Obituary: Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits

Hyam Maccoby
Monday 14 September 1992 23:02 BST

Eliezer Berkovits, rabbi and scholar, born Nagyvarad Transylvania 8 September 1908, died Jerusalem 13 August 1992.

THE IMPACT of the modern world on Jewish belief has been severe. The enormous tragedy of the Holocaust has shaken faith in providence, while developments in science and philosophy have challenged traditional Jewish doctrines and have indicated the need for changes in the Jewish ethical and ritual system, the halakhah. One of the most robust and intelligent responses to these challenges from an Orthodox standpoint was made in the life-work of Eliezer Berkovits.

Berkovits was born in Nagyvarad, Transylvania, and received instruction in Talmud studies in yeshivot (seminaries) in Hungary and Frankfurt. In 1934, he was ordained rabbi at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, where he was much influenced by his teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg. He also gained his doctorate of philosophy at Berlin University. He served in Berlin as rabbi of the Pestalozzi synagogue and also as a member of the Beth Din (rabbinical court). In 1938, he published his first book, Was ist der Talmud?, in which he aimed to counter the effects of Nazi propaganda against Judaism. In 1939, however, he was forced to leave the country, and came to Britain as a refugee. His mother, brother and two sisters, who remained in Germany, were murdered by the Nazis.

In England, Berkovits was rabbi from 1940 to 1946 in Leeds, where his scholarship, forcefulness and mastery of the English language, both spoken and written, brought him to the forefront of the English Jewish religious scene. However, his outspoken criticisms of officialdom made him some enemies. He accepted the post of rabbi at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia, where he remained from 1946 to 1950. He then went to the United States, where he served as a rabbi in Boston until 1958, when he found his true vocation as head of the philosophy department of the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago. Here he remained, as an influential teacher, strenuous thinker and prolific writer until his retirement to Israel in 1975.

Berkovits had always been a keen Zionist, and while in England had fiercely criticised British policy towards Palestine. Yet he also had trenchant things to say both about non-religious Zionism and about the shortsighted views of Israeli religious parties. He considered that the time had come for a far-reaching overhaul of the halakhah, using its own resources for development and adaptation to circumstances. He pointed out, for example, that the stratification of the halakhah, by which authorities of the Mishnaic period were regarded as sacrosanct, had no firm basis in legal theory, and that, consequently, important reforms were possible. He was particularly concerned about the position of women in Judaism, and advocated fundamental reform, which he supported by a formidable array of learning and an appeal to the basic moral principles of Judaism. He established himself as a leader of 'liberal Orthodoxy', and influenced some distinguished figures, including Irving Greenberg and David Hartman. The majority of Orthodox rabbis, however, regarded Berkovits with suspicion, though he was never repudiated.

In the field of philosophy and theology, Berkovits adhered to traditional viewpoints, to which he gave a new profundity and relevance, while criticising acutely those modern Jewish thinkers who had imported alien concepts into their philosophies of Judaism. In his thinking about the Holocaust, Berkovits stressed that God had given man free will, which could be used for extreme evil, and that this involved a divine undertaking not to intervene. The sufferings of the Jews were an index of the level of human injustice, and, in this sense, the Jews (symbolised by the suffering Servant of Isaiah) suffered for the sins of the world.

Berkovits considered Christian teaching the prime cause of medieval and modern anti-Semitism. He declared that Jewish-Christian dialogue was useless unless Christians abandoned the myth of Christian uniqueness and the charge of deicide against the Jews. He regarded the declarations of the Second Vatican Council, which most Jewish leaders welcomed, as condescending, and lacking in both contrition and appreciation of the Christian responsibility for the Holocaust.

Berkovits' main philosophical works were Towards Historic Judaism (1943), God, Man and History (1959), Jewish Critique of the Philosophy of Martin Buber (1962), Faith after the Holocaust (1973), Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism (1975), Crisis and Faith (1976). His last work was Jewish Women in Time and Torah (1990).

Berkovits' personality was of a piece with his work. He believed in telling the truth without regard to consequences. His chief characteristic was compassion for the underprivileged and oppressed. He showed this conspicuously during the Second World War, when he and his wife took charge of a number of refugee children, whom they brought up as their own.

A thinker of high stature and unbending courage, Eliezer Berkovits has made a lasting impression on the culture of the Jewish people.

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