The Life of R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


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Lecture #31:  The Life of R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg



            Students of the writings of R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg owe an immense debt of gratitude to Professor Marc Shapiro.  Shapiro’s impressively researched biography of R. Weinberg, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966, paints a striking portrait of this rabbinic giant.  Shapiro has also published two volumes of R. Weinberg’s writings, which present important themes in R. Weinberg’s thought.  Finally, Shapiro’s felicity at understanding and translating German has helped bring R. Weinberg’s German writings to the attention of scholars.  Before beginning my presentation of R. Weinberg’s thought, I acknowledge that Shapiro’s work has greatly helped my own investigations.  Nonetheless, I hope to add new avenues of analysis into this complex rabbinic personality.


R. Weinberg’s Life


R. Weinberg’s thought intertwines so powerfully with his biography that I feel justified in presenting a somewhat extended summary of his life.  In a eulogy for R. Weinberg, his student R. Eliezer Berkovits writes: “Great derush is always a personal confession.  The great darshan always interprets his own life.  Rabbi Weinberg’s thought as a darshan flowed from the depth of his personal experience.”[1]  While R. Berkovits makes this point about all those who deliver sermons, we shall see that the point has particular force in the case of R. Weinberg.


Born in Poland in 1884, R. Weinberg went to study at the Slobodka yeshiva at the age of seventeen.  While there, he studied Ketzot Ha-Choshen in a chavruta with R. Naftali Amsterdam, a student of R. Yisrael Salanter.  The various prominent personalities in Slobodka, including the famed Alter of Slobodka, R. Nosson Zvi Finkel, exposed R. Weinberg to the ideas of the mussar movement, a topic he later wrote about.  In 1903, he went to study in Mir along with R. Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, son of the Alter and later Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva.


            Like other students in Eastern European yeshivot, R. Weinberg became interested in the broader world of literature, and he traveled to Grodno to learn Russian.  No less a figure than the Chafetz Chayim himself came to Grodno to bring R. Weinberg back to the world of the yeshivot.  In 1906, R. Weinberg became rabbi of the town of Pilwishki, but this move exacted a severe price.  As part of the arrangement, he was forced to marry the daughter of the deceased rabbi, a woman not truly suitable for R. Weinberg.  The marriage was not a happy one and ultimately ended in divorce.


            While in Germany for medical care, R. Weinberg became trapped there due to the outbreak of World War I.  He became acquainted with the world of Jewish intellectuals in Berlin and officiated at the wedding of Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Even after the war ended, R. Weinberg chose to remain in Germany, studying first at the University of Berlin and then at the University of Giessen.  In 1923, R. Weinberg submitted a doctoral dissertation on the Peshitta, a Syriac translation of the Bible.  The following year, he joined the faculty at the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary and he eventually became the seminary’s rector. 


At this point, we can take note of the many diverse currents in R. Weinberg’s life.  He experienced both Eastern and Western European Orthodoxy and he appreciated the value of lomdus, mussar, traditional yeshivot, academic Jewish studies, and secular literature.  Did these various forces come together in a unified personality, or was R. Weinberg a man of antinomies and contradictions?  Scholars debate this question and we will return to it in a later lecture.


R. Weinberg played a prominent role in answering difficult halakhic questions caused by Nazi persecution.  For example, a law enacted by the Nazis demanding stunning an animal before slaughter led him to write extensively on whether such stunning renders the animal unfit for shechita (his analysis appears in the first volume of Seridei Eish).  Another responsum addresses whether Jews can hold a concert in a synagogue when the Nazis will not allow Jewish meetings anywhere else.[2]


Kristalnacht in 1938 left R. Weinberg crushed.  The next year, he fled Nazi Germany, leaving behind his immense library and manuscripts awaiting publication.  He became trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was a prominent leader for the Jews ensnared within.  Because of his Russian citizenship, the Germans imprisoned him together with Russian prisoners of war. While life in the prison camp certainly involved significant suffering, R. Weinberg’s imprisonment there enabled him to avoid the concentration camps and to survive the war.  He later told Professor Shmuel Atlas that he was unaware of the full destruction of European Jewry until after the war’s conclusion.[3] 


After the war, R. Weinberg was a broken man whose entire world had been destroyed.  A loyal student, R. Shaul Weingort, brought him to Montreaux, Switzerland, where R. Weinberg lived until his passing in 1966.  While he was involved with a small yeshiva there, it did not provide R. Weinberg with intellectual stimulation.  A letter he wrote in 1956 mentions that there were few students in the yeshiva and that there was no one for him to talk to: “I am totally alone here.”[4]  Despite this feeling of solitude and despite many offers of more prominent rabbinic positions across the globe, R. Weinberg chose not to leave Switzerland, where he penned many influential and important responsa.


We have already noted the complex web of influences in R. Weinberg’s career.  Sadly, another significant theme running through his life was that of suffering.  As noted, R. Weinberg suffered from an unhappy marriage and never had children.  The barbaric cruelty of the Nazis destroyed the worlds of both Eastern European and Western European Orthodoxy and left him adrift.  In addition, he suffered from poor health.  He ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto while the overwhelming majority of Berlin rabbis escaped to safer shores because health concerns prevented him from leaving Europe.  A letter he wrote to R. Weingort from Nuremberg soon after the war related that he could not travel to Switzerland without someone accompanying him due to his terrible health.[5]  Finally, R. Weingort, his beloved student who had taken him in after the war, was killed in an accident one year after bringing R. Weinberg to Switzerland.  Given the many difficulties of his life, R. Weinberg was a remarkably productive rabbinic author and teacher.


One responsum offers poignant testimony to the difficulties he endured.  In 1956, he was asked about seforim saved from the library of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary.  The questioner wondered whether we could compare the scenario to one who finds a lost item brought in from the ocean’s tide, in which case he is permitted to keep it.  R. Weinberg’s opening and penultimate paragraphs convey a powerful sense of sorrow.


I was happy to receive your letter and enjoyed seeing that you have not forgotten me despite the evil things that occurred in the interim.  It was fulfilled regarding me, “God afflicted me but He did not give me over to death” (Tehillim 118:18).  “Why should a living man complain?” (Eikha 3:39).  It is enough that he is alive…


Regarding my personal library in the beit ha-midrash and in my room, I was not able to save a single book.  I mourn for the loss of my books, since I left the valley of destruction barren and lacking everything. 


The closing line of the first paragraph (based on Kiddushin 80b) clearly conveys R. Weinberg’s feelings.  He had suffered greatly and lost everything, yet he remained alive. 


In a memorial volume for R. Weingort entitled Yad Shaul, R. Weinberg wrote a moving essay honoring his former student that also sheds light on the author.  Describing life in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis, he wrote: “In the ghetto, we witnessed the lowliness and degradation of man devoid of divine ethics and lacking human conscience.  His cruelty far outstrips those of preying animals.”[6]  He exclaimed that “death would be preferable to such life” and alludes to a gemara (Ketuvot 33b) that states that had Chanania, Mishael, and Azarya been tortured, they would have worshipped idols.  In other words, those martyrs could withstand the threat of death but not that of torture, indicating that some suffering is harsher than death. 


R. Weinberg also argued forcefully with those “heroes of the pen” who criticized inhabitants of the ghetto for not rising up against their Nazi oppressors.  He contended that such critics failed to understand the Nazi ability to destroy their victims’ hope, aspirations, and will to live.  They did not attack all at once but steadily undermined their victims with “German precision.”  R. Weinberg highlighted the spiritual heroism of those who maintained religious devotion under such suffering.  He also praises the actions of those who did rise up and physically confront the Nazis in the event known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.[7]  R. Weinberg appreciated the heroism of those who physically confronted the enemy as well as those who exhibited spiritual defiance.


His account portrays one astounding example of the latter.  Various rabbis in the ghetto decided to jointly publish a volume of halakhic essays on the topic of destroying chametz.  R. Weinberg wrote the opening essay and other rabbis agreed to respond.  Contributors included R. Menahem Ziemba, R. Avraham Mordechai Alter (the Gerrer Rebbe), and R. Meir Finkel (son of R. Eliezer Yehuda).  The manuscript was to be published in secret, but when war broke out between the Nazis and the Russians, the manuscript was lost.  The ability to compile such a work while living under Nazi rule reveals reservoirs of spiritual fortitude.[8] 


R. Weinberg’s Works


R. Weinberg’s most prominent work is his collection of responsa entitled Seridei Eish. The title refers to “a survivor of the fire,” indicating his self-perception after the war as one who had survived the decimation of European Jewry.  R. Eliezer Berkovits, later a prominent Jewish intellectual in America, was the student who brought R. Weinberg’s early responsa out of Europe.[9]  R. Weinberg also published a work of Jewish thought entitled Lifrakim.  A posthumously updated edition of this rich work includes aggadic commentary, powerful sermons, essays on the Jewish issues of the day, and studies of important Jewish personalities.  This major work has not yet received due attention.  In addition, R. Weinberg published a work entitled Mechkarim Be-Talmud.  The years subsequent to his passing have seen the publication of his novellae on the Talmud as well as the two volumes of essays put out by Professor Shapiro.


Even before we make a full-fledged attempt at understanding R. Weinberg’s ideological position, we may note that he was not a standard Rosh Yeshiva.  How many other Roshei Yeshiva wrote essays on Achad Ha’am and Berdichevsky, published an article co-written with a gentile professor named Paul Kahle in the Hebrew Union College Annual, wrote an article on repentance based on the approach of Max Scheler,[10] and maintained a life-long friendship with a professor at the Reform rabbinical seminary (Shmuel Atlas)?  Who was this rabbinic titan and what did he stand for?  We will begin to answer this question during the course of the few lectures.

[1] R. Eliezer Berkovits, “Rabbi Yechiel Yakob Weinberg zt”l: My Teacher and Master,” Tradition 8:2 (Summer 1966), p. 10-11.

[2] Seridei Eish 2:12.

[3] Shmuel Atlas, “Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt”l: Kavim Li-Demuto,” Sinai 58 (Tishrei-Adar, 5726), p. 289. 

[4] See the letter published by Marc Shapiro in Hama’ayan 32:4 (Tamuz, 5752), p. 20.

[5] See the letter published by Marc Shapiro in Hama’ayan 32:4 (Tamuz, 5752), p. 7.

[6] Yad Shaul (Tel Aviv, 5713), p. 9.

[7] Ibid., p. 10.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

[9] Seridei Eish 1, p. 179.

[10] R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and R. Yosef Wolgemuth also utilized Scheler on repentance.  Nonetheless, it was not standard practice for rabbinic luminaries.