REVIEW: Faith and History

David Curwin Tradition Online | May 21, 2024

Eliezer Berkovits, Faith and History: Essays on Prayer, Exile, and Return (Maggid Books, 2024), 228 pages

Eliezer Berkovits, the rabbi, philosopher, and educator, wrote prolifically from the 1930s until close to his death in 1992. Best known for his books, primarily God, Man and History, Faith After the Holocaust, and Not in Heaven, he also penned dozens of essays, including many in TRADITION. Some were compiled into Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism (1975), and others were later collected in Essential Essays on Judaism (2002).

A new collection, Faith and History, ably edited by Zev Eleff, presents 11 lesser-known essays (aside from the curious inclusion of one chapter reprinted from God, Man and History). Written between 1943 to 1981, they cover diverse topics, from Jewish prayer to life in America and Israel.

The book opens with an introduction to Berkovits and his works, offering intriguing details sourced from document collections and newspaper archives. For instance, it highlights Berkovits’ fascination with Boston’s streetcars and railway stations upon his arrival in the United States in 1950. These details may seem trivial, but for Berkovits, who valued the religious significance of historical change, such technological advancements held importance.

The collection’s opening essay, “From Temple to Synagogue and Back” (available online here), was published in 1959, shortly after Berkovits relocated to Chicago. In it, he lambastes what he terms “Temple Judaism.” While this clearly points to the “temples” of Reform and Conservative Jews, it critiques American Jewish culture overall, including Orthodox Jews. He highlights the passive role of congregants during services, where rabbis and cantors led prayers, and criticizes newly adopted rituals:

Our temples, too, are the veritable breeding ground of new-fangled ceremonies and rituals. Never before have Jews indulged so intensely in candle lighting as they do today. A candle-lighting ceremony never lets you down (12).

Descriptions like these of mid-century American Jewish life, while perhaps anachronistic today, provide welcome color to a generally sober text. Berkovits criticizes these practices as “all solemn and symbolic but unrelated to real life and therefore superficial – a mere phantom” (13). This echoes his approach to halakha: it must be associated with life as lived to stay vibrant, and he attributes the attraction to ceremonies to a misinterpretation of the role of religion:

Psychologically our religious revival is to be a cure-all for our anxieties. Religion has become a substitute for the couch of the psychoanalyst. It is expected to give us peace of mind, to bring us happiness, to guarantee us good health, and to assure us of never-ending prosperity. This religion is not God-oriented but man-centered; man is not required to serve God, but God is meant to serve man (14).

Readers will likely notice a resemblance between this claim and the well-known “note 4” in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man. Both Berkovits and Soloveitchik operated in a similar Jewish milieu, and disdained this modern, Western approach to religion.

The most radical idea, however, in this essay regards the identification of the lowercase “temple” with “the Temple” (i.e, the Beit HaMikdash). Berkovits considers the move from the Temple to the synagogue as an improvement in religious practice, for now everyone – not only the priests – were active:

Of necessity, in Babylon prayer replaced the sacrifice. In its manifold consequences this development amounted to a major religious revolution. The sacrifice could only be offered by the priest; prayer was expected of everyone…. Every Jew now became actively associated with the religious service.… [I]n the Temple the divine service was mere ritual; in the synagogue it became a personalized religious endeavor…. The priestly caste, the professionals of religion, lost their central significance. Every Jew was called upon to pray and to read the Torah in the synagogue (4).

The notion that the inclusive nature of the synagogue signifies a progression from Temple rituals is unexpected. Those familiar with Berkovits’ acceptance of change within the halakhic process will be perhaps less surprised. Yet, even for them, given his endorsement of the State of Israel over Judaism’s condition in Galut, it’s odd to see him support a change representing an exilic development. Yet, Berkovits’ profound personal commitment to prayer was so fundamental that he wouldn’t relinquish it for either the temple or the Temple.

Berkovits’ emphasis on tefilla is evident in his 1962 essay “Prayer,” the longest piece in this collection. In the volume’s introduction, Eleff notes the irony that reviewers described Berkovits’s approach to prayer as “Heschelian,” considering Berkovits’ critique of Heschel in TRADITION two years later. (For a more recent discussion of Berkovits and Heschel, see my “Considering ‘God, Man and History’.”) Eleff comments: “Nonetheless, the comparison rings true. Both Berkovits and Heschel stressed the role of prayer to help the worshipper become more ‘God-ward’ or ‘God-centered’” (xvi).

Yet, I noticed several passages in “Prayer” that underscored the contrast between Berkovits and Heschel. In his TRADITION essay, Berkovits accuses Heschel of blurring the line between transcendent God and mortal humans. God’s transcendence presents a challenge for prayer as well. In “Prayer” he acknowledges that “From the philosophical point of view, it is…difficult to fathom how man, a finite being, may confront the Infinite or Absolute, as is purported to be the case in prayer” (17).

Prayer is equally challenging from a psychological level: “How then is prayer possible? If the distance from the Divine Presence is the stimulus of prayer…if the hiding of the face by God is responsible for the outpouring of the heart, how can one pray, since man must stand in God’s presence when he prays?” He finds an answer in the Talmudic statement: “He who prays should consider himself as if the Divine Presence were confronting him” (Sanhedrin 22a). The solution to this dilemma is found in the words “as if”:

In my opinion, the use of the phrase “as if” gives a succinct expression to the paradoxical nature of the praying attitude. Prayer takes its origin from a loss of intimacy with God, from the actual experience of God’s hidden face. How then can man, in the midst of his experience that God is hiding Himself from him…how can he step forward into the Divine Presence and ask for relief from the crushing experience of the non-Divine Presence? There is only one way of doing it: notwithstanding the negative personal experience, to turn to God as if He were present and to pour out one’s heart before Him for His “absence” (22).

God is indeed transcendent, but we need to pray “as if” He was immanent:

God is not present when man prays to Him; man may pray to Him because He is the always-present God. Out of the midst of the personal experience of God’s hidden face, one faces God as if His face were not hidden from one. It is, indeed, an as-if situation in relationship to one’s personal experience; but it is not a situation of make-believe, for God is indeed always present and near. The confrontation may not always be subjectively real, yet it is objectively true (23).

By describing the act of praying to God from a human standpoint, Berkovits avoids the theological difficulties posed by Heschel’s theory of “divine pathos.”

Heschel wasn’t the only contemporary Jewish thinker Berkovits engaged with in “Prayer.” In acknowledging the paradoxical fact that the “infinite is indeed unapproachable, but the Infinite approached man in the history of Judaism and invited man to approach Him” (26), he underscores the vital role of history within his theological framework. By noting that God approached man “in the history of Judaism,” Berkovits emphasizes the importance of historical events – in this case, revelation. He then cites the medieval sage most identified with this approach to history:

Yehuda HaLevi said of Judaism that it was begun by God, meaning that it was not a human discovery but a religion of revelation; it commenced with God’s self-revelation. So is prayer in Judaism not the original creation of man but made possible by God who lets us come near by being near us (23).

In the following sentence, he criticizes those who don’t attribute the historical event of revelation as the origin of prayer:

There is a temptation to compare revelation and prayer and to say that in revelation God addresses man, whereas in prayer man addresses God. One must overcome the temptation; it all begins with revelation. It is true that in revelation, God seeks man, and in prayer, man seeks God. However, man may seek God only because he knows that He may be found; and he knows that God may be found because he was first found by God.

This seems to be a rebuttal of a claim later made by Soloveitchik:

The difference between prayer and prophecy is, as I have already mentioned, related not to the substance of the dialogue but rather to the order in which it is conducted. While within the prophetic community, God takes the initiative—He speaks and man listens—in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man: he does the speaking and God, the listening. (The Lonely Man of Faith, 55)

Soloveitchik, in his writings, elevated halakha above the vicissitudes of historical circumstance. It appears that Berkovits is criticizing that approach. For Berkovits, all Jewish prayer stems from the singular historical event of revelation and couldn’t have emerged from the existential human need to pray, as Soloveitchik suggests. (To be clear, “Prayer” was published in 1962, and “The Lonely Man of Faith” wasn’t published until 1965. It seems to me Berkovits might have been engaging with something in the Jewish philosophical zeitgeist that Soloveitchik later formalized in his seminal essay.)

Another disagreement between Berkovits and Soloveitchik revolves around their understanding of voluntary prayer. Soloveitchik states that our prayers must rely upon the precedents established by the Sages and disapproves of voluntary prayer, stating that “we do not [now] pray it.” (see his “Ra’ayanot al ha-Tefilla,” in Ish HaHalakha, 246). Berkovits disagrees. Like Soloveitchik, he understands obligatory prayer as essential. But instead of rejecting voluntary prayer, he writes that it finds its legitimacy through its more fundamental, obligatory counterpart:

Far from abolishing it, tefillat hova, obligatory prayer, makes tefillat reshut, free prayer, acceptable. Once we give expression, through obligatory prayer, to man’s unceasing need to pray, the individual may lose himself freely in the spontaneity of occasion-conditioned praying (49).

And in turn, obligatory prayer emerges from the psychological need for voluntary prayer:

Prayer in its original free and personal form cannot be obligatory. No law can be imposed on the outpouring of the heart. The heart prays when and in the way it must because of its own inner necessity. But such praying has its problematic aspects. In order to remove them, it calls for obligatory prayer. Obligatory prayer emerges out of the inadequacies of spontaneous prayer (50).

R. Eliezer Berkovits

Berkovits describes prayer as “natural to religion as breathing is to all living things,” yet also acknowledges that “prayer is also religion’s most problematic child” (17). Why assume that God isn’t already aware of the desires expressed in prayer? How dare we tell God, or even request, what actions He should take? Isn’t the purest expression of faith simply trusting in Him? Continuing with the “as if” solution presented above, he redefines prayer to avoid these difficulties: “the root of prayer is neither informing God, nor asking Him; but, in intimate reliance on Him, making him the confidant of our heart” (39).

That “reliance on Him” through obligatory prayer expresses greater faith than specific requests:

In obligatory prayer, one does not start from a personal crisis situation; one begins with man’s essential nature, realizing that it is constituted in the fact that man is God’s creature. Free of the urgency of an immediate experience, in obligatory prayer one does not approach God with what life has done to one, but with the knowledge of what God means to man (53).

Once prayer is focused on God’s constant relationship with us, instead of how He responds to particular requests, our relationship with Him gains deeper significance: “We come before Him with our needs; but as we supplicate Him, we call on Him as if our needs had already been met” (55).

Although written decades ago, this strongly resonates today, amidst the difficult situation Israel and the Jewish people face. We’ve never prayed more, and yet feel that our specific prayers remain unanswered. In God’s “absence,” we turn to Him as if He were present. Our daily prayers affirm our faith that He remains the one who “listens to prayer”:

“For the Jew, man’s dependence on God means that at every moment he looks to the future with faith in God’s providence and to the past, with gratitude for it” (57).

In a passage seemingly written for our contemporary situation, Berkovits addresses the nature of prayer in a time of crisis. He quotes the brief prayer established for such emergencies: “Many are the needs of Your people Israel, but understanding they have little….” For Berkovits, this prayer encapsulates the mindset necessary in challenging times like ours:

Let us consider the implications of such a prayer. Whereas in the normal situation of daily existence, Jewish prayer articulates the needs of man in detail and asks for their fulfillment; in a situation of crisis, a Jew acknowledges in prayer his lack of understanding to know either what his needs are or in which way they could be best satisfied. When the danger is greatest, he leaves it all to God (99).

In “normal” times, our longer prayers remind us of our dependence on God for all our needs. In other occasions this is unnecessary:

But in a situation of actual crisis, one must pray differently. At such a moment, a man is overwhelmed by one specific need …When one finds oneself in acute danger, often one may not really know in what one’s true salvation lies. Thus, in the crisis prayer of Judaism, man acknowledges his lack of understanding and pleads that God may take it from him in accordance with divine insight. It is obviously not necessary to elaborate on the manifold needs of human existence; at a time of crisis, it is unlikely that man will easily forget that he is a dependent creature (100).

In this current crisis, many pray for a particular salvation, often hoping for a miracle. Yet Berkovits indicates that the crisis prayer points us in another direction:

“Especially in such situations, if we pray rightly, we do not pray for miracles but for God’s blessing. But the very nature of the situation is such that our wisdom is indeed inadequate to advise us unequivocally in what our good may consist” (101).

This is not easy. Our instinct is to advise God on the best solution to our problems, but Berkovits warns against it: “In our lack of vision and understanding we may be praying against ourselves.” Rather than dictating to God, by humbly petitioning Him to “Do for us what is good in Your eyes,” we preserve the essence of prayer as an affirmation of faith.

Berkovits describes the psychological advantage of such prayer:

In its original form, prayer … is not asking, but coming with one’s burden before God. It is like the child’s running to the mother because it hurts. It is not the bandage that the child seeks instinctively but the nearness of the mother, to unburden his heart to the one of whose love he is certain (37).

Today, this may be the most important role of prayer: allowing us to unburden our hearts to the One whose love is certain.

The subsequent essays deal with “exile and return,” and show a consistent perspective on both Galut and redemption. While these are common themes for all Zionist writers, what distinguishes Berkovits is his application of those concepts to the institution of halakha. For example, in 1943, he wrote:

In our plan for closing the gap between Torah and Life an all-important part must be assigned to the return of the Jewish nation to the Holy Land. A Jewish Eretz Yisrael is the only place where the great partnership between Torah and Life can be restored, without which Judaism is doomed (165).

Even then, in the midst of the Holocaust, when the future of world Jewry wasn’t guaranteed, Berkovits worried about the fate of the Torah. Yet he was confident that a Jewish state would be a refuge not only for Jews but for Judaism itself.

His emphasis on the importance of Jewish life in Israel persists in his 1955 essay, “The Galut of Judaism.” Despite residing comfortably in Boston, he acknowledges that although America offers unprecedented civil protections for Jews and “will never sink to the level of a Germany or Poland,” it remains Galut, as this status extends “beyond the realm of civic and political affairs” (135). Judaism and halakha cannot be confined to the four cubits of private life:

Precisely because Judaism is itself a complete civilization, its most favorable milieu is not the lap of another civilization … Whatever the individual Jew may think of his political status in any one country, outside the boundaries of an autonomous Jewish society Judaism is not at home … Outside Eretz Yisrael only a stultified and partially stunted Judaism is possible. The separation between Zion and Torah is a spiritual catastrophe (138).

Instead, halakha must shape society:

The unique significance of the Judaism of history has been that its purpose demanded application to public life as well as private life. Judaism outside Eretz Yisrael has no appropriate sphere of public application.… What has essentially been a religious civilization is thus stripped down to a not very exciting creed whose main function it is to be a sedative at moments of trouble and visitation; the original way of life, derived from the challenge to build this world as a Kingdom of God, is turned into a gadget for securing peace of mind for the individual (139).

This passage also echoes “note 4” in Halakhic Man, where Soloveitchik had asserted that “Religion is not…a refuge of grace and mercy…for crushed spirits.” However, while Soloveitchik offers a psychological interpretation of religion as “a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises,” Berkovits broadens it to critique the serenity Jews seek outside of Israel.

Berkovits’ vision of a halakhic renaissance in Israel continued after arriving in 1976. However, much of his optimism waned after seeing Israeli society squandering this opportunity. For example, in his 1979 essay, “Identity Problems in the State of Israel,” he criticizes secular Israeli society: “The spiritual and value vacuum caused by a Zionism without Judaism has been filled by a crude Levantinism and a vulgar imitation of the cheapest forms of American materialism” (197).

This condition stems from a lack of appreciation of history, without which the entire Zionist effort is called into question:

If one is an Israeli outside of the historic continuity of the Jewish people and of Judaism, a people without a past, without Jewish ideals, cut off from anchorage in the historic culture and tradition of Judaism, separated from the source of its creativity, then, indeed, what is Israel for? (198).

His criticism extends beyond the secular to those purporting to represent Torah in Israel:

One may be extremely critical of Israeli secularism, as obviously this writer is, and yet realize – with an aching heart – that this rabbinate, these teachers of the Torah, these guardians seldom command one’s respect. On the whole but for a very few exceptions, they are incapable of conveying the meaning and relevance of Judaism to the people in the context of this completely new reality of statehood (199).

The solution is to revitalize halakha to constructively shape the Jewish State:

This is the meaning of the uniqueness of Torat Eretz Yisrael.… The galut attitude of defense is no longer valid. One has to go out and meet this new challenge and show how this new Jewish reality is to be structured meaningfully and effectively by the creative power of halakha. One has to leave the ramparts built around the “private domain” of the congregation, the Jewish school, or the home in galut and restore halakha to its original function as a pathway for the “public domain,” for the life of the Jewish people in a Jewish state. To mention just a few areas: halakha in the State of Israel ought to concern itself with the social gap, with questions of economic honesty and fairness, with issues of the work ethos and problems of labor relations, with medical ethics, even with such matters as meaningful driving laws in the cities and on the highways (203).

Speculating on how Berkovits would view life in Israel today may be futile. Nevertheless, one wonders if he’d be more disappointed with the state of Judaism in Israel today, or perhaps encouraged by the emergent rapprochement between secular and religious Jews (if not the politicians).

Perhaps the most curious essay in the collection is entitled “The Sounds of the Modern Jewish Neighborhood.” Written in 1958, he describes walking through a Jewish neighborhood, and observes an old man, learning from “what was undoubtedly a ‘sefer’ from the traditional literature of Judaism” (149). Near the man were younger members of his family. Instead of learning from a sefer, they were reading newspapers. Both read in silence, but these were two different experiences:

The silence about the old man had a dignity of its own; it meant thinking and contemplation…. It was a most eloquent silence, for if one listened carefully one could hear it say: There is so much to think about, so much one ought to endeavor to understand. And it is good to sit and think and to ponder on what others before us, saints, prophets, and teachers thought and taught (150).

But the younger group had

just finished their evening meal and it was too early yet either for their favorite TV program or for the show they were planning to see that night. What could one do at such a moment between work and entertainment? To converse? To think? Perhaps to read a book? About what?… The children’s silence spoke of boredom and mental exhaustion (151).

Berkovits ends the essay by wistfully comparing the sefer and the newspapers:

The newspapers that the younger group read were thrown away the next morning; the book in the hands of the old man was read and treasured by many generations in the past. The old man will put the book away for tomorrow and the next day and for the day after that. But one day “Zaide” will no longer be sitting on the porch. What will then happen to the book? Will there be only one silence left – the silence of irrelevance, grazing over the very latest nickel-wisdom of a soon-forgotten evening paper?

When Berkovits shared this anecdote, he had decades of prolific writing ahead. Yet, to me, the story’s tone suggests concerns about his lasting relevance: were his writings like the discarded newspapers or the enduring sefer?

Initially, following Berkovits’ passing, the answer to that question was unclear. His pleas for a deeper appreciation of history in Jewish life and halakha were often ignored. However, with the recent reissuing of his books and essays, his legacy is far more secure. As the Jewish people, and in particular Israeli society, grapple with new challenges and opportunities, Berkovits’ meticulously articulated ideas stand ready to aid with those efforts. This latest compilation of essays contributes much to that cause.

David Curwin writes about the origins of Hebrew words on his Balashon Blog, and about Jewish thought in TRADITION and elsewhere. His first book, Kohelet: A Map to Eden was published in 2023.

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