The great modern Orthodox Jewish theologian has died at 87. From Tablet magazine’s obituary, written by David Goldman, a great admirer:
He was old enough to have stood with his father across the street from Berlin’s main synagogue as it burned on Kristallnacht, when the Brownshirts unrolled a Torah scroll in the street and charged passersby the equivalent of a dime to trample the length of it. Wyschogrod escaped Germany with his family early in 1939 just as the gates were closing, obtaining an American visa thanks to an uncle in Atlanta whose employer knew a U.S. senator. He was a brand plucked out of the fire. And he was, perhaps, our last living link to the engagement of yeshiva-educated Orthodox Jews with continental philosophy.
Educated at the Yiddish-speaking Orthodox day school Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, Wyschogrod attended City College and then earned a Columbia doctorate with a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger. At the same time he attended Rav Joseph Soloveitchik’s Talmud class at Yeshiva University. He admonished observant Jews to master Western philosophy the better to comprehend their own tradition, but he proposed a uniquely Jewish solution to the 20th-century crisis in Western philosophy. His influence was enormous; Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once told me that Wyschogrod was the closest thing we have to a systematic theology of Judaism. But it was not as great as he hoped it would be in the community he averred would be the ultimate judge of his work, namely Torah-obedient Jews. That has changed in the last several years, and Wyschogrod’s numerous writings will guide Jewish scholars for years to come.
His favorite Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, pictured the “Knight of Faith” who is so secure in his relationship to God that his daily life becomes a continual source of joy. Wyschogrod was a knight of Kierkegaard’s order.
First Things published a lovely essay in 2009 on Wyschogrod’s thought. The author is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who explains that Wyschogrod, though an Orthodox Jew, found a more respectful hearing among many Christians than among his own people, in large part because he challenged the work of Moses Maimonides, the medieval rabbinical giant who was more or less the Thomas Aquinas of the Jews. Excerpt:
And through the centuries, the Jewish people were sustained not by a belief in Maimonides’ God of the philosophers but by what the Midrash calls the “Divine Presence in Exile,” the God who dwells among his persecuted people, making their travails his travails and their suffering his suffering.
Because the Jewish community was so devastated by the Holocaust, there is a tremendous temptation to give it a prominent role in one’s theology. For traditional theologians, especially the Orthodox, there are dangers in this. Giving the Holocaust pronounced theological prominence can lead Jewish thinkers to dilute or relativize Judaism’s theological foundation. More, it allows the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism in the past to influence unduly theological attitudes toward Christians today.
Wyschogrod has criticized Jewish theologians who place the Holocaust at the center of theology”Emil Fackenheim, for instance, is famous for insisting that after the Holocaust Judaism must add what he calls a “614th commandment” to the 613 commandments of the Torah: an obligation to provide for the continuity of Judaism after the Holocaust. Indeed, Fackenheim argues that the Holocaust unites both religious Jews and secular Jews, for even if Jews no longer believe the Bible, they are obligated not to allow Hitler to succeed in his attempt to obliterate Judaism.
In reply, Wyschogrod warns against making Hitler and the Holocaust an argument for Judaism. There is, he observes, only one true reason to remain Jewish: God’s election of Abraham and his selection of his descendants to serve as a light to the nations. Fackenheim’s argument amounts to what he terms “negative natural theology””an argument from evil that, in Wyschogrod’s words, is “as serviceable to the secularist as it is to the believer.” For Wyschogrod, Hitler rather than Abraham, and Auschwitz rather than Sinai, becomes the foundation for Fackenheim’s Judaism.
“One is almost driven to the conclusion,” writes Wyschogrod, that in the absence of the Holocaust, for the secularist, “no justification for the further survival of Judaism could have been found. With the Holocaust, amazing as it may appear, Judaism has gotten a new lease on life.” But if the Holocaust becomes “the dominant voice that Israel hears, it could not but be a demonic voice it would be hearing. There is no salvation to be extracted from the Holocaust, no faltering Judaism can be revived by it, no new reason for the continuation of the Jewish people can be found in it. If there is hope after the Holocaust, it is because, to those who believe, the voices of the Prophets speak more loudly than did Hitler, and because the divine promise sweeps over the crematoria and silences the voice of Auschwitz.”
A faith founded on God’s eternal love of Israel emphasizes instead our experience of God’s salvation and redemption, which we once experienced and, Judaism declares, we will experience again. Israel’s faith, Wyschogrod writes, “has always centered around the saving acts of God: the election, the exodus, the Temple, and the Messiah.” Acts of destruction were remembered in minor fast days “while those of redemption became the joyous proclamations of the Passover and Tabernacles . . . . The God of Israel is a redeeming God; this is the only message we are authorized to proclaim, however much it may not seem so to the eyes of nonbelief.”
A world where Jews are threatened physically by fundamentalist Islam and morally by secularism, a world where Jews and Christians ought to go their separate ways, is one where Israel—both the people and the country—will be very much alone. And, in an age when Jewish theology must reject relativism on the one hand and instinctive anti-Christianity on the other, it is, I believe, Michael Wyschogrod who has shown us the way.”
Read the whole thing. I must read Wyschogrod someday. So many books, so little time. May his memory be eternal, and may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.