- IntroductionThemes in the Thought of Eliezer Berkovits
The six essays included in this special issue of Shofar originated in a conference held on March 6, 2011 entitled, “A Jewish Theologian in Chicago: Themes in the Thought of Eliezer Berkovits,” conceived and organized by the Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Chicago in cooperation with the Spertus Institute of Chicago.1 The conference was initially suggested to the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies by three former students of Berkovits, Howard Gilbert, Robert Berger, and Stephen Landes, and it was supported by a generous gift from Philip R. and Yvonne Haag. We are grateful for their efforts and resources.
Born in Romania in 1908, Berkovits was a leading disciple of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin. In 1939, he fled the Nazis to England and Australia. In the 1950s, he moved to Chicago, where he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. There he also served as the founding rabbi of Congregation Or Torah. He was one of the first Orthodox rabbis and leaders to build bridges with Reform and Conservative denominations in Chicago and around the world, and, through his own person, had a very strong impact on all constituencies in the Chicago Jewish community. In 1975, he immigrated to Israel, where he died in 1992.
Berkovits is now recognized as one of the important Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century. Throughout his life, he was engaged in theological and philosophical scholarship and with the concrete problems of the Jewish people during a period of momentous change, from the Holocaust to the establishment of the State of Israel. His writings span biblical theology to post-Holocaust theology, from the authority of the Oral Torah to the problem of the agunah, from a polemical response to Toynbee’s infamous fossilization of the Jews to a Halevi-oriented historical philosophy of Judaism, and from feminism to the problem of conversion. At both theoretical and practical levels, he persistently explored the intersection of religion, spirituality, and modernity. [End Page 1]
Deeply learned and rooted in classical rabbinic halakah, Berkovits insisted that the Torah is primarily a guide for living an ethical and morally dignified life. He was also deeply concerned about the unity of the Jewish people, despite the increasing polarization and fragmentation of the community. In traditional sources of Jewish learning, he found precedents to address and solve some of the most difficult problems facing modern Jewry, such as agunot (wives abandoned by their husbands and unable to remarry under Jewish law), assimilation and conversion, and the challenges of the modern nation state of Israel. Yet many of his proposals were received with great controversy.
Berkovits’s thought and writings are undergoing a renaissance of interest in Israel and the United States. All of his 19 books are slated to be republished, with many of them being translated into Hebrew, English, French, and Russian for the first time. Reissued works include God, Man and History, Faith after the Holocaust, With God in Hell, and Essential Essays on Judaism. In light of these circumstances, we at the University of Chicago believed that it was especially appropriate to revisit the thought of this significant Jewish theologian from Chicago at this critical moment in Jewish life.
The six essays included in this issue provide an excellent overview of the range of Berkovits’s halakic and theological contributions, and offer a sustained look at his sometimes sharp, often original, and, in today’s climate, refreshing arguments and proposals. Rahel Berkovits attempts to delineate Berkovits’s idea of halakah as the expression of Torat Hayyim, living Torah, with particular attention to his concern for the status of women within Judaism. Marc B. Shapiro offers a learned, critical evaluation of Berkovits’s vision of halakah and a valuable diagnosis of its reception within the Orthodox community. David Ellenson focuses on Berkovits’s seminal role in inspiring and theoretically grounding one of the boldest attempts in American Jewish history to address the problem of conversion in...