Eliezer Berkovits

by  Harry Maryles (Emes Ve-Emunah)

The Man I Knew - Dr. Eliezer Berkovits

I was just informed that Rav Hershel Shachter has said the Dr. Berkovits should not be considered Orthodox. I don’t know what he bases it on. But to the best of my knowledge, I do not believe that is an accurate statement about him.

I have said many times that I was a student of his and learned much from him. But I have also stated that my primary mentor is Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik (Rav Ahron). By the end of Rav Ahron’s tenure at the Hebrew Theological College (HTC) they were on opposite sides of the fence. That’s putting it mildly. But I have learned from both of them and respected Dr. Berkovits tremendously even though I sided with R’ Ahron on all issues in contention between them.

Who was Dr. Berkovits? There are many people who have done in depth studies of him and can answer that question a lot better than I can. But I will give my impression based on my own memory of interactions I had with him. No matter how much one studies a giant, personal memories can add a great deal to understanding them.

I call him Dr. because that is how he preferred it when I knew him. But Dr. Berkovits had more than one Semicha. One from distinguished right wing Roshei Yeshiva and one from the Hildesheimer Seminary (if I remember correctly). And he had a PhD in philosophy from the University of Berlin. He is also credited with rescuing the manuscripts of his primary mentor the S’ridei Eish. He in fact wrote a beautiful eulogy upon the S’ridei Eish’s passing in Tradition magazine back in 1966.

When I arrived at HTC he was already there. And he was already controversial.

HTC was under the direction of its president, Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman. The unofficial Rosh HaYeshiva at the time, Rabbi Dr. Chaim Zimmerman. Rabbi Fasman retired after my first year at HTC and was replaced by Rabbi Dr. Simon G. Kramer. Rabbi Kramer promptly fired Rabbi Zimmerman after an incident between him and Dr. Berkovits. He then succeeded in persuading R’ Ahron to become the official Rosh HaYeshiva. This was at first enthusiastically supported by Dr. Berkovits. But that support did not last long.

One of R’ Ahron’s primary goals was to eradicate the Traditional movement. This was a movement that allowed Orthodox Shuls to remove Mechitzos. All Poskim but one, Rav Chaim Dovid Regensberg, were opposed to this. That included the Rav and of course R’ Ahron. That was one of the main points of contention between Rav Ahron and Dr. Berkovits. R’ Ahron set up several barriers Traditional Shuls immediately upon his assuming the position of Rosh HaYeshiva. In the process he alienated many Traditional rabbis (who relied on R’ Regensberg’s Heter) but who may have otherwise been Rav Ahron’s natural allies.

Rav Regensberg allowed Orthodox Rabbis to take non Mechitza Shuls - provided that they remain Orthodox in every other way. He told these rabbis to try and get these Shuls to install Mechitzos – but that in the meantime they would keep its members in the Orthodox fold and would be able to influence many of their children to attend Orthodox religious day schools and high schools.

That indeed did happen. In fact once in the Orthodox educational system - most of those kids refused to Daven with their parents and Davened in places like Bnei Akiva instead. When they got older many created their own Mechitza Minyanim in the basements of Traditional Shuls.

Dr. Berkovits felt that the ‘R’ Regensberg heter was not only valid, but that Orthodox rabbis had a religious obligation - a chiuv - to take them in order to keep its members on the Orthodox track as much as possible.

Dr. Berkovits never personally Davened in a non Mechitza Shul himslef. He in fact was the founder of the first Mechitza Minyan in Skokie in the basement of a Traditional Shul. That was the precursor to the current Or Torah – a huge Modern Orthodox Shul in Skokie.

Dr. Berkovits was controversial to be sure. But he had never espoused violating Halacha in any way. Nor did he espouse any sort of heretical thought as far as I know.

One of his biggest ‘offenses’ - if you can call it that - was his strong support of the Traditional Movement. But there were other things about him that were perhaps even more controversial. His solution for Agunos was one such controversy. Briefly and without getting into details he wanted to help irradicate the terrible situation of Agunos - women who were unable to get remarried because of their husbands refusing to grant them a religious divoirce – a Get.

Dr. Berkovits wanted to use a legal loophole that seemed perfectly valid. He approached Rav Moshe Feinstein who conceded to him that at face value it would seem to work but that we could not use it today because its simplicity was so obvious that our sages – Chazal were certainly aware of it and never mentioned it as an option. That enraged him and led to his very strong belief that there is no such thing as a Gadol today.

When I asked him about R’ Moshe he answered (and this is an almost verbatim quote) If he’s a Gadol then so am I.

Rav Mordechai Gifter - then Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe - had publicly accused Dr. Berkovits of being an Apikores. I asked Dr. Berkovits about it and he told me that the accusation was based on a complete misunderstanding of what he said. He was accused of saying that one must ‘adapt’ the Torah to modernity. He never said that. What he did say is that one must ‘apply’ the Torah to modernity. Big difference. I think that may have eventually generated his book Lo BaShmayim He. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I am not sure that they qualify as heresy.

The was only one other controversial statement I heard from him personally. It was about the State of Israel made right after the 'Six Day War'. He was firm believer that the creation of the State of Israel was the beginning of our redemption - the Aschalta D’Geula. He felt so strongly about it that if Israel were God forbid ever destroyed it would shake the foundations of his belief. If memory serves I heard him say it at a gathering of Frum College students.

So I disagree with Rav Hershel Shachter. To the best of my knowledge Dr. Berkovits never crossed any heretical theological lines. He was an Ohaiv Yisroel and tried mightily to change things for the better within Halacha and Hashkafa as he understood it. And though I disagreed with some of his positions I value his intellect and his many contributions to Jewish thought.

Pushing the Envelope of Orthodoxy

Back in the mid fifties to early sixties - there was another Orthodox movement that faced ‘spirit of the times’ issues. The ‘melting pot’ philosophy was still very strong and many Orthodox Shuls wanted to drop the Mechitza. But they still wanted to remain Orthodox in every other sense. Traditional Judaism was born. This was a movement within Orthodoxy that was in every respect Orthodox except that there were no Mechitzos in the Shuls.

It was created with the backing of HaGoan HaRav Chaim David Regensberg, a Rosh Yeshiva at the Hebrew Theological College (HTC) in Skokie. He was a huge Talmid Chacham of the old Lithuanian guard. Interestingly Rav Regensberg’s views were embraced by another giant at HTC, Dr. Eliezer Berkovits. He completely agreed with Rav Regensberg’s reasoning. It should also be noted that Dr. Berkovits never himself davened in a Traditional Shul. In fact he is credited with forming the first Mechitza Minyan in Skokie. That Minyan eventually became the largest Orthodox Shul in Skokie, Or Torah.

Gay Marriage - Does Orthodoxy Go Too Far?

Professor Gottlieb argues that gay marriage will eventually have the same fate among Jewry that slavery did. Just as Slavery is now seen in very negative terms, so too will opposition to same sex marriage be seen. He cites the argument often used by the Conservative movement to justify radical changes in Halacha to explain why.  They speak of Judaism as a “living, developing tradition”.  If the spirit of the times demands change, the Torah can be adapted to fit it.

I recall Dr. Eliezer Berkovits’s anger when he was called an Apikores (a heretic) having been accused of having exactly this attitude by various Gedolim who had read his works.  He told me in no uncertain terms that it was absolutely untrue. He said that his views had been misquoted and misunderstood. What he had really said was that the Torah should be applied to the spirit of the times, not adapted. Big difference.

The Torah is not malleable. When it says something is unconditionally forbidden, it is forbidden and stays forbidden. No amount of convoluted reinterpretation of a clearly stated Torah law is going to change that. Not now and not later. To somehow argue that the Torah didn’t really mean what it says or meant that times can change what it mandates for us is an exercise in fantasy! An argument like this is no more than the wishful thinking by those who want to normalize gay sex and make it as socially acceptable as heterosexual sex.

Defining Centrism

The HTC of my era more closely resembled Yeshiva University. During that era Dr. Eliezer Berkovits was an integral part of the Jewish studies program and an important influence in my life. I took 3 of his Jewish philosophy courses and one general philosophy course. I think one can comfortably say that he was on the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy. Some in the Charedi world considered him an Apikores. But he was in good company because I heard Rav Soloveitchik say the same thing about himself – that some people considered him an Apikores too.