Photo Credit: Rabbi Dr. Zimmerman / Feldheim Publishers

Title: Torah & Rationalism: Understanding Torah and the Mesorah
Author: Rabbi Dr. Aharon Chaim HaLevi Zimmerman (edited by Moshe Avraham Landy)
Publisher: Feldheim



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 20th century. Rabbi Zimmerman was born in 1914 into an illustrious rabbinic family and was a nephew of Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz (1862-1939), the famed rosh yeshiva of Kaminetz.

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, where he received semicha in 1939.

At the tender age of 24, Rabbi Zimmerman became the youngest member of the Rabbinical Council of America. He later served 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 Rabbi Zimmerman passed away in 1995, but his student Rabbi Moshe Landy has undertaken to print some of his rebbe‘s unpublished works posthumously.

Rabbi Zimmerman penned numerous books and monographs, both in English and Hebrew. Many of his Hebrew articles (mostly concerning karbanos and tumah and taharah) were published in the scholarly rabbinic journal HaPardes. Rabbi Zimmerman also famously penned an important work, Agan HaSahar, on the international dateline and wrote extensively on Zionism and how an ideal Jewish state should be structured. Many of Rabbi Zimmerman’s English essays were originally published in The Jewish Press and later culled together and published in book form.

Rabbi Zimmerman was also quite well-versed in the sciences, including advanced mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Rabbi Harry Maryles relates that it was said about Rabbi Zimmerman that he understood quantum theory as well as Niels Bohr at a time when most of the scientific community barely even heard of it!

The basic premise of Rabbi Zimmerman’s new book, Torah & Rationalism: Understanding Torah and the Mesorah, is that halacha and Gemara are built on a precise logical system akin to the systems of reasoning behind the hard sciences. Rabbi Zimmerman offers a thorough epistemological defense of this staunchly traditionalist view, buttressing his arguments with philosophical terms and ideas and citing such classical philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Machiavelli and referencing later philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russel, and even Ayn Rand.

A recurrent theme in the book revolves around insiders versus outsiders. (Rabbi Zimmerman treats this theme at greater length in Torah and Reason [1979] and Torah and Existence [1986].) He maintains that true Torah study must follow the traditional methodology of the mesorah. Just as other disciplines can only be understood from within their own ontological system, so too Torah can only be truly understood by an insider.

To illustrate this point, Rabbi Zimmerman cites the following anecdote: Zionist leader Ze’ev 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.”

The brunt of Rabbi Zimmerman’s critique is leveled at people in the mold of Heinrich Graetz, Leo Strauss, and Gershon Scholem. He criticizes these scholars for imposing their own “manmade” framework on the Torah’s divine structure and then framing halacha and Jewish tradition with 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.

Rabbi Zimmerman argues time and again that these outsiders and others like them misunderstood the original intent of the traditional rabbinic authorities and misconstrue their words to fit their own preconceived (biased) notions.

This book, like most of Rabbi Zimmerman’s previous works, is actually a sort of apologetic defense of traditional Judaism. Unfortunately, he often makes very strongly-worded assertions without backing them up. In this reviewer’s opinion, the entire book feels like a series 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 should bear in mind that Rabbi Zimmerman did not prepare these essays for publication as a book.)

Rabbi Zimmerman also makes many general, sweeping statements without going into detail on what exactly he means. For example, in several chapters in the book, Rabbi Zimmerman claims that many parts of the Aggadah, Kabbalah, and Rambam’s philosophy are meshalim (parables), but he fails to tell us what the nimshalim are.

This lack of detail perhaps comes from Rabbi Zimmerman’s aversion to spoon-feeding his readers/students with information. He instead make certain points, leaving the reader to do the “leg work” and work out the exact details.

This reviewer believes that if Rabbi Zimmerman had buttressed his name-dropping and appeals to authority with more substantial arguments to prove his points, this book would have been an important guide to understanding Judaism from the inside. It also would have had greater impact had it provided more examples of how halacha is based on a logical system rather than having the reader take his word for it.

Ultimately, though, this book is a great introduction to some of the sophisticated ideas of traditional Judaism. The editor graciously took the time to provide footnotes that contain the exact Hebrew text of most of the sources Rabbi Zimmerman quotes. With this book, Rabbi Landy has prepared for publication another small part of Rabbi Zimmerman’s greater overarching philosophy, and we hope more of his unpublished writings see the light of day in the future.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.