Three Dialectics in R. Weinbergӳ Thought

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau



By Rav Yitzchak Blau




Lecture #36:  Three Dialectics in R. Weinberg’s Thought


Certain opposing and balancing themes recur in R. Weinberg’s writings.  For example, he notes the need to integrate the qualities of youth with those of age and experience.   The gemara relates (Bava Kama 97) that Avraham’s coins featured a young boy and girl on one side and an older couple on the other.  R. Weinberg writes that this represents Avraham’s ability to combine the revolutionary ardor of youth with the good judgment of the aged.  Like a younger person, Avraham excelled at self–sacrifice and the willingness to embark on a lonely path.  Resembling an older person, he showed patience and arrived at decisions in a thought-out manner.        

The inclusion of Sarah on both sides of the Abrahamic currency indicates that this combination also applied to the relationship between our first patriarch and matriarch.  Even at an advanced age, they maintained the youthful ardor of young lovers, but they still acted with the dignified purity of a couple advanced in years.[1]

In a brilliant aggadic commentary, R. Weinberg applies this dialectic to the balance between Halakha and Aggada.  R. Yitzchak Nafcha was once unable to begin teaching because his two students, R. Ami and R Assi, debated whether to study Aggada or Halakha.  He compared the students to a man with two wives, one younger and one older.  The younger wife plucks out her husband’s grey hairs, while the older wife removes his dark hairs.  As a result, the husband goes bald.  To break the deadlock, R. Yitzchak taught his students an idea that incorporated both Halakha and Aggada in which he cites a verse referring to a “wall of fire” (Bava Kama 60b).

R. Weinberg explains that younger and older wives symbolize Aggada and Halakha. Jewish law stands for order, consistency, stability, and continuity, whereas Aggada reflects dynamism, enthusiasm, and the desire for fresh conquests. Like the two wives in the parable, R. Ami and R. Assi’s fighting created a situation in which nothing was accomplished. In truth, Judaism depends on successful integration of Halakha and Aggada; R. Yitzchak therefore taught an idea combining the two disciplines.  The specific verse cited enhances the educational message.  The steady performance of Halakha provides the stability and protection of a wall, while the spirit and energy of Aggada supplies the fire.  Thus, the integrated message resembles a “wall of fire.”[2]                                     

While the two previously cited sections present an equal balance between youth and age, a third emphasizes the significance of the elderly.  After a seven year hiatus in Germany, R. Weinberg returned to Pilwishki and delivered a sermon[3] that included a poignant longing for a simpler time before the suffering of World War I.  The main body of the sermon begins with a verse from Ezra (3:12) in which elders who remember the first Temple see the second Temple and cry, while others react with the joy.  What caused some elders to tearfully respond to a joyous occasion?  Many Jews elected to stay in Babylon rather than return to the land of their forefathers.  Furthermore, some elders resented witnessing burgeoning success since they anticipated not living long enough to reap the rewards. On the other hand, some elders took joy in the knowledge that the next generation had a precious opportunity. For example, Yaakov was exhilarated by the idea of Yosef’s success, irrespective of whether or not he would survive long enough to experience it. Perhaps the source of the elders’ tears can be located elsewhere.

R. Weinberg offers a strong argument in favor of dependency on tradition.  All scientific and material progress relies on the work of predecessors; indeed, scientists do not ignore previously acquired knowledge and start from scratch.  This is all the more true when it comes to spiritual matters.  Elders not only impart wisdom, they stand for crucial values.  Older people appreciate the significance of family ties and of attachment to a homeland.  Some see these emotions as an expression of an elderly weakness that insists on living in the past.  That explanation has some truth but does not fully capture the phenomena.  In fact, many elderly people retain the vitality and excitement of youth.  R. Weinberg lists both Jewish and gentile sages who carried such optimistic energy into their advanced years.  He refers to the Alter from Sloboka and R. Eliyahu Baruch Kammai, as well as to philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, botanist Ernst Hackel, and French statesman Georges Clemenceau.[4] Conservative traditionalism and creative innovation can coexist as in the British national character. 

Young people often fall captive to the apparent splendor of a new idea and run blindly after it. Possessed with a powerful will to conquer, such youth truly end up subject to a novel idea.  Only the elderly have the maturity and understanding to graft the new on to the old, rather than to fully replace the old with the new.  For this reason, the elderly connect more easily to religion, since they appreciate the value of the eternal. The Torah’s command to respect the elderly (Vayikra 19:32) reflects more than ethical sensitivity or pragmatic calculation; it conveys a fundamental principle of our religious outlook. Redeeming our people depends not only on the muscles and energy of the youth, but also on the spirit of the aged.  When the time had come to redeem the Jews from Egyptian bondage, Moshe turned to the elders and not to the youth (Shemot 3:16). 

This background enables us to understand the story from Sefer Ezra.  Armed with the experience of the first Temple, the elders understood the difficult challenge of making the second Temple a place of holiness, and they feared that Am Yisrael might not meet the challenge. Such trepidation motivates tears. Strikingly, R. Weinberg writes that this very reaction also engendered the joy. Seeing a yearning for sanctity leading to profound emotion of sadness inspired others to react with optimism and happiness. 

Although R. Weinberg’s sermon ends with a call for combining the strengths of the young and the aged, the main thrust stresses our reliance on the wisdom of the elderly. Perhaps R. Weinberg was addressing a crowd overly focused on novelty and youth.  He needed to remind them of the wisdom accumulated over many years of Jewish history.

Another short piece of aggadic commentary links Avraham with the need for consistency.  “Whoever fixes a place for his prayer will find the God of Avraham aiding him” (Berakhot 6b).  R. Weinberg states that regularity and routine are necessary pedagogic tools for impacting on the personality. As a revolutionary monotheist, Avraham could have stood only for freshness and novelty, but he valued the power of consistency.  This revolutionary established the ideas of daily prayer and of a set location for praying.  Avraham understood that every individual has limited moments of inspiration and uplift.  Rather than endlessly waiting for such moments, daily prayer maintains a steady dialogue with our Maker.[5]

A related dialectic centers on the balance between past and future. Here, R. Weinberg emphasizes a vibrant Judaism that means much more than looking back with nostalgia. The nostalgia approach leads to a Judaism of cemeteries and yahrzeits. For this reason, Chazal say that Torah is not just a morasha, an inheritance, but a me’orasa, a betrothed (Pesachim 49b). Our relationship to Torah does not resemble a grandchild relating to a grandmother. The grandchild shows the grandmother respect and affection but does not truly allow her to impact on personal life.  Instead, we interact with Torah as a beloved, who constantly affects who we are and how we behave. We revere the age-old wisdom of Judaism even as we find freshness and individuality within it.  Even someone whose ancestors bequeathed him a Torah scroll must write his own (Sanhedrin 21b).[6]

One Chanukah sermon compares the Sadducees with nineteenth-century Jewish assimilationists. Both revered the old but avoided fresh application to today.  For the Sadducees, this became manifest in a rejection of the vibrancy of the Oral Law. For their modern counterparts, it inspired a Judaism of veneration for the past that dropped religious demands in the present.[7]                      

Integrating past and future explains the great value our Sages place on juxtaposing redemption and prayer.  Each morning, we conclude the blessing “redeemer of Israel” just before beginning the amida.   According to R. Weinberg, the redemption theme focuses on God’s grand past actions on our behalf, while prayer predominantly concerns requests for the future. A Judaism that only looks back remains orphaned and barren.  Conversely, one that ignores the past lacks the reservoirs of strength and wisdom found in a national history. R. Weinberg sends a message to contemporary Jewish nationalists:  Genuine redemption depends upon the creation of an autonomous Jewish spirit, not only on physical liberation.

He adds a beautiful reading about the connection between our ancestors and the land of Israel.  One gemara says that all of the Land of Israel curled into a ball, upon which Yaakov rested his head, and this act enabled his descendents to conquer and settle the Land (Chullin 91b).  Another gemara states that Kalev briefly left the other spies to fortify himself at the graves of the patriarchs in Chevron (Sota 34b). R. Weinberg interprets these sources on a psychological, rather than on a metaphysical, plane.  Praying at a particular spot or touching certain land does not grant magical powers. Rather, identifying with the dreams and ideals of ancestors fills us with energy and inspiration. Such factors enabled Kalev to stick to his ideals and inspired Yaakov’s offspring to maintain their connection to this Land.[8]

R. Weinberg’s preference for the moral and psychological over the metaphysical also emerges from another passage analyzing Yaakov’s dream vision.  In Bereishit 28, Yaakov has a dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder and God informs him that He is the God of Avraham and Yitzchak. Yaakov responds by declaring, “How full of awe is this place.” For R. Weinberg, it is not the angelic beings that fill Yaakov with awe, but the knowledge that he has encountered the God of his fathers.  Walking in the path of his father and grandfather in maintaining a relationship with divinity inspires and humbles Yaakov. 

Reverence for ancestry deserves great respect. R. Weinberg tells the story of the German Jewish Foreign Minster Rathenau driving to shul on Yon Kippur to say kaddish for his father. When some Polish Jews in shul snickered at the idea of someone desecrating the holy Day of Atonement in order to say kaddish, R. Weinberg instructed them to desist. He argued that we should not mock respect for parents, a fundamental value that can engender authentic spiritual striving.[9]

A final dialectic merges the best of Eastern European and Western European Jewry.  As we have seen, R. Weinberg studied in Slobodka and also received a doctorate in Germany. He saw the contributions of each community and wrote about them. Some of his early German writings represent the attempt to explain Eastern European Jewry to the enlightened Germans, who often looked down on the “Ostjuden.”  Conversely, he defended Germany Jewry from critiques from the East.  A powerful example of the latter appears in the eulogy he delivered for R. Ehrentreu, Rav of Munich.

Critics of German Orthodoxy’s philosophy of Torah im Derekh Eretz contended that it reflects a desire to enjoy this world and the World to Come but lacks authentic Jewish spirit. R. Weinberg admits to the cogency of this critique regarding some bourgeois Jews, but he asserts that it totally misses the mark regarding such figures as R. Ehrentreu and R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. These titans of the spirit successfully integrated passionate commitment to Torah with broader knowledge.[10]

In a fascinating aside, R. Weinberg opens a window into his conception of integrating Judaism and general culture. He ridicules the idea that an authentic combination of faith and culture can be found in the manufacture of a Shabbat belt to carry keys or in the creation of a cream enabling the observant Jew to shave. These are technicalities that do not truly touch on the world of the spirit.  Indeed, R. Weinberg’s writings reveal familiarity with the ideas of Kant, Rousseau, Spinoza, and many great gentile thinkers.   

In this context, it is also worth noting that R. Weinberg denies that R. Hirsch’s endorsement of secular studies was a concession to difficult times. In truth, worldly engagement reflects a permanent ideal for R. Hirsch.[11] Although this point clearly emerges from R. Hirsch’s writings themselves, it bears noting that a gadol intimately familiar with German Orthodoxy very clearly declared that this represents R. Hirsch’s position.       

Where did R. Weinberg see himself among the various factions? Scholars debate whether to view him as an eternally conflicted figure of a person with an overarching and unified vision. His old friend, Shmuel Atlas, asserted the later conception.[12] Along similar lines, Marc Shapiro portrays R. Weinberg as a figure identifying with the essential tenets of Modern Orthodoxy. In his review of Shapiro’s book, Jeffrey Woolf argues for a more conflicted image of R. Weinberg.[13]  Either way, R. Weinberg was a penetrating and important rabbinic thinker whose oeuvre of Jewish thought deserves more attention in our curriculum.



[1] Lifrakim, p. 375.

[2] Ibid., pp. 333-335.

[3] Ibid., pp. 253-264.

[4] Ibid., pp. 260-261

[5] Ibid., pp. 360-361.

[6] Ibid., pp. 547-548.

[7] Ibid., pp. 538-544.

[8] Ibid., pp. 397-398.

[9] Ibid., pp. 605-606.

[10] Ibid., pp. 408-409.

[11] Ibid., p. 218.

[12] Shmuel Atlas, “Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg zt”l: Kavim Le-Demuto,” Sinai 58, p. 282.

[13] Jeffrey Woolf, “The Legacy of R. Yehiel Jacob Weinberg,” Azure 12 (2002), pp. 202-210.