Did Rabbi Avi Weiss Invent Women Saying Kaddish?

Kaddish is the memorial prayer traditionally said only by men.

Left-wing Modern Orthodox shuls allow women to say kaddish, while right-wing Modern Orthodox shuls usually don’t allow women to say this prayer publicly.

I’m listening to a Torah in Motion recording of Rabbi Marc B. Shapiro lecture on Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz.

Marc lists off various famous rabbis who’ve permitted women to say kaddish, including R. J.B. Soloveitchik and R. Ahron Soloveitchik, Reb Moshe Feinstein, R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, R. Ovadia Yosef.

“This isn’t some new-found practice of Rabbi Avi Weiss… This goes back to Russia and the traditionalist poskim. It could be that in a traditional environment without feminism, this is not a concern at all, but in an era with lots of feminism, you’ll have right-wing Modern Orthodox rabbis who’ll say women can’t say kaddish because they are afraid of what it might lead to. Where there is no feminism, it is not a big deal. In the traditional Sephardic world, women could walk in to the men’s section and say Birkhat Ha‑Gomel after giving birth, etc.”

Professor Marc Shapiro published a famous book on R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg.

Marc Shapiro is my favorite Jewish scholar.

I usually get whiplash listening to Professor Shapiro because he’ll go along in a purely scholarly and descriptive vein for long stretches and then suddenly he’ll include an opinion (usually in line with the approach of Modern Orthodoxy). What gets me is that he doesn’t use a different voice for his prescriptions. His pitch does not go up a few octaves, for instance, when giving a personal view.

Luckily, I am such a gaon that I can deal.

Dr. Shapiro: Eliezer Berkovitz comes to the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. It’s right down the street from the University of Berlin. You could go there during the day and get a secular education and then come to the yeshiva at night.

A lot of yeshiva bocherim wanted to become a rabbi doctor. Today having a PhD can hurt you in Orthodox life.

At the seminary, Berkovitz becomes close to Weinberg. He was his leading student. Often the shiur at the seminary because a back-and-forth between Berkovitz and Weinberg. This mutual admiration lasted the course of their lives.

I interviewed R. Eliezer Berkovitz in Israel in 1988 about R. Yechiel Weinberg.

Graduates of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary were not as learned in Talmud as Eastern European rabbis but were more learned than Yeshiva University grads (let alone YCT grads). It was the highest level semicha in Western Europe.

Seminary grads were writing halachic responsa. You don’t find that from your typical YU grad.

Into the 1950s, nobody expected R. Berkovitz to become a great Jewish philosopher.

R. Berkovitz spent most of the 1950s in Boston near R. J.B. Soloveitchik but they don’t mention each other and had little relationship. R. Berkovitz said that R. J.B. Soloveitchik was not forceful enough in solving modern problems of Jewish law.

In 1956, R. Eliezer Berkovitz published his first important work, Judaism: Fossil or Ferment?

It refers to Arnold Toynbee who was infected with the genteel British anti-Semitism dominating the English upper-crust.

In his famed multi-volume work of history, Toynbee called Judaism a fossil. He later developed a more sympathetic view of Judaism, largely thanks to a correspondence with Jacob B. Agus (liberal Conservative rabbi who was one of three Conservative rabbis who first permitted driving on the Sabbath).

Toynbee had three great debates with Jewish figures, including one with R. Yaakov Herzog, the son of the second Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi — Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.

People like Eliezer Berkovitz were geniuses. He could show up in England and within a couple of years write the King’s English.

Toynbee saw Judaism as coming to an end with the birth of Christianity. That was a great dispute of the time but today Toynbee is the fossil, not Judaism nor Eliezer Berkovitz.

R. Berkovitz had an unfair hatred of Christianity.

Some rabbis say we can learn wisdom from the non-Jews but we can’t learn Torah from them.

Soncino’s books of the Bible have been redone and they no longer cite non-Jews.

The same debate applies to the works of non-Orthodox thinkers aka heretics. Some say you cite them but you don’t say their names.

The Gerrer Rebbe won’t cite Conservative rabbi Jacob Neusner, even though the rebbe is not Neusner’s equal in Torah learning.

The Gerrer Rebbe will cite Saul Lieberman‘s work but won’t name him. Artscroll uses R. Shlomo Goren‘s commentary on Tractate Brachos in the Jerusalem Talmud but they won’t mention his name.

In 1958, Eliezer Berkovitz moves to Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, where he develops his international reputation but was not allowed to teach Talmud.

When R. Berkovitz says Jewish law must not freeze, it is code for let’s get moving. For many, this raised the specter of Conservative Judaism.

As with R. Emmanuel Rackman, R. Berkovitz moved left as he got older and as Modern Orthodoxy moved right.

Through the 1950s, R. Berkovitz was at the center of Orthodox Judaism but by the 1970s, he was on the left.

After R. J.B. Soloveitchik, R. Berkovitz was the most important thinker in Orthodox Judaism in the 1960s and 1970s.

The halachic (Jewish law) vision of R. Eliezer Berkovitz was a failure. It never took off. But his theology was a great success.

Rabbi Berkovitz wrote in the 1960s to R. Jehiel Weinberg: “For a long time, I have known these ‘gedolim and tzaddikim.’ In their opinion, they are exempt from being concerned with civility, fairness, and honesty because their intention is for the sake of Heaven. According to their approach, their holy purpose makes all means kosher. There are an increasing number of young Modern Orthodox rabbis who’ve completely given up hope that we have anything to learn from gadolei Torah (great sages) of this orphan generation. Every day we see more clearly that we can’t abandon the future into their hands. We”

Dr. Shapiro: “These come from a group of unpublished letters from Berkovitz to Weinberg.”

Also in the 1960s, R. Berkovitz wrote to R. Menachem Mendel Kasher, who urged him not to publish his book on marriage: “The question isn’t if I am right or if you are right, but if an author who believes with all his heart that what he proposes is Torah, if he is permitted to publicize his work. I can rely on the haskamah of R. Weinberg.”

Rabbi Kasher had told him not to publish because the da’as Torah of the gedolim was against him. R. Berkovitz replies that he doesn’t care what the gedolim say.

Dr. Shapiro: “Someone is probably going to extract this and put it on one of the blogs.”

Berkovitz: “Da’as Torah is the will of the rabbis when their will has no basis in halacah. …I don’t know how their private opinions without a source in shas or poskim are da’as Torah.”

Da’as Torah is not Torah at all. It is the religious politics of the older generation, which is responsible for the spread of Reform and Conservative Judaism is destroying our world.”

Marc Shapiro: “Yes, it does sound like Blu Greenberg is writing the script.”

“I think everyone has to agree that da’as Torah is the will of the rabbis when it has no basis in halacah. The theoreticians of da’as Torah have said as much, that this comes from the fifth Shulchan Aruch, from intuition, from the understanding of the posek, he determines whether something is forbidden or permitted without justification [in Jewish law].

“From the Modern Orthodox standpoint, the problem was that this was always used as a tool to destroy the Modern Orthodox, to say that what they were doing was forbidden, and why was it forbidden? They come back with da’as Torah says it is forbidden. Anytime the Modern Orthodox try to do something to reach out to the less religious, they’re bludgeoned with da’as Torah… It closes off all discussion because you haven’t given any reasons, any sources.”

“I don’t know any of the Agudah gedolim who have declared themselves a gadol.”

“This is why I say da’as Torah is a crock because da’as Torah does not rely on the gadol but on the followers. The followers have determined Rav Elyashiv is a gadol. They’ll listen to him as long as they want to. If Rav Elyashiv said we should say hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), he would no longer be a gadol.”

Marc Shapiro: “In his private letters, R. Weinberg was just as critical as R. Berkovitz about the gedolim… Berkovitz’s tone was harsher but they were saying the same thing.”

“Today Berkovitz is persona non grata in the Skokie Yeshiva even though from 1958-1976, he was their pride.”

“A few years ago, R. Chaim Twerski published a review of Not in Heaven. Why would anyone publish a review of a book 20 years after it was published? To trash it. His name is misspelled as Berkowitz.”

Rabbi Harry Maryles writes about R. Chaim Zimmerman:

There was also a running “feud” between Rav Chaim and Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz. He considered some of Dr. Berkovits views to be heretical and, to say the least they were not on the best of terms.

In 1964 (IIRC), Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman, the long term president of HTC retired and Dr. Simon G. Kramer was hired to replace him. The student council of the Yeshiva high school decided to throw a “welcome” Melave Malka for Dr. Kramer. During the Melave Malke, R. Chaim spoke and made a casual reference to Dr. Berkovitz calling him words to the effect of “my friendly Apikores”. After he finished, a barely restrained Dr. Berkovitz stood up and said angrily words to the effect of: “I am not an Apikores, I don’t recognize you, and I don’t even acknowledge your existence”. He apparently was so enraged that he inadvertently knocked a glass Coke bottle off the table which broke. (Some people remember the incident as him throwing it on the floor).

The next day R. Chaim was fired. And shortly thereafter the Yeshiva had been put in Cherem.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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