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Lecture #31: The Life of R. Yechiel Yaakov
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
Weinberg’s writings, which present important themes in
thought. Finally, Shapiro’s
felicity at understanding and translating German has helped bring
German writings to the attention of scholars. Before beginning my presentation of
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
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.
Weinberg’s thought as a darshan flowed from the depth of
his personal experience.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.” 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. 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
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.” 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. R. Weinberg appreciated the heroism of
those who physically confronted the enemy as well as those who exhibited
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
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
early responsa out of Europe. 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
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.
 R. Eliezer Berkovits,
“Rabbi Yechiel Yakob Weinberg zt”l: My Teacher and Master,”
Tradition 8:2 (Summer 1966), p. 10-11.
 Shmuel Atlas,
“Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg
zt”l: Kavim Li-Demuto,” Sinai 58 (Tishrei-Adar, 5726), p.
 See the letter published
by Marc Shapiro in Hama’ayan 32:4 (Tamuz, 5752), p. 20.
 See the letter published
by Marc Shapiro in Hama’ayan 32:4 (Tamuz, 5752), p.
 Yad Shaul (Tel
Aviv, 5713), p. 9.
 Seridei Eish 1,
 R. Yosef Dov
Soloveitchik and R. Yosef Wolgemuth also utilized Scheler on repentance. Nonetheless, it was not standard
practice for rabbinic luminaries.