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Torah and Rationalism: Understanding the Torah and the Mesorah

Torah & Rationalism: Understanding Torah and the Mesorah
by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Chaim HaLevi Zimmerman [edited by Moshe Avraham Landy] (Feldheim, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

For the uninitiated, Rabbi Aharon Chaim Zimmerman is known as an eccentric Rosh Yeshiva and Jewish intellectual who flourished in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbi Zimmerman was born in 1914 into an illustrious rabbinic family, as he was a nephew of Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz (1862-1939)—the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Kaminetz and author of Birkas Shmuel. As a young teenager, Rabbi Zimmerman, already recognized as a prodigy, was sent to study under his venerated uncle. Afterwards, he studied under Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik (1879-1941) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, where he received rabbinic ordination in 1939. At the tender age of 24, Rabbi Zimmerman became the youngest member of the RCA. He was later tapped to serve as Rosh Yeshiva of the Hebrew Theological College (Skokie Yeshiva) in Chicago until his controversial dismissal in 1964. Subsequently, Rabbi Zimmerman served as Rosh Yeshiva in various other institutes, finally making Aliyah in 1972 and opening a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Zimmerman passed away in 1995, but his student Moshe Landy undertook to print some of his Rebbe's unpublished works posthumously.

Rabbi Zimmerman penned numerous books and monographs, both in English and Hebrew, on various intricate topics—mostly relating to Halacha and Jewish Philosophy. Many of his Hebrew articles were published in the scholarly rabbinic journal HaPardes (originally edited by Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Pardes, and, from 1947, by Rabbi Simcha Elberg). Most of those articles concern various minutiae in the Halachos regarding ritual sacrifices and related laws of ritual purity/impurity. Rabbi Zimmerman also famously penned an important work entitled Agan HaSahar concerning the placement of the international dateline in Halacha. He also wrote extensively about Zionism and how the ideal Jewish State should be structured. Many of Rabbi Zimmerman's English essay were originally published in the Jewish Press and were later culled together and republished as complete books.

Besides Rabbi Zimmerman's prowess in Torah Studies and Halacha, he was also quite well-versed in the sciences, including advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Dr. Harry Maryles relates that it was said about Rabbi Zimmerman that he understood quantum theory as well as Niels Bohr did at a time when most of the scientific community had barely even heard of it yet! Nonetheless, this eclectic Torah Scholar focused his energies and devotion to Torah Studies, and viewed that discipline as the most important of all.

This newly-published book represents only a small part of the greater edifice that makes up Rabbi Zimmerman's approach to Jewish theology/philosophy. The basic premise of this book is that Halacha and Talmudic study are built on a precise logical system, which is akin to the systems of reasoning behind any of the hard sciences, like mathematics. Rabbi Zimmerman offers a thorough epistemological defense of this staunchly traditionalist view, buttressing his arguments with philosophical terms and ideas.

As mentioned above, Rabbi Zimmerman was quite at home when discussing philosophy. In this book, he cites such classical philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Machiavelli to bolster his assertions, while he also references later philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, and even Ayn Rand.

Another recurrent theme in Rabbi Zimmerman's new book concerns the idea of insiders versus outsiders. In fact, Rabbi Zimmerman treats this idea at greater length in two of his previous books, Torah and Reason (1979) and Torah and Existence (1986). This aspect of Rabbi Zimmerman's weltanschauung maintains that the true study of Torah must follow the time-tested traditional methodology of the mesorah, and Torah content can only be assessed through that internal logic. He makes the point that just as other disciplines can only be understood from within their own ontological system, so can Torah only be truly understood by the insider.

To illustrate this point, Rabbi Zimmerman draws an analogy in which he cites the following anecdote: Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky once proclaimed that as intelligent as Albert Einstein might be, he cannot understand the situation of the Jewish people "unless he understands two languages that are read from right to left—Hebrew and Yiddish." In the same way, Rabbi Zimmerman argued, one who is an outsider to the notion of Torah Study and has not been initiated in its inner logic/methodology cannot grasp the ideas and concepts discussed therein.

The brunt of Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman's criticism is levelled against people in the mold of Heinrich Graetz, Leo Strauss, and Gershom Scholem. He polemicizes against these Jewish scholars for imposing their own "manmade" framework on the Torah's Divine structure, and then framing the Halacha and Jewish tradition through subjective considerations rooted in history, politics, sociology, and the like. Rabbi Zimmerman reserves his harshest condemnations for Levi (Louis) Ginzberg, one of the founders of Conservative Judaism. In fact, a 40-page section of this book is devoted to outing Ginzberg as a plagiarizer and falsifier.

In this work, Rabbi Zimmerman argues time and again how these outsiders and others like them misunderstood the original intent of the traditional rabbinic authorities and misconstrue their words to fit with their own preconceived (biased) notions. Such Jewish scholars often attribute Halachic rulings or positions to the machinations of political/social engineering, instead of to the learned conclusions of applying a traditional methodology of study.

This book, like most of Rabbi Zimmerman's previous books, is actually a sort of apologetic defense of traditional Judaism. The drawback of his style is that he often makes very strongly-worded assertions without actually backing them up. In this reviewer's opinion, the entire book feels like it consists of off-the-cuff remarks that Rabbi Zimmerman made without meaning to actually get into the topics he broaches. It sometimes feels as if Rabbi Zimmerman could have written an entire chapter to explain just one single sentence in this book. The reader must bear in mind that Rabb Zimmerman did not originally prepare these essays with the intention to create the book at hand, so the ambiguities and vagueness are more the editor’s doing than the author’s.

Furthermore, in this book, Rabbi Zimmerman makes many general, sweeping statements, without going into more detail about how they play out and what exactly he means, or what examples of those ideas we can find. For example, in several chapters throughout this book, Rabbi Zimmerman variously claims that many parts of the Aggadah, Kabbalah, and Rambam's philosophy are all just meshalim (parables), but he fails to tell us what the nimshal is. This comes from Rabbi Zimmerman’s aversion to spoon-feeding his readers/students with information. He instead tries to make certain points, but leaves the reader to do the “leg work” and work out the exact details. In this way, the assertions he makes are really just starting points from which the reader can begin his own personal exploration and intellectual inquiry into the subject matter.

This reviewer feels that if Rabbi Zimmerman would have buttressed his name-dropping and supped-up appeals to authority with more substantial arguments to prove his points, then this book could be an important guide to understanding Judaism from the inside. Similarly, if this book would have provided more examples of how the Halacha is based on a logical system instead of having us take his word for it, it could have a far greater impact.

In this reviewer's final assessment, Rabbi Zimmerman's new book is a great introduction to some of the sophisticated ideas behind traditional Judaism, and how it ranks knowledge/rational thought. The editor of this work graciously took the time to locate and provide us with footnotes that contain the exact Hebrew text for most of the sources that Rabbi Zimmerman quotes (as well as Hebrew excurses probably deemed too provocative for the English reader). Indeed, Rabbi Landy prepared for publication another small part of Rabbi Zimmerman's greater overarching philosophy, and we hope to see more of his unpublished writings see light in the future.


For other reviews of this work that take a different approach, see:

Crossing the Dateline


Crossing the Dateline [3 Volumes] by Rabbi Mordechai Kuber (Mosaica Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this monumental work, Rabbi Mordechai Kuber gives the topic of the Halachic dateline the extensive and sophisticated treatment that it deserves. He holds the reader's hand through this intricate topic and puts down the complex discussion into plain English. Throughout this book's three volumes, the reader constantly feels like Rabbi Kuber is talking directly to him (his subtle humor is even there, if you look hard enough for it). In a nutshell, this book discusses if and where the Halachic dateline that divides the world might lie, and what the different Halachic ramifications of crossing that dateline might be.

In general, repetitiveness in a work of writing is not usually considered good form, but in a complicated work like this, Rabbi Kuber skillfully uses repetitiveness to make sure the reader is still following along as his discussion becoming increasingly more complex. This work is not as meticulous in citing its exact sources as one might expect of a master educator like Rabbi Kuber, but this was probably done deliberately to keep the focus on the ideas/arguments proffered, rather than on the rabbinic personalities who took those positions.

Throughout his work—and particularly in Volume I—Rabbi Kuber goes out of his way to explain, and even justify opinions with which he himself clearly disagrees. This act of integrity demonstrates true intellectual honesty on Rabbi Kuber's part, and is somewhat of a departure of the more polemical nature of other works written on this controversial topic.

The first volume of Rabbi Kuber's trilogy offers an overview of the historical circumstances that first led to the question of where in the world to place the Halachic dateline. He surveys the various opinions and gives the requisite background information in terms of how the Halachic process works and what the relevant sources say. Rabbi Kuber then carefully considers how a person should treat such places as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, and Hawaii. When all is said and done, this reviewer counted more than ten different opinions on where the Halachic dateline ought to be placed—all of which are thoroughly considered in this volume of Rabbi Kuber's work. Although the nature of this analysis sometimes borders on the technical and tedious, it remains a gratifying read and an intellectually stimulating study.

A large chunk of this volume is dedicated to elucidating various ways of explaining a somewhat obscure Talmudic passage concerning the sanctification of the new moon. The explanations of the different commentators to that passage bear direct relevance to the question of the Halachic dateline and where it ought to be. Rabbi Kuber also presents a fairly lengthy chapter on the opinion of the Radvaz, who would seem to reject the notion of a Halachic dateline entirely and instead endorses a "personalized" way of determining the day of the week when in doubt.

In Volume II of his work, Rabbi Kuber brackets out talk of where the Halachic dateline might be, and focuses on the practical ramifications of its existence. He begins with a lengthy study on the Halachic consequences of crossing the dateline to or from a zone in which it is either Shabbos or a holiday. In practice, this can happen if one is vacationing on a cruise that crosses certain parts of the Pacific Ocean or travels in an airplane across the Pacific. Rabbi Kuber discusses which commandments/prohibitions of those sacred times must be observed and how to observe them.

In this volume, Rabbi Kuber considers such questions as whether Shabbos can start or end in the middle of a day (instead of at sunset) for such a traveler, and what prayers must be repeated if experiencing a given calendar day twice.

Rabbi Kuber offers practical guidance about eating (e.g., if/when one should recite Kiddush/Havdalah when crossing the dateline, under what circumstances is a traveler obligated to break bread on two loaves, and in what cases is there an obligation to eat three meals on Shabbos) and fasting when travelling from one day to another. This volume also explains how travelling across the dateline in either direction might affect one's observance of Purim and Chanukah, as well as Hilchos Niddah. That said, the most relevant discussion in this volume centers on one's obligations to pray and how crossing the dateline into tomorrow or yesterday might affect those obligations.

This volume ends with a 50-page quick reference guide (including charts) that summarizes the relevant Halachos for one crossing the dateline. This reviewer suggests that the summaries and quick reference sections of Rabbi Kuber's multi-volume work ought to be published as a stand-alone "idiot's guide" to the topic, without needing to get into all of the intricate Halachic analysis that drove Rabbi Kuber to the conclusions he makes.

The third volume of Rabbi Kuber’s magnum opus divides into two parts. In the first part, Rabbi Kuber returns to the question of where the Halachic dateline ought to be that he discussed in Volume I and uses the uncertainties discussed there to paint a picture of how that question bears on the issues discussed in Volume II. Using time-tested Halachic principles like being stringent with Biblical prohibitions and lenient with Rabbinic prohibitions, this volume offers practical guidelines for dealing with the various Halachic uncertainties concerning prayers, Shabbos/holiday observance, Sefiras HaOmer, and more. One interesting point that comes up multiple times in this discussion is that an individual's day of the week might not necessarily line up with his or her day of the month.

The third volume then presents several essays on topics that are somewhat tangential to the book’s core discussion, but which remain nonetheless related. These discussions are of a more scientific/technical nature, and discuss things like the time of the molad (new moon) and bein ha'shmashos (twilight), as well as Halachic guidance for someone flying above the arctic circle and an astronaut in outer space. This last volume is rounded off with a glossary of terms in Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish that appear in the book, a bibliography of the works cited, and short biographical sketches of all the authorities invoked.

As with the previous two volumes, a user-friendly index at the end of this volume helps tame the unwieldly behemoth.

Rabbi Kuber's vast knowledge and experience in the field of Halacha certainly qualifies him to offer his learned opinion on even the most complex topics—and he does not shy away from doing so. Yet, his personal humility and transparency shine through from his analysis and conclusions.

This wonderful book touches on all sorts of fields. Obviously, Rabbi Kuber's discussions heavily draw on geography (using customized Google Maps to reify the discussions), but also in engage in theoretical/practical Halacha, the philosophy of Halacha, some Lomdus, some astronomy, some mathematics, and even some history (see his discussions of Ptolemy's map of the inhabited world). If you enjoy such intellectual compilations and want to wet your feet in those topics, then this book is for you. If you were ever interested in the topic of the Halachic dateline but did not know where to start, then this book is for you. And certainly, if you ever travel to the area between California and China, then this book is a must-have.

A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious

A Jewish Guide to the Mysterious by Rabbi Pinchas Taylor (Mosaica Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This intriguing and well-sourced book is quite an impressive resource for anyone looking to know more about the Jewish point of view on various supernatural phenomena. It is comprised of sixteen chapters that touch on such esoteric topics as dreams, reincarnation, astrology, aliens, magic, and the afterlife. Rabbi Taylor is not out to prove the veracity of New Age ideas or paranormal curiosities, but rather to show in an intelligent way how those phenomena are treated in traditional Jewish sources.

Rabbi Taylor does this by drawing from a wellspring of wide-ranging Jewish sources. Needless to say, he cites the pertinent sources in important Jewish works like the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrashim, and the various Rishonim. Of course, as you would expect, this book heavily cites from the Zohar and from the writings of the Arizal's prime student, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620). But the author also brings ideas from some less-known Kabbalists, such as Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Del Medigo (1591–1655), Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (1604–1657), Rabbi Yosef Ergas (1685–1730), and Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz (1765–1821). Rabbi Taylor even shows his familiarity with ideas from various contemporary rabbinic figures including Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, and other controversial Jewish scholars like Gershon Scholem, Alan Brill, and Shmuly Yanklowitz.

As a Chabad Rabbi (he has a shul in Florida), Rabbi Taylor’s insights put a special emphasis on the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition, elaborating on the relevant teachings of the various Rebbes spanning from the Baal Shem Tov to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994). Rabbi Taylor touches on other Hassidic schools of thought, as well, sharing with us several insights from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810) and Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin (1823–1900). He also draws on the Lithuanian (“Misnagid”) tradition in citing from Rav Dessler, Rav Kook, and the Brisker Rav, as well as the Sephardic tradition, personified by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835–1909) and his student Rabbi Yehuda Fatiya (1859–1942).

Before seguing to what the Jewish sources have to say on each topic, Rabbi Taylor usually opens his discussions with a fascinating collection of popular and academic sources about the phenomena he describes. Some of these accounts are peppered with powerful anecdotes (like his chapters on near death experiences and on reincarnation). In other cases, the author provides the reader with some of the requisite scientific background needed to proper analyze the topics into which he delves.

For example, his discussions about dreams provide many insights into psychology and questions about consciousness, while his chapter on astrology is loaded with information about astronomy and cosmology as well. In fact, this book is not just about supernatural phenomena, but is also a study on how the great rabbinic scholars throughout the generations have approached science and scientific inquiry (e.g., see the elaborate footnote documenting how the different rabbis weighed in on Copernicus' theory of heliocentrism).

The author discusses these various Jewish esoteric traditions in a comprehensive and sophisticated way. For the sake of intellectual honesty, he even brings differing so-called “rationalist,” or Maimonidean, positions that reject the existence of demons, the influence of astrological energies, and the efficacy of magic.  Rabbi Taylor outlines the reasons why one might be skeptical about some of these phenomena and cites scholarly literature that tries to address the issues that skeptics have raised.

Throughout this fascinating book, Rabbi Taylor teaches us about the occult and the mystical. He provides relevant historical tidbits that make his discussions come alive. His ability to research and explain to us everything there is to know about such creatures as the Golem, extraterrestrial aliens, angels, ghosts, and evil spirits is very thorough and quite remarkable. He also explores the significance of such geographical anomalies as Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle, while considering the possibility of a physical location for the Garden of Eden.

From a theological perspective, Rabbi Taylor’s book is quite inspiring and enlightening as well. When discussing things like the soul, the astral self, and ESP, Rabbi Taylor reminds us that there is more to existence than that which can be perceived by our five senses. Moreover, he makes a point of stressing man’s free will and the responsibilities that come with it (and showing how this does not conflict with, say, the belief in astrology). He teaches us how the misuse of magic for selfish purposes is the hallmark of the dark arts, while the true mystic only harnesses the power of holiness for selfless goals.

Despite the ostensibly speculative — and thus, controversial — nature of such a study, Rabbi Taylor does not push the envelop in endorsing fringe ideas or conspiracy theories. His book boasts impressive rabbinic approbations from many prominent mainstream Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbanim, and Dayanim. Among those are letters from Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz, Rabbi Zev Leff, and Rabbi Yechezkel Weinfeld. That alone should rouse you to get your hands on this wonderfully-captivating book; plus, you get to learn about all sorts of mysterious and marvelous things.