Both Orthodox and Reform Judaism emerged in 19th-century Germany, after the ghetto walls had been torn down, and as governments gradually removed restrictions on Jewish life, while Jews themselves began speaking German and adopting elements of German culture. In Defenders of the Faith: Studies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodoxy and Reform, Judith Bleich examines the religious ferment of the time, and its continuation into the 20th century. Gil Student writes in his review:
In a surprising insight, . . . Bleich points out that Orthodoxy and Reform were not polar opposites. . . . As Jews’ secular lives became modernized and cultured, their religious and personal lives could not lag behind. For some, this meant changing Judaism to match the times, making religious services fit contemporary tastes and discarding beliefs and practices that conflict with conventional wisdom. This attitude, which in retrospect seems inevitable, scandalized traditionalist scholars and laymen who struggled to retain the old standards. Rather than capitulate, traditionalists chose to fight back against the secularization and Christianization of Jewish beliefs and practices.
Today, when we face enormous societal pressure to adopt secular and progressive values, we would do well to learn the lessons of the great scholars and leaders who sustained Orthodoxy . . . in the modern era. For this, Bleich’s work is essential.
In a magnificent feat of scholarship, Bleich provides a comprehensive and deeply insightful study of the halakhic approach of Rabbi Yeḥiel Yaakov Weinberg, a Lithuanian-trained talmudic genius who mastered university academic methods and bridged the two worlds of traditional and modern Judaism in Berlin.
In particular, Bleich notes Weinberg’s devotion to tradition and to the social unity of the Torah world. He explicitly rejected lenient rulings that would split the observant world. And rather than take his cues from secular ethics, “in the halakhah and the aggadah [the nonlegal portions of the Talmud], Weinberg sees a comprehensive self-contained system of ethics.” Weinberg understood the secular views and ethics of his time, and responded by clinging to the Torah and its traditions.