- Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884–1966
Based upon his Ph.D. dissertation, Marc Shapiro’s analysis of the fascinating and rather tragic story of Rabbi Weinberg’s life is a welcome addition to the scholarly bookshelf. Weinberg, known commonly as the “Seridel esh” (the title of his four-volume collection of responsa), was a rabbinic luminary, a polemicist, and a scholar of targumic literature. It is to Shapiro’s credit that Weinberg’s life is painstakingly mapped out and his ideological profile carefully portrayed.
Born in a medium-sized town in Poland (although it seems that Weinberg always claimed to have been born in Lithuania), Jehiel Jacob Weinberg came from a fairly undistinguished family. However, he early on proved himself an ilui (prodigy), rapidly gaining entry, in 1900, to the beit midrash (house of study) in Grodno. A year after lecturing there, Weinberg moved on to Slobodka, where he studied in the renowned yeshiva founded by a second-generation disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter. In this setting, young Weinberg was exposed to the demanding discipline of musar, which stressed orderliness, personal hygiene, restraint, and introspection.
Everyone is a product of his time and environment. The atmosphere in which the young Weinberg grew up must have been an exciting one. Zionism, Bundism, Reform were all challenging the hegemony of Orthodox Judaism. Weinberg had the creative audacity to recognize this and to familiarize himself with the documentary theory formulated by Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) as well as the brilliant history of Judaism formulated by Nahman Krochmal (1785–1840). He was vigorously involved with the halahkhic issues of his day without tarnishing the integrity of his interpretation—and adherence to—tradition.
Weinberg’s intellectual outlook was augmented and refined when he moved to the university town of Gießen, where he moved in 1920 in order to study for a Ph.D. with Paul Kahle (1875–1965), a prosemitic Christian and masoretic scholar. Weinberg, Shapiro points out, was a product of his times, yet far ahead of them. He was—and remained—a talmid chaham who carefully immersed himself in secular studies.
Shapiro relates the story of Weinberg’s life carefully, in chronological order, mentioning the arranged marriage of sixteen years which had a tremendous effect on his career (p. 88) and his relations with the distinguished rector of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, David Zvi Hoffmann—whom Weinberg succeeded, as well as with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) and the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz) as he strove to be an understanding and creative posek. Shapiro also notes Weinberg’s voracious reading habits and his tireless involvement in the Jewish communal affairs of his day, as he was vigorously involved with the halakhic issues of his day and also handled Wissenschaft des Judenthums in a manner consonant with that of Esriel [End Page 161] Hildesheimer, rather than the quasi-apologetic approach advocated by Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888). Never one to shy away from a battle, Weinberg provides the reader with an interesting case study in twentieth-century Jewish polemics at a time of world turbulence.
Needless to say, Weinberg did not lead an easy life. His unhappy marriage, the chaos created by Hitler throughout the Jewish community, and the challenge of Reform Judaism and other—to Weinberg—secularisms wreaked havoc in the otherwise orderly world of the yeshiva. Weinberg never visited Israel or the United States. He undoubtedly would have been welcomed and revered in either country.
Shapiro includes in the appendices a fascinating letter written by a group of German rabbis to Adolf Hitler in 1933, a glossary, and a comprehensive bibliography of Weinberg’s writings as well as an index. Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy should be read by every serious student of modern Jewish history.