July 17, 2024
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Rav Netanel Wiederblank’s Book Takes on the Big Questions

Reviewing: “Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife and the Messianic Era,” by Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank. The Toby Press; Maggid Books and RIETS Press. 2018. English. Hardcover. 686 pages. ISBN: 9781592644988.

Legendary Yeshiva University Professor of English Dr. Manfred Weidhorn would customarily distribute to his students a list of approximately 200 must-read books of which an educated person is expected to have devoured. If one were to compose a similar catalog for a Torah-educated individual, Rav Netanel Wiederblank’s new work, “Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife and the Messianic Era” (Maggid Books and RIETS Press: 2018, Jerusalem and New York), certainly would appear high on such a list.

Advanced Torah students typically have attained a reasonably systematic mastery of Chumash (and Tanach in Modern Orthodox circles), Talmud and Halacha. Not so regarding hashkafa. Regarding the classic sources, even the most learned Jews usually have garnered only a smattering of knowledge of the core hashkafic issues that preoccupied the classic Rishonim and Acharonim. They will also have typically read and even mastered the hashkafic writings of only one or two of the leading lights of their specific community, such as Rav Dessler, Rav Kook, the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Rav Soloveitchik, but not much beyond. Moreover, even the most learned usually have only a vague grasp of some very basic issues such as olam haba, techiyat hameitim, Mashiach ben Yosef and the Milchemet Gog UMagog.

While a few books have been written to somewhat remedy this situation, they are almost inevitably lacking in analysis and dry as a withered tree, making them a less-than-pleasant read. Moreover, careful perusal of the classic works can be daunting, especially since they often utilize an obscure (often reflective of the language employed by outmoded ancient and medieval general philosophies) language that is difficult for the uninitiated to decipher. Along has come Rav Wiederblank to produce a sorely needed volume that is diverse in its sources, rich in analysis, artfully organized and beautifully written in a way that makes for a compelling read.

This book should not be mischaracterized (as is done in the foreword to the book) as belonging to the דע מה להשיב לאפיקורס, response-to-a-heretic genre of books. Its scope and vision is far grander than this specific enterprise. While it does on occasion frontally respond to heretical arguments, this is far from its primary objective. Correcting widespread ignorance and bringing hashkafic literacy to the English-reading Jewish community is a far better classification of this monumental masterpiece.

An example is Rav Wiederblank’s enthralling exploration of free will in all its glorious ramifications. In addition to the well-known discussions of the Rambam, Raavad and Ramban, thorough but brief appearances are made by an impressive list of the next tiers of baalei hashkafa. These include Rav Saadia Gaon, Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda, Rav Yitzchak Arama, the Maharal, the Shelah, Meshech Chochma, Rav Tzadok HaKohen and Rav Kook. There is even a nuanced (with serious reservations expressed) discussion of the radical views of Rav Chasdai Crescas regarding free will and Rav Kook’s perspective on moral and halachic development in the Messianic era. Appropriately sized portions of sources are quoted in the original Hebrew with English translation so that one may experience a full and authentic immersion into the world of the classic Jewish thinkers.

Finally, after a nearly250 pages of this masterful discussion, Rav Netanel devotes a less-than-10-page response to contemporary critiques of free will. In this brief chapter, Rav Wiederblank carefully and competently addresses cutting-edge issues such as quantum mechanics and free will and why the soul does not appear on a CAT scan. Thus, while there is some דע מה להשיב לאפיקורס included, it is not the primary focus of this grand work.

Interspersed throughout the work are brief but tantalizing discussions of hot-button topics such as why Hashem created the world, the role of secular Zionism in the process of redemption and whether pig will become kosher during the Messianic era.

Sources are copious and accurate. I devoted nearly 10 hours of study of this book with two dozen top students at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and the book withstood all of our piercing analysis and discussion. The one humorous exception we found was Rav Wiederblank’s analogy (in the course of explicating Rav Dessler’s thought-provoking idea of the nekudat habechira, page 199) of life to a football field where he refers to one’s metaphoric advance from the 90-yard line to the 70-yard line. What Rav Netanel lacks in knowledge of American football he compensates with his glorious mastery of Jewish philosophy!

A favorite section is (pages 239-241) a very brief but very compelling section regarding “Who is the Real Me.” The Maharal is cited raising a most foundational issue: Who is the real me? The one who desires to do wrong or the one who desires to do right? The Maharal is cited as teaching that when doing teshuva, a person tells God that the person who sinned was not the real me, since the real me wishes to do right. Although not noted by Rav Wiederblank, as a very active get administrator, the words of the Rambam (Hilchot Geirushin 2:20) loom large to me in this context. The Rambam argues that a Jew fundamentally wishes to do that which is correct, but his yetzer hara sometimes diverts him from doing that which his true self wishes to do.

Rav Wiederblank in this context cites Yale University philosophy professor Dr. Joshua Knobe who eloquently depicts a paradigm shift in contemporary society regarding this issue. He notes that in the philosophic tradition, if you want to know who the person is you would look to the moments when the individual stops to reflect and think about his or her deepest values. His example is an individual fighting a heroin addiction. While the addict may have a continual craving for another fix, if he or she just gives into this craving it would be absurd to say that thereby he or she is expressing his or her true self. On the contrary, he or she is betraying him or herself and giving up what he or she values most.

By contrast, most outside of the world of philosophy are deeply drawn to the opposite view. The true self is understood to have emerged precisely when suppressed urges and emotions are expressed. Moreover, our ability to reflect is seen as a hindrance to this perceived expression of the true self. I would add that this is due to a great extent to the detrimental influence of popular culture in the media.

Rav Wiederblank adds an important insight in a brief footnote: “As Dr. Knobe points out, those who adopt the modern perspective argue that someone who struggles to overcome his homosexual desires is not being true to himself. Only if he indulges in what he believes to be wrong is he being true to himself. Traditionally, the opposite presumption was made: If such a person loses control and gives in to these desires, he is betraying himself.”

The Maharal, Rav Wiederblank and Dr. Knobe’s insights offer succor and support to those who remain steadfastly loyal to Torah hashkafa while withstanding the very strong contemporary ideological winds that sometimes blow hard against the Torah grain.

Another favorite but brief section (pages 585-588) summarizes perspectives as to whether the modern-day flourishing of the Land and State of Israel constitutes the atchalta d’geulah (beginning of the redemption). Rav Wiederbank begins by citing the view of Rav Kook that it certainly is, and the opposing extreme of the Satmar Rebbe who argues that it represents the work of the Satan tempting us to veer from the Torah way.

Rav Wiederblank proceeds to marshal the wise words of a lesser-known mid-20th century posek who resided in Monsey, Rav Avraham Weinfeld. Rav Weinfeld (Teshuvot Lev Avraham 1:129) argues that “only a true prophet could say what is the nature of this entity and what will be in its end, and therefore, even those who are wise and know the Torah must fulfill the exhortation of Chazal to ‘teach your tongue to say I don’t know.’ Take, for example, the Holocaust, where six million people were killed, among them the pious and children who never sinned. About this the question is raised: Why did God do this to the nation? After all the answers are offered, we certainly acknowledge our ignorance. So why should we be certain about how to interpret the events that follow?”

The inability to resolve certain central theological questions is one of the most important lessons of Rav Wiederblank’s work. For example, on page 535 he notes that there is no clear resolution to the debate that appears in both the Talmudic and medieval sources as to whether nature will change in Messianic times.

Other delicious sections of the book are the discussions of free will as the grandeur of mankind (pp. 275-280), the role of fate and free will in finding one’s bashert (destined spouse; pp. 264-274), why is there a body according to Ramban (pp. 379-385) and imagining Gehinnom and the mussar movement (pp. 459-462).

One word of criticism: an index to this very multi-faceted and multi-layered extensive work is sorely needed. My fervent hope is for the subsequent volumes in this series as well as future reprintings of this volume to include a proper index This is a book not only to be read but to be subsequently referenced frequently, for which an index is sorely needed.

There are books and articles worthy of being read once, and there are those select pieces that are worth reading twice. Rav Wiederblank’s “Illuminating Jewish Thought” is worth reading carefully three times. For those of us who have graduated from the yeshiva world it fills a major lacunae in our education. For those immersed in the glorious world of Torah learning in a yeshiva, they will be the first generation in a very long time to have been given the keys to properly unlock the treasures of Jewish thought of the past 3,000 years. Let us hope it will emerge as a true game-changer in the Jewish community. It richly deserves to fill this role.

Rav Yosef Adler, the well-accomplished rosh yeshiva of Torah Academy of Bergen County and rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, relates how his parents asked the administration of the chareidi high school he attended why they did not teach Tanach. The administrators responded, in a moment of stunning candor, that they do not have the intellectual arsenal and tools to properly teach Tanach. Thankfully, this situation has been corrected over the past three decades by a competent cadre of Tanach teachers throughout the world to ameliorate this undesirable educational circumstance.

Rav Wiederblank has begun to do the same for proper study of hashkafic issues. No longer will students be left with vague answers to their questions regarding olam haba and techiyat hameitim. No longer will parents have to grope for explanations of Gan Eden and Gehinnom. An era has opened where the study of Jewish hashkafa is being redeemed. We eagerly anticipate Rav Netanel’s completion of the two other volumes of this series so we can finally bid a final farewell to hashkafic ignorance.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter


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