REVIEW: Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought

Jeffrey R. Woolf Tradition Online | May 7, 2023

Hillel Goldberg, Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought: From the Holocaust to Halakhah and Beyond (Ktav), 320 pages

It is a remarkable fact that many of the formative figures of Jewish intellectual history created eternal classics of Jewish literature outside of the usual frameworks of Torah creativity—off the beaten path (as it were). An obvious example is the Rambam, who transformed Judaism while working in splendid isolation, far from major centers of scholarship. Other examples might be R. Zerahia Ha-Levi of Gerona, R. Abraham ben David of Posquières, R. Hayyim Palachi, R. Aryeh Leib HaKohen, and R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk. All of these individuals produced pioneering works whose impact stood in sharp contrast to the modest circumstances that generated them. Indeed, it has long occurred to me that the creative impulse that manifested itself in these works is predicated upon their having been brought into being outside of the usual channels.

While I am sure that he will object vociferously to being mentioned in such august company, Hillel Goldberg’s new book is a good example of the same phenomenon. While he acquired the requisite tools of Torah and general scholarship in first-rate institutions, he developed and applied those tools from his somewhat distant perch (both geographically and professionally) in Denver, where he publishes and edits The Inter-Mountain Jewish News. Working, thinking, and researching at a distance from the pressures and limitations of standard (and standardized) academic and yeshiva discourse, allowed the author the opportunity to address a wide and impressive range of subjects, frequently from a unique and creative point of departure. Each of the studies presented in his new collection, Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought, is a gem characterized by breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, alongside passionate involvement in the subject and professional precision of analysis. At the same time, he enlists his talents as a journalist in making his discussions understandable to the intelligent layperson, without sacrificing a whit of the sophistication and integrity of his presentation.

The scope of these presentations is impressive. They range from theology (God’s Oneness) to Holocaust theology; from Biblical exegesis to the questions of Divine foreknowledge to the philosophy of halakha. One essay, “Philosophy of Halakhah: The Prism of Mikveh,” is worthy of special note as it is predicated upon Goldberg’s impressive commentary on the Bi’ur HaGra on the laws of mikve. The implicit message of that intersection is one that most readers of TRADITION will, I assume, appreciate. To wit, in order to presume to discuss the philosophy of halakha, one first needs to know how to do the “heavy lifting” of in-depth Talmudic study and analysis.

As a scholar of the nineteenth-century Musar Movement (Goldberg is actually one of the first to address the movement academically), he treats us to a discussion of the intersection of psychology and Musar, on the one hand, and to a taxonomy of aspects of the movement’s literature, on the other. He closes with two biographical pieces: an appreciation of R. Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook zt”l (cast as a review of Yehudah Mirsky’s already classic study of Rav Kook) and an initially enigmatic chapter entitled “He.” In actuality, that essay is a supple and sensitive, careful yet critical appreciation of the late Rabbi Professor Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky zt”l , Littauer Professor of Jewish History and Literature at Harvard and Talner Rebbe of Brookline. The chapter itself is very evocative for those who knew Prof. Twersky (and a fortiori for those who studied under him, such as the author of this review). However, already in the introduction, Goldberg highlighted his conviction that Prof. Twersky “was, perhaps, the most fascinating Jewish scholar in the past century” (xvi).

The unifying characteristics of Twersky’s oeuvre were independence of mind, breadth of vision, and the conviction that, sensitively undertaken, academic Jewish studies could be enlisted to enrich the world of Torah. In addition, and more saliently, Twersky believed emphatically in the vertical continuity of Jewish intellectual history and maintained an unfailing conviction as to the unity of all knowledge (a trait he found most prominently in Maimonides).

These traits, alongside Goldberg’s marked creative bent assisted by clarity of exposition, consistently characterize the essays herein contained.

Consider the first essay in the collection: “Holocaust Theology: The Survivors’ Statement” (3-35). The chapter opens with a description of the unprecedented gathering of Holocaust survivors that took place in Jerusalem in June 1981. While describing vignettes from those few days, Goldberg starts the process of eliciting attitudes and judgments, beliefs and denials of belief expressed by the survivors, both explicitly and implicitly. He does so out of the stated conviction, and in contrast to the opinions of professional theologians, that the beliefs and attitudes of the survivors must take their place among the basic materials from which a response to the black hole known as the Shoah might be fashioned (as impossible and inadequate as it may seem). Thus, in this first stage, Goldberg expands the borders of the sources of Jewish theology and history, by casting a wide and more inclusive net. In so doing, he is both breaking out of an academic mold, and returning to a classic Jewish mode of approaching the Jewish historical experience: a return to the Crusader chronicles and elegies, the expositions of the expellees from Spain, and the memories of the survivors of the ravages of Chmielnicki and his Cossack hordes.

The author categorizes, classifies, and characterizes the data he has elicited. Then, in a move that is very much in the tradition of Twersky, he seeks ideational points of contact between them and between themes and sources in Rabbinic literature and history. The adoption of a longue durée approach, that emphasizes the continuities of Jewish thought and experience, alongside its inevitable discontinuities, amounts to a striking example of creative traditionalism, on the one hand, and challenging, independent thinking, on the other.

This is but one of the many, multi-variegated studies herein contained; studies that belong not only on the shelves of a university library, on the walls of a beit midrash, and at the seat of the worshipper/student in the synagogue.

Prof. Jeffrey R. Woolf taught for thirty years in the Talmud Department of Bar Ilan University.

Hillel Goldberg is a long-time member of TRADITION’s editorial board. Some of the essays in Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought were originally published in our pages, and can be sampled along with his many other contributions in our archive.


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