As a teenager I was sent to study at a yeshiva in Israel that had been set up by former colleagues of my father from Mir Yeshiva in Lithuania. The Rosh Yeshiva of Be'er Yaacov, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro was a jovial, brilliant man whose learning was well beyond my level of comprehension at the time and yet he could make a sugya sound so simple and so exciting to a young mind. His delight in life and love for learning were infectious. A different influence on the yeshiva was that exerted by Mashgiach, the more somber and serious Rabbi Shlomo Volbe. He was rumored (as if to cover up a scandal) to have studied philosophy in Berlin before going on to Mir.
I remember once having the gall to ask him what I should do if I had difficulty proving that God existed. "Don't worry," he told me, "it may take time, a lot of time. Meanwhile learn Torah and do good deeds." Eight years later I arrived at Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem after having studied philosophy at Cambridge. I still could not prove God's existence but by then it did not matter because I had learnt that "proof" was a rather weak and ineffectual device in matters of spirit and metaphysics, but I was fascinated by linguistic analysis and very much influenced by the giant shadow that Wittgenstein cast over Cambridge philosophy.
I had a letter from Reb Laizer Yehuda Finkel z''l (who had been my father z''l's Rosh Yeshiva when Mir was in Eastern Europe before the Second World War) allowing me to come and learn. Thankfully it was his policy to allow any son of a former Mirrer man to come. Sadly he had died by the time of my arrival in 1965 and when I turned up I was shown into the apartment of Reb Nochum Trokker z''l the son-in-law of Reb Chaim Shmulevitz z''l. He asked me where I had been learning. I said that I had just come from university. He said that the yeshiva was full. I persevered and told him that I had been at Be'er Yaacov for several years before hand. He relented temporarily. "What did you study in university?" he asked. "Philosophy," I replied. "Oh," he said, "You really ought to go to Merkaz HaRav Kook." I showed him the letter I had from Reb. Laizer Yehuda. "All right," he said, "but I warn you, I do not want any philosophy in Mir." I obeyed his order because I had come to Mir to learn, not to philosophize. But his fear of philosophy was based on a set position that probably goes back to Spinoza, if not to the Greeks. It was that philosophy in some way is inimical to Torah, that philosophy was a sort of atheism. No doubt there were plenty of philosophers who were and are atheists. No doubt the association of philosophy with Mendelssohn and the challenge of "Haskala" gave it a bad name in certain circles. At Cambridge, philosophy was the means of analyzing thoughts and ideas and then of course, language. It was and is a fantastic tool to aid clear thinking. Much as I enjoyed philosophy, it was a welcome return to studying Torah, to something more related to the act of living and real moral problems rather than abstract ones.
During my time at Mir I heard many wonderful shiurim from Reb Chaim, Reb Nochum and others. It was the spiritual and intellectual highlight of my student years. But there was never any question of an open, questioning debate on theological issues. I knew I could ask anything in learning but nothing in philosophy. Unquestioning acquiescence was assumed, total obedience without question. Incredible brilliance was set to challenge every letter of the Gemara and its armor bearers but no such inquiry was expected or encouraged on matters of belief. And it struck me as strange that no one seemed at all bothered. But I focused on what I perceived was the priority, Torah, and I suppressed any tendency to philosophize.
When I came to get my Semicha, four years later, after studying very hard and avoiding controversy Reb Nochum gave me a little lecture. He told me to be very careful how I spoke and how I phrased my words of wisdom in the alien environment of a Diaspora Jewish community of baalei batim. He thanked me for suspending my philosophy and told me that now, perhaps, would be the time to return to it and apply it for the sake of Torah. He was a remarkable man.
Throughout my teaching career whether in school or the rabbinate I have sought to stimulate minds, to challenge and to provoke, to encourage people to think for themselves rather than to provide answers. No one answer satisfies every mind. No one generation's philosophy suits every other generation. Thinking, like dressing or even like science, has its fashions and movements and changes. People have to find their own ways to deal with issues and a good teacher shows ways, teaches methodology. Nowadays many of our resurgent orthodox have no interest in philosophy or in abstractions. And I am not going to argue with them. Not everyone is suited to a life of questioning even if Saadya Gaon thinks it desirable and Maimonides thinks it the only way to understand and to know God. But there are inquiring minds who feel dissatisfied with the conventional responses. I hope this book will do no more than open some minds to different ways of looking at old problems. In the end, to use a simile, loving is more important than knowing how to love. For me, Jewish religious experience lies at the center of my spiritual world. Philosophy is its assistant.
I have chosen to go back to Biblical and Talmudic sources primarily because they are the purest expression of Jewish thinking. I strongly believe that much of Jewish thought and practice in the years of the Diaspora were either influenced directly by external conditions or were reactions to pressure imposed upon Jewish life. I believe that the current lack of interest in theological thinking and in philosophical method is very much a reaction against what were in practice as well as in theory, for a very long time, alien and antagonistic cultures. It is impossible for our Jewish psyche not to be affected by what two thousand years of subjugation achieved culminating in the atrocities that European culture spawned this century. Yet just as we have responded by intensifying Torah and rebuilding Jewish life as the strongest, most effective reply to our enemies, so too I believe we need to renew our theological dynamism as a response to assimilation. This is in no way intended as an argument against the intensity of Torah society but as an adjunct to it and as another current to run alongside it.
There is a great deal that is inadequate about all religious structures, bureaucracies and authorities. They tend, inevitably to be concerned with preserving authority and power. They tend to overlook individual sensitivities in pursuit of the wider picture. I believe that spirituality is about importance of every human being as the "child of God". But the only way of amelioration is by engagement not by the opposition of a full frontal attack because whatever my reservations about authority may be, I recognize that any body of thought and law requires a controlling element. But if this control cannot be ameliorated or influenced by engagement then, as Hillel the Elder said, "When everyone is gathering in then you can spread out, but when everyone else spreads out, then you should gather in", which is a prelude to Bar Kappara saying, "What is the essential quotation that encapsulates the principles of the Torah? 'Know Him in everything you do and He will help you walk the straight path'." Which was my father z''l's motto and the one he gave to the school he founded.
I owe everything I am as a Jew for better to my father Kopul Rosen z''l (who died at the age of 49 when I was just 19). He was a giant amongst men, both in size and charisma. I have not seen his like. And to my wise and gracious mother Bayla Brana a''h. For my failings I have to accept responsibility.
My deepest gratitude for great love and encouragement goes to my wife, Suzanne, and to my children, Anushka, Jacky, Natalia, and Avichai. They are the joy of my life. Finally I am honored to be part of a family dedicated to Jewish life; my brothers Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosen, Rabbi David Rosen and my sister Ayellet Rosen Gillis. We have been touched by the magic of our parents.
New York 1999. 5759.