The Life of R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
The previous installments in this series can be accessed at:
Lecture #31: The Life of R.
Students of the writings of R.
Like other students in Eastern European yeshivot, R. Weinberg
became interested in the broader world of literature, and he traveled to
At this point, we can take note of the many diverse currents in R. Weinbergs life. He experienced both Eastern and Western European Orthodoxy and he appreciated the value of lomdus, mussar, traditional yeshivot, academic Jewish studies, and secular literature. Did these various forces come together in a unified personality, or was R. Weinberg a man of antinomies and contradictions? Scholars debate this question and we will return to it in a later lecture.
R. Weinberg played a prominent role in answering difficult halakhic questions caused by Nazi persecution. For example, a law enacted by the Nazis demanding stunning an animal before slaughter led him to write extensively on whether such stunning renders the animal unfit for shechita (his analysis appears in the first volume of Seridei Eish). Another responsum addresses whether Jews can hold a concert in a synagogue when the Nazis will not allow Jewish meetings anywhere else.
Kristalnacht in 1938 left R. Weinberg crushed. The next year, he fled Nazi Germany, leaving behind his immense library and manuscripts awaiting publication. He became trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was a prominent leader for the Jews ensnared within. Because of his Russian citizenship, the Germans imprisoned him together with Russian prisoners of war. While life in the prison camp certainly involved significant suffering, R. Weinbergs imprisonment there enabled him to avoid the concentration camps and to survive the war. He later told Professor Shmuel Atlas that he was unaware of the full destruction of European Jewry until after the wars conclusion.
After the war, R.
Weinberg was a broken man whose entire world had been destroyed. A loyal student, R. Shaul Weingort,
brought him to
We have already noted
the complex web of influences in R. Weinbergs career. Sadly, another significant theme running
through his life was that of suffering.
As noted, R. Weinberg suffered from an unhappy marriage and never had
children. The barbaric cruelty of
the Nazis destroyed the worlds of both Eastern European and Western European
Orthodoxy and left him adrift. In
addition, he suffered from poor health.
He ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto while the overwhelming majority of
One responsum offers poignant testimony to the difficulties he endured. In 1956, he was asked about seforim saved from the library of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. The questioner wondered whether we could compare the scenario to one who finds a lost item brought in from the oceans tide, in which case he is permitted to keep it. R. Weinbergs opening and penultimate paragraphs convey a powerful sense of sorrow.
I was happy to receive your letter and enjoyed seeing that you have not forgotten me despite the evil things that occurred in the interim. It was fulfilled regarding me, God afflicted me but He did not give me over to death (Tehillim 118:18). Why should a living man complain? (Eikha 3:39). It is enough that he is alive
Regarding my personal library in the beit ha-midrash and in my room, I was not able to save a single book. I mourn for the loss of my books, since I left the valley of destruction barren and lacking everything.
The closing line of the first paragraph (based on Kiddushin 80b) clearly conveys R. Weinbergs feelings. He had suffered greatly and lost everything, yet he remained alive.
In a memorial volume for R. Weingort entitled Yad Shaul, R. Weinberg wrote a moving essay honoring his former student that also sheds light on the author. Describing life in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis, he wrote: In the ghetto, we witnessed the lowliness and degradation of man devoid of divine ethics and lacking human conscience. His cruelty far outstrips those of preying animals. He exclaimed that death would be preferable to such life and alludes to a gemara (Ketuvot 33b) that states that had Chanania, Mishael, and Azarya been tortured, they would have worshipped idols. In other words, those martyrs could withstand the threat of death but not that of torture, indicating that some suffering is harsher than death.
R. Weinberg also argued forcefully with those heroes of the pen who criticized inhabitants of the ghetto for not rising up against their Nazi oppressors. He contended that such critics failed to understand the Nazi ability to destroy their victims hope, aspirations, and will to live. They did not attack all at once but steadily undermined their victims with German precision. R. Weinberg highlighted the spiritual heroism of those who maintained religious devotion under such suffering. He also praises the actions of those who did rise up and physically confront the Nazis in the event known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. R. Weinberg appreciated the heroism of those who physically confronted the enemy as well as those who exhibited spiritual defiance.
His account portrays one astounding example of the latter. Various rabbis in the ghetto decided to jointly publish a volume of halakhic essays on the topic of destroying chametz. R. Weinberg wrote the opening essay and other rabbis agreed to respond. Contributors included R. Menahem Ziemba, R. Avraham Mordechai Alter (the Gerrer Rebbe), and R. Meir Finkel (son of R. Eliezer Yehuda). The manuscript was to be published in secret, but when war broke out between the Nazis and the Russians, the manuscript was lost. The ability to compile such a work while living under Nazi rule reveals reservoirs of spiritual fortitude.
Even before we make a
full-fledged attempt at understanding
 R. Eliezer Berkovits, Rabbi Yechiel Yakob Weinberg ztl: My Teacher and Master, Tradition 8:2 (Summer 1966), p. 10-11.
 Seridei Eish 2:12.
 Shmuel Atlas,
 See the letter published by Marc Shapiro in Hamaayan 32:4 (Tamuz, 5752), p. 20.
 See the letter published by Marc Shapiro in Hamaayan 32:4 (Tamuz, 5752), p. 7.
 Yad Shaul (Tel Aviv, 5713), p. 9.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Seridei Eish 1, p. 179.
 R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and R. Yosef Wolgemuth also utilized Scheler on repentance. Nonetheless, it was not standard practice for rabbinic luminaries.