist to exercising freedom from all sectarian commitments as a means of promoting universal social justice and personal authenticity. According to Goldberg, both Wolfson and Heschel failed because they ruthlessly spurned their own souls ‑ their Eastern European religious heritages ‑ in their pursuit of abstract chimeras: ultimately Wolfson's scholarship depended on a sterile personal life and an aloof indiscriminate commitment to nothing; Heschel's reputation and activism, on the other hand, depended on his passionate indiscriminate commitment to everything.

Only Rabbi Hutner and Rabbi Lipovitz, both of whom studied at Slobodka and at Berlin, succeeded as transition figures in creating a unitive systematic integration of the two cultures. Rabbi Hutner, head of New York's Mesivta Chaim Berlin for over four decades, in his copious published discourses organized according to the Sabbaths and Festivals of the Jewish calendar, focused solely on halakhic legal issues, but integrated in a seamless unity of perspective the homiletic lore of aggada, the wisdom of the kabbalah, and insights of philosophy. On the other hand, Rabbi Lipovitz, proprietor of a Tel Aviv pension has left only a brief collection of remarks, mainly ruminations over all facets of knowledge, but evincing a keen endeavor to broaden and refine Slobodka's focus on individual piety in order to encompass communal piety, to integrate the psychological (Musar) with the sociological (Zionism).

But the transition character of Rabbi Hutner's and Rabbi Lipovitz's achievements exacted a heavy toll. According to Goldberg, in order to achieve acceptance from Eastern European Orthodoxy in America and Israel, Rabbi Hutner (like the current Lubavitcher Rebbe) felt compelled to consign his period of study in Berlin to obscurity and to conceal all the extra‑halakhic sources utilized in his discourses.? For his part, Rabbi Lipovitz concealed nothing, but held no formal educational or rabbinic posts, lived in relative obscurity, and has left very little written material with which to disseminate his teachings.

Between Berlin and Slobodka is an important, extremely well documented, insightful work, providing significant insight into the fundamental challenge confronting contemporary Torah observant Jews. As Goldberg readily acknowledges, neither the transition figures discussed in the book nor the study itself provides a solution to the dilemma of the cross‑cultural fissure experienced by modern Orthodoxy. But the work does effectively caution us about dangerous shoals to be avoided as we grope toward an answer and, more importantly, does suggest fruitful directions along which we may go in our search for that sturdy bridge that will convey us safely over the fissure between our twin heritages.

Yoseph Udelson is a Professor of History at Tennesee State University.

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