COVENANTAL IMPERATIVES: Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger on Jewish Law, Thought, and Community
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edited by Eliezer L. Jacobs and Shalom Carmy
Hardcover, 325 pages
ISBN 13: 978-965-524-000-9
Covenantal Imperatives, a collection of essays selected from the nearly six
decades of Rabbi Walter Wurzburger's illustrious career, combines the
author’s mastery of Halakhah with a deep understanding of Jewish philosophy.
By adopting religious cohesion as the cornerstone of his ideas, Rabbi
Wurzburger builds a case for the meeting point of ethics and traditional Judaism,
delving deeply into the thoughts of some of the greatest Jewish thinkers,
especially those of his teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Covering topics
ranging from cooperation with non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, the
Sabbath, and his concept of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Wurzburger’s essays
are a true representation of the work of an original thinker and leader in the
American Jewish community.
Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger, Ph.D. (1920–2002), a distinguished
leader and teacher in the Jewish community for nearly sixty years, was
a vital force in modern Orthodox thought. He taught philosophy at
Yeshiva University for thirty-five years and held rabbinic posts in Boston and
Toronto prior to leading Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Lawrence, New York
from 1967 to 1994, remaining rabbi emeritus until his death.
During his quarter-century as the Editor of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox
Jewish Thought, he helped shape the agenda of the modern Orthodox
community and elevated its ideological discourse significantly. Rabbi
Wurzburger served as the President of the Rabbinical Council of America,
the Rabbinical Council of Canada and the Synagogue Council of America.
He is the author of two books: Ethics of Responsibility: Pluralistic Approaches
to Covenantal Ethics and God Is Proof Enough. He also co-edited A Treasury of
Rabbi Wurzburger, who received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi
Joseph B. Soloveitchik and remained one of his most faithful students,
was ordained at Yeshiva University and received his MA and Ph.D. from
Harvard University. He is survived by Naomi, his wife of fifty-five years, and
their children and grandchildren.
Rabbi Shalom Carmy, who teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva
University, is an Editor of the series Me-Otzar ho-Rav: Selected Writings of Rabbi
Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Carmy is also the Editor of Tradition: A Journal of
Orthodox Jewish Thought.
A graduate of Rutgers University, Elie Jacobs attended Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion in Israel. Elie works as a public relations consultant and lives in New York City.
What is remarkable about [Rabbi Wurzburger’s] life’s work is not only that he
embraced both the intellectual and the practical, but that he was also able to
have one influence the other. The two interpenetrated, so that his sermons
were serious discourses expressed in simple rather than technical terms. They
were never frivolous or pedestrian, and his philosophy was never detached
from the real world of flesh-and-blood human beings. Rabbi Wurzburger was
an important thinker who thought with his heart as well as with his brain.
This collection is the least that can be done to honor his memory and his
–Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor, Yeshiva University and Rosh HaYeshiva, RIETS
What made the cut? Primarily the essays on ethics and Halakhah and
the studies of major figures in Jewish thought, from the great medieval
philosophers, most prominently Maimonides, down through Rabbi Hayyim
of Volozhin, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and [Rabbi Wurzburger’s] master,
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.... This concentration [on ethics] reflects the
reality of Jewish life and Torah study, where performance of mitzvot and their
understanding occupy pride of place. We know God by discerning His will for
us and realizing it in the world. Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin presented a model
of Lithuanian piety with theurgic overtones that stressed the power of human
engagement in Torah study and fulfillment. Rabbi Hirsch contributed a less
mystical account of religion as obedience to the divine command. Rabbi
Soloveitchik developed these themes... [while] Rabbi Wurzburger devoted
himself to exploring [the] important implications of this outlook.
[The] reader of this volume will be able to trace the path that Rabbi
Wurzburger followed in discovering and working out his contribution to
–from the Introduction by Rabbi Shalom Carmy
Long-time readers of Tradition certainly need no introduction to the writings of Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger z"l, who edited the journal from 1962-1988. A distinguished pulpit rabbi, communal leader, and student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, R' Wurzburger made significant contributions to Jewish philosophy, particularly in the realm of ethics and halakha. I first encountered his writings in Ethics of Responsibility (JPS, 1994), and found his notion of "virtue ethics" both compelling and inspiring.
This new volume is built around 4 themes of Wurzburger's writings: Ethics and halakha, Jewish thinkers, Jewish communal issues, and "Jewish life." The 27 essays range from topics like "religion and morality" and "Imitatio Dei" to "cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews" and "Orthodox Judaism and human purpose."
I particularly enjoyed the first section, which allows one to see the development of his notion of "covenantal imperatives," which he defines as "religious imperatives for which no specific halakhic source can be invoked" (p. 36). I found especially interesting his statement that this notion resembles that of Da'at Torah, with one important distinction: "I fully recognize that what is perceived as a religious requirement possesses merely subjective validity in the absence of explicit halakhic norms. Because of its lack of objectivity, it merely constitutes a legitimate ethical opinion but does not deny the Jewish legitimacy of alternate responses. Hence my position allows for advocacy of pluralistic approaches in all areas which are not subject to halakhic regulation..." (36-37).
The ethics section also includes his earliest attempt to argue that the Talmudic concept "Darkhei Shalom" is an ethical religious norm, and not just a "pragmatic device to safeguard Jewish self-interest" (60).
This volume is a fitting tribute to this wonderful man and significant scholar. A forthcoming volume of Tradition, expected in 2008, will be dedicated to Rabbi Wurzburger's thought and shed greater light on his contribution to Jewish theology.
-Rabbi Shlomo Brody
He was a distinguished community and rabbinic leader in our community for over three decades. He served a rabbi of Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Lawrence from 1967 to 1994 and as rabbi emeritus until his passing in 2002. In all those year, Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger came to symbolize the best in the rabbinate as well as to our faith as one of its premier theologians and expositors of Jewish thought and practice. It was through his eloquence both in speech and writing that the beliefs of Judaism were to experience a modern cast in language and tone that was understandable to both scholar and layman alike.
It has been said that Modern Orthodox theology has abandoned the field of popular religious thought to the shallow advocates of mindless interpreters of the extremes at both ends of the religious spectrum. Rabbi Wurzburger, during his long career, proved to be one of the few exceptions to this unfortunate situation.
Now, six years after his passing, we witness the publication of yet another anthology of his writings, covering a broad range of issues dealing with ethics, Jewish community relations, the roles of modern orthodoxy and religious Zionism and their prospects for survival in an atmosphere charged with extremism and the issues dealing with morality, darkei shalom and what he referred to as “human purpose,” as it relates to traditional Jewish thought and practice. To this writer, the centerpiece of the book deals with Rabbi Wurzburger’s treatment of Jewish thought by utilizing the roles of four personalities who helped shape his religious beliefs: Maimonides, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Hayyim of Volozhin and acharon, acharon chaviv, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his mentor.
Each essay delivers a powerful theological and spirited defense of our faith and present in clear terms the roles played by each of these rabbis in their respective eras in giving Judaism a contemporary intellectual garb, without compromising the essence of the faith’s basic beliefs and practices.
This volume was expertly edited by Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University, editor of the distinguished rabbinic journal “Tradition,” a publication of the Rabbinical Council of America that was edited for over a quarter century by Rabbi Wurzburger. Elie Jacobs, a graduate of Rutgers University and a former student at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion in Israel, assisted Rabbi Carmy in this work. Rabbi Carmy’s elegant introduction also serves as a heartfelt tribute to Rabbi Wurzburger together with Rabbi Norman Lamm’s preface tribute, both of which accurately place Rabbi Wurzburger’s role at the center of Jewish thinking for our time.
I conclude with a personal and emotional tribute to Rabbi Wurzburger, sent to me by his lifelong friend, Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler of Hebrew University and a former congregant at Shaaray Tefila.
"Rabbi Wurzburger spent the great part of his public life as a transmitter of Torah Sheba’al Peh in the trenches as a pulpit rabbi and university teacher and as editor for many years of Tradition magazine. Our lives unexplainedly paralleled his presence in Toronto and Far Rockaway. It seems that Walter preferred to play the role of a teacher, preacher...often, prophet, as well as standing at the gates of communities as the fulcrum of ben adam l’chavero and ben adam la’makom. “Our personal lives interacted much earlier having emerged from our respective origins in pre-war Munich to meet again in an unexpected opportunity of tikkun in North America. The Walter I knew was always with the ordinary mensch in genuine dialogue, concern and empathy. His menschkeit transcended the harsh deadlines of articles. His gentleness was not hardened by the weekly unrelenting ascendancy to the pulpit. This is the Walter whom I was privileged to know. The one I wish to remember."
I could not have said this better myself. Many of his congregants at Shaaray would concur with Reb Pesach’s sentiments. This book deserves your attention as apt reading this coming Rosh Hashanah, and for all year round. Shana Tova to all our loyal readers, from the Kosher Bookworm.
-Alan Jay Gerber
The Jewish Star
Prepared after Rabbi Wurzburger’s death as a representative selection of his writings, this collection spans 30 years, yet the author’s approach remains highly consistent. Rabbi Wurzburger was a professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University. He served as a working rabbi, occupied senior positions in rabbinical organizations, and was editor of Tradition, the leading American journal of modern Orthodox thought, for more than 25 years. Rabbi Carmy’s introduction emphasizes both the differences in approach between Rabbi Wurzburger and his mentor, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and the considerable similarity in their thinking. The book is divided into four sections: ethics, Jewish thought, the Jewish community, and Jewish life. A number of the essays originally appeared in Catholic publications, showing their interest in this area of Jewish thinking. Five of the essays present a philosophy of halakhah. This first-class collection succeeds in presenting the thought of a major modern Orthodox Jewish thinker.