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Eliezer Berkovitz


BERKOVITS, ELIEZER (1908–1992), theologian and Jewish philosopher. Berkovits was born in Oradea, Romania, in 1908. He received his rabbinical ordination in 1934 at the Berlin ("Hildesheimer") Rabbinical Seminary, where he studied under Rabbi Jehiel Jacob *Weinberg , (author of the Seridei Esh); as well as from the Mir yeshivah and the rabbinate of Hungary. In parallel, he earned a doctorate in philosophy at the Friedrich-Wilhelms (now Humboldt) University of Berlin, where he studied under Wolfgang Kohler, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. After escaping Germany in 1939, Berkovits served as a communal rabbi in Leeds, England (1940–46); Sydney, Australia (1946–50); and Boston, Massachusetts (1950–56). In 1958 he accepted the chair of the philosophy department at the Hebrew Theological Seminary in Skokie, Illinois, which he held until 1975. At that time, at the age of 67, Berkovits relocated to Jerusalem, where he lived and worked until his death. During his lifetime, Berkovits wrote 19 books and hundreds of essays and articles, covering every major area of Jewish philosophy.

Berkovits' philosophy of Judaism places a heavy focus on the role of man in history. In his view, classical Judaism, as embodied in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, presents a coherent critique of Western culture and its ideas about man – a critique which can be applied to the most pressing questions of modern life. Building on both his philosophical training and talmudic background, Berkovits saw the task of Jewish philosophy to "make Judaism a significant philosophy of life in the intellectual climate of our age … [and to] equip it with the truth of God in relationship to the vital issues of present-day human existence." Thus, in addition to his constructive philosophy of Judaism, his work includes explicit critiques, from a Jewish perspective, of many of the leading streams of thought in his time, including existentialism, radical theology, the 1960s drug culture, and situation ethics; of non-Jewish writers like Rudolf Otto and Arnold Toynbee, and of Jewish thinkers like Hermann *Cohen , Martin *Buber , and Franz *Rosenzweig .

Theology and the Holocaust

Berkovits' most important theological work appears in God, Man, and History (1959), which offers the central framework for his entire philosophy of Judaism. The essence of Judaism, he wrote, is found in the personal encounter of the prophet with God; it is through the memory of that encounter, no less than through rational speculation, that one understands the nature of God and his covenant. In this regard, he followed the tradition of the medieval thinkers *Saadiah Gaon and *Judah Halevi , and in modern times Samson Raphael *Hirsch , who viewed revelation as axiomatic to any philosophy of Judaism. He thus challenged the Maimonidean approach to divine attributes, for example, according to which it is reason alone that allows one to comprehend the Absolute; in Berkovits' view, memory of the encounter is primary and irreducible to reason. Reason can only help one describe the nature of God; however, it is only through the encounter that one discovers the central principle of Jewish religion – that God cares about the fate of humankind. "The foundation of religion is not the affirmation that God is, but that God is concerned with man and the world; that, having created this world, he has not abandoned it, leaving it to its own devices; that he cares about his creation." God created the universe with man as its capstone; man is endowed with the capacity to take responsibility for creation, and therefore is charged by God with a duty to care for the world and for human history. Berkovits quotes, in this regard, the statement in Genesis 2:15 that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden "to work it and to keep it." God's central concern for man is that he take responsibility for history, improving the world and caring for it. He developed these points further in his Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology (1969).

In our own time, the most significant theological question in this regard concerns the problem of evil, especially in the wake of the Holocaust. Berkovits treated this subject most extensively in his Faith After the Holocaust (1973) and With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps (1979). In these works, he offered a significant defense of the classical notion of the covenant, in the face of major theological opposition to it in modern Jewish writing, and established human responsibility as the focal point of any approach to dealing with the destruction of European Jewry. In this context, he also developed a highly critical view of the role that Christianity played in promulgating antisemitism in Europe throughout history, seeing this role as a significant antecedent to the Holocaust which cannot be discarded when considering the future of Jewish-Christian relations.

Morality and Halakhah

Berkovits' most developed statement on the nature of Jewish law appears in his Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halacha (1983). Whereas the main streams of Western morality focus on the intentions of the individual, Judaism, he argued, is concerned principally with the outcome of one's actions. For this reason, Jewish law developed over time, showing flexibility of its rules in light of their effects within communal life. Jewish law, while a system of rules, nonetheless is guided by a higher set of moral values which are themselves concerned with providing real-world fairness, stability, economic prosperity, and concern with the fate of the unfortunate. He developed these themes further in Crisis and Faith (1976), where he discussed the issues of conversion and Jewish sexuality; Jewish Women in Time and Torah (1992), which offers a modern reconsideration of the role of women in Judaism; and his three Hebrew-language halakhic treatises: Tenai be-Nisu'in u-ve-Get ("Conditionality in Marriage and Divorce," 1966), a controversial attempt to address the problem of *agunot , or refused divorce; as well as Halakhah: Koḥah Ve-Tafkidah ("Halakhah: Its Authority and Function," 1981), and Higayon ba-Halakhah ("Logic in Halakhah," 1986).

Nationhood and Zionism

Because of the nature of human morals, Berkovits wrote, it is not enough to hope for the improvement of humankind through the teaching of good principles of conduct. Rather, Judaism insists on the creation of a "holy nation," a people that dedicates itself to righteousness in every realm of its life, and which may thereby serve as an example for humankind. But to fulfill this mission, such a people requires sovereignty in its own land. "A people in control of its own life, capable of implementing Judaism by applying it to the whole of life, is a people in its own land. Judaism, as the religion of the deed, requires a people in its land." For this reason, the State of Israel represented for Berkovits not only the salvation of the Jews from the trials and horrors of exile, but an opportunity to apply Judaism in its fullest sense. Berkovits' developed his Zionist philosophy most thoroughly in Towards Historic Judaism (1943) as well as the final section of God, Man, and History. His critique of the modern Israeli reality in light of this ideal appears in Mashber ha-Yehadut bi-Medinat ha-Yehudim ("The Crisis of Judaism in the Jewish State," 1987).

Other Writings

Berkovits' doctoral dissertation, "Hume und Der Deismus"("Hume and Deism," 1933) examines the epistemological issues concerning revelation and natural religion in the thought of David Hume. In Was Ist Der Talmud? ("What is the Talmud?" 1938), he offered an introduction to the methods and aims of the oral tradition. Other significant works include Judaism: Fossil or Ferment? (1956), a book-length response to Arnold Toynbee's depiction of the Jews; Prayer (1962), a monograph on the uniqueness of prayer in Judaism; Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism (1974), in which he offered extensive critiques of the philosophies of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua *Heschel , and Mordecai *Kaplan ; and Unity in Judaism (1986), in which he called for the rediscovery of Jewish collective identity above denominational divisions. His collected sermons from the war period appear in Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (1945).

A collection of his major essays was published in 2002 (Shalem Press), titled Essential Essays on Judaism (ed. David Hazony), which includes a bibliography of his writings.

[David Hazony (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.