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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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‘Things Once Taken For Granted Are Now Considered Unacceptable': A Conversation With Professor Marc B. Shapiro


Marc B. Shapiro

Marc B. Shapiro

Marc B. Shapiro, a Judaic Studies professor at the University of Scranton, is a mine of information and a lightning rod for controversy.

A summa cum laude graduate from Brandeis University and the last person to receive a Ph.D. from the late Harvard Judaic Studies Professor Isadore Twersky (son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), Shapiro has authored and edited five books and more than 80 articles and book reviews.

His Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 and The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen principles Reappraised were both National Jewish Book Award finalists.

The Jewish Press recently spoke with Shapiro about his writings and his views on the Orthodox community.

The Jewish Press: In your opinion, what would Rabbi Weinberg, author of the Seridei Eish and the subject of your first book, think of the Orthodox Jewish community today?

Shapiro: He’d think what a lot of gedolim would think from that generation. They would be very surprised that things they took for granted are now considered unacceptable – that the yeshiva world today in Israel, for example, sees something wrong with earning a living.

I think the frumkeit would surprise them. For example, the turn to glatt kosher as a standard, as well as the number of chumrot. This would surprise them only because part of traditional Judaism is reliance on the gedolim of the past and it’s very unusual for a tradition that regards itself as following the past to reject what previous standards were.

You write that Rabbi Weinberg didn’t support the Agudah. Why was that?

First of all, there are two types of Agudah. There used to be such a thing as a German Agudah, Torah im Derech Eretz. That has been totally demolished. But fundamentally, if you think about the post-World War II Agudah, Rabbi Weinberg was a Zionist and they weren’t.

Also, he believed in autonomy. He couldn’t tolerate the use of the cherem and the lack of ability to think for yourself.

Rabbi Weinberg wrote, “For the members of Agudah, every unimportant rabbi who joins them is considered a great gaon.” Can you elaborate?

Rabbi Weinberg wrote in his private letters that politics in Agudah circles is what makes you a gadol; it’s not how much Torah you have. They determine that Rav Soloveitchik is not a gadol because he’s not in their circle. Rav Elyashiv was never considered a gadol when he was with the [Israeli government] rabbanut.

You have written that at one point you wanted to write a biography of Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson (a posek and rav in Hoboken, N.J., in the early half of the 20th century). Why do you find him such an interesting character?

Rabbi Hirschenson believed there has to be – they didn’t have this term then but it certainly is adequate – a Modern Orthodox approach to halacha. He believed in updating halacha, all within the halachic system.

For example, now it seems almost quaint, but in his day pretty much all the gedolim believed that women couldn’t vote and they all – basically all – believed that women couldn’t be elected. He argued against this.

He showed how the Torah is not opposed to democracy. He spoke about issues of biblical criticism, how to deal with that. His sefer, Malki Bakodesh, deals with all the issues of how to run a country in modern times according to Jewish law. He was the first one to put this on the table. He said we’re going to have a state one day and we’re going to need to run it according to Torah law. Can Torah law work in a modern state and what do we have to do to make it work?

Why did your book The Limits of Orthodox Theology (which demonstrates that great rabbis throughout the ages often disagreed with some of Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith) raise the ire of some in the Orthodox community?

Because they’ve developed a conception that certain views are to be adopted, and you can’t depart from them. And this applies to views regarding secular studies, Zionism, all sorts of issues, and certainly with regard to what’s come to be regarded as ikkarei emunah [principles of faith]. Therefore, anything that shows that matters have not always been so clear, and that there were disputes about these things, is controversial.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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