R. Weinberg on Marxism and Religious Leadership

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


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Lecture #35:  R. Weinberg on Marxism and Religious Leadership



            R. Weinberg was a keen critic of Marxism and was concerned that socialism was becoming the dominant intellectual and moral trend in the young Jewish State.  In an essay published in the early 1950’s, he highlighted the radical differences between traditional Judaism and Marxist materialism.[1]  He suggested that the significant scientific successes of the twentieth century led modern man to assume arrogantly that he possessed the ability to solve the world’s problems.  From this perspective, religion holds back humanity from its more robust creative enterprise.  As Marx famously wrote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”  To R. Weinberg’s chagrin, many twentieth century Jews identified with this mode of thinking.


            The history of Jewish martyrdom indicates that we have always adopted a perspective diametrically opposed to materialism.  Jews throughout history could have moved easily towards a more promising economic situation by accepting the religion of the host country.  They refused even when it meant persecution, imprisonment or death because spiritual ideas moved them more powerfully than economic incentives.  All of Jewish history reflects the triumph of the spirit over crass materialism.


            Modern science champions conquering nature, but it actually creates servitude to nature. Overemphasizing science prevents humanity from seeing beyond the natural order to the world of the spirit.  The impressive technological means that enable a person to truly live and accomplish the most important things become life itself.  Contemporary man misidentifies means as the goal. 


            Young idealistic Jews felt the attraction of socialism, a movement urging society towards greater justice and equality.  But as Hermann Cohen pointed out, Marxist thought incorporates a self-contradictory mixture.  On the one hand, Marxism denies the authenticity of ethical impulses, viewing them as expressions of economic forces.   Those promoting religion and ethics are simply attempting to advance their class interests.  On the other hand, Marxism portrays itself as a beacon of justice.  The same movement attempts to unite ethical pathos with a denial of ethics.


            R. Weinberg admires Marx’s prodigious intellect and attributes it to his Jewish genes, but he blames Marxist ideology on the influence of German culture.  Someone rooted in Jewish ideas could not adopt the materialistic outlook.  Unfortunately, Marx grew up in an assimilated home and never studied genuine Judaism.  Given a different upbringing, someone with such a mind could have made a lasting contribution to Torah.


            The version of this essay printed in Lifrakim does not include some more negative passages about Marx that did appear in one printed version of the essay.  Prof. Marc Shapiro published these passages in Kitvei Ha-Gaon R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg.[2]  In the additional section, R. Weinberg notes Marx’s virulent anti-Semitism, which included identifying Jewish with money, profit and interest and citing the anti-Semitic canard that the ancient Egyptians expelled the Jews because they were a people of lepers.  Even the socialist Moses Hess was subject to Marx’s scorn because of his nostalgia for Jewish life.  Marx’s negativity reveals an ignorance of vibrant Judaism.


            What has the grand socialist experiment produced?  R. Weinberg writes that the world has recently overcome the satanic Nazi menace and now it lives in fear of expanding socialist rule.  This government promotes an indifference to the dignity of the individual, since only the collective matters.  Although socialism utters rhetoric of equality and justice, it has created a society devoid of basic freedoms and lacking equality.  Force rules, and the Communists’ materialistic nihilism undermines any sense of ethical conscience and obligations. 


            The essay’s conclusion turns our attention back to the Jewish State.  R. Weinberg views the State as an opportunity to realize Judaism’s prophetic vision and to create a society of spirituality and ethics.  It would be a shame to squander this opportunity by following a materialistic ideology that hearkens back to the paganism against which Jews always fought.  As we saw in the previous lecture, R. Weinberg combined aspirations for the Jewish State with serious concern regarding some of its anti-religious components.


            The essay cited critiques Marxism from an ethical and spiritual perspective. Another essay points out historical errors in Marxist thought.   It is simply untrue that we can trace all human motivations back to the economic clash of different segments of society.  In fact, human choices incorporate both noble motivations and other, non-economic, ignoble motivations.   R. Weinberg uses the example of Cain to make the point.  Cain and Abel shared a world; they had no reason to engage in an economic clash between serfs and lords or between factory owners and the proletariat.  Their battle indicates other sources of human motivation.


            Bereishit Rabbah 22:7 suggests that the brothers fought over the location of the Temple or over a woman.  The first suggestion conveys that people also act with conviction due to religious ideals, while the second indicates how love or lust provides a powerful motivating force.  R. Weinberg cites Pascal’s famous comment that if Cleopatra’s nose had been a different size, all of history would have changed.  Marxists demonstrate narrowness in their attempt to reduce all of human motivation to one source.[3]  


R. Weinberg on Religious Leadership


            Several of R. Weinberg’s essays and aggadic interpretations focus on the qualities necessary for leadership.  Berakhot 4a contrasts King David’s behavior with that of other monarchs.  Whereas other kings slept late, David rose in the middle of the night to praise God.  While other monarchs sat with large groups receiving honor, David got his hands dirty answering halakhic questions about the laws of family purity.  Furthermore, David was not ashamed to consult with his teacher Mifiboshet to confirm the accuracy of his legal rulings.


            A sensitive reading of this gemara uncovers traits crucial for leadership.  Kings can justify getting up late due to their immense responsibilities.  Indeed, many kings emphasize the wide-ranging rights and privileges that come with the job.  Consideration of the scope of their job may even justify abrogating certain rights.  David did not think in those terms, choosing instead to focus on responsibilities more than rights.  Someone witnessing David rising early and praying before God would think he was a commoner rather than a king.


            Those dealing with global issues also frequently forget the plight of particular individuals.  A king thinking about the economy, national security and the like might be forgiven for not noticing the struggles of a particular farmer or carpenter.  David escaped this moral danger.  He cared for particular individuals who came to him with questions impacting on their family relationships. 


            Arrogance represents another common pitfall of leadership; many monarchs throughout history suffered from the sin of hubris.  R. Weinberg relates the story of Nero, who demanded to hear praises for his singing voice even though his singing was atrocious.  David avoided this pitfall as well.  Subjecting his halakhic rulings to the scrutiny of Mifiboshet reveals impressive humility rather than excessive pride.[4]


            The theme of compassion and care for individuals features prominently in R. Weinberg’s depiction of Moshe Rabbeinu.  According to Shemot Rabba 2:2, God selected Moshe for leadership after he exhibited great care and concern for the sheep he tended. When Moshe found a kid-goat who had run away from the flock drinking from a pool, he expressed compassion for the thirsty creature.  R. Weinberg sees two outstanding qualities in this story.  Moshe’s grand vision did not prevent him from caring deeply about a simple animal.  Additionally, many shepherds would quickly become angry at a wayward sheep, but Moshe withheld judgment until he investigated carefully, eventually concluding that the kid had good reason to flee.[5] 


            A leader must have vision and ideals that inform his decisions beyond canvassing the views of public opinion and popular surveys.  For R. Weinberg, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai represents such leadership.  During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, most Jews wanted to fight the Romans to the death in an attempt to preserve Jewish sovereignty.  R. Yochanan ben Zakkai greatly valued the Temple and national independence, yet he viewed the war as a lost cause.  The overwhelming might of the Roman Empire combined with internal Jewish discord made military victory impossible.  To preserve Judaism, he chose the unpopular path of talking with the enemy Vespasian.


            R. Weinberg uses this approach in a brilliant reading of R. Yochanan’s deathbed scene (Berakhot 28b).  The Talmudic sage instructs his students to remove vessels from the house so that they not become ritually impure and to prepare for King Chizkiyahu.  He also offers them a surprising blessing - that they should fear God as they fear other human beings.  What explains these specific parting messages to devoted disciples?


            Even though R. Yochanan ben Zakkai made a calculated decision to relinquish the struggle for the Temple and for independence, he fiercely valued those two things and eagerly anticipated their return.  Instructing his students about ritually purity symbolizes the desire to see a rebuilt Temple and a restoration of the compete order of ritual purity.  Since Chizkiyahu reigned at a time of excellent scholarship and reverence for Torah, he symbolizes a nobler manifestation of Jewish sovereignty.  Thus, R. Yochanan’s final message conveys his hopes for both the Temple and Jewish sovereignty.


            R. Yochanan’s blessing conveys what his life was all about.  Unlike those politicians who find out which direction the crowd is headed and run to the front of the pack, R. Yochanan had his own convictions and opinions.  During a pivotal time in Jewish history, he took an unpopular stand and helped preserve Judaism.  Wanting his students to emulate this quality, he blessed them that they should fear God as they fear humanity; they should courageously think about idealism and not take the safer route of easy popularity.[6] 


            The need for leaders to exhibit dedication to an ideal animates R. Weinberg’s interpretation of the sin of the spies. Like most commentators, R. Weinberg wonders what the spies’ transgression was; after all, they simply carried out their mission to report about the land.  He explains that they lacked the enthusiasm for an ideal that enables overcoming difficult obstacles.  Instead, they acted more like office bureaucrats, capable of filling out the correct forms and following a well-trodden path but not of overcoming challenges. 


If the spies were not capable of anything more, this limitation would not constitute religious failure. But they had the potential for something greater; they were held back by concerns for personal gain.  Based on a passage in the Zohar, R. Weinberg asserts that the spies were reluctant to enter the Land because they feared they would lose their leadership roles in the new order.  Such fears motivated their retreat to the narrow bureaucratic perspective, which loses heart in the face of difficulties.[7]


The essay on the meraglim advocates that spiritual leaders adopt a more ascetic position that eschews personal pleasure.  The fact that priests do not own their own real-estate conveys the need for leaders to rise above their own desires.  “A person who wants to influence others needs to expend all his energy, time, honor and money.”[8]  To me, some of the formulations in this section seem too strong.  A leader ignoring personal needs engenders certain dangers, including the possibility of a selflessness truly indicating an identity excessively dependent upon one’s rabbinic role.


One essay explicitly outlines four aspects of the rabbinic position: teaching Torah, rendering halakhic decisions, delivering sermons, and coordinating chesed.  R. Weinberg mentions how some Eastern European Jews mock this last role, claiming that such rabbis are simply imitating their Christian counterparts.  In fact, argues R. Weinberg, this role reflects a crucial aspect of Jewish leadership. 


In this context, he offers a profound reading of the story of the potential convert who asked that Hillel teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot.  Hillel instructed him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man” (Shabbat 31a).  Many wonder how this principle adequately encapsulates the entirety of Torah.  R. Weinberg explains that Judaism demands concrete actions and not just abstract ideas.  Some other religions talk about theoretical ideals but fail to concretize them in a network of defined practices.  They create empty prose not manifest in real life.  Hillel informed the convert that Judaism consists of realizing ethical and other ideals in the flesh-and-blood world of detailed practice.  In response to those religions criticizing Judaism as overly formalistic, R. Weinberg contends that much poetry and powerful religious experience can be found in our unchanging Torah.  Clearly, this section forms part of a Jewish-Christian polemic.[9]


R. Weinberg concludes the essay with the important point: the rabbi profoundly influences the people through personal example.  Ultimately, the model of a noble life often proves more significant than a host of speeches and pamphlets.  The same theme reoccurs in a beautiful eulogy delivered for R. Chanokh Ehrentreu (1854-1927), Rav of Munich.  There, R. Weinberg portrays two kinds of influential leaders – the charismatic and dynamic public figure and the quiet person who leads with his devotion and example.  Interestingly, R. Weinberg views R. Ehrentreu as integrating both types of leadership.[10]   

[1] Lifrakim, pp. 578-582.

[2] Kitvei Ha-Gaon R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, vol. 2, pp. 404-409.

[3] Lifrakim, pp. 339-340.

[4] Ibid., pp. 394-396.

[5] Ibid., pp. 498-501.

[6] Ibid., pp. 382-386.

[7] Ibid., pp. 506-509.

[8] Ibid., p. 508.

[9] Ibid., pp. 287-292.

[10] Ibid., pp. 406-407.