Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger
Edited by E. L. Jacobs and S. Carmy
Urim Publications, 2008, 325 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 19, 2010
Rabbi Dr. Walter S. Wurzburger (1920-2002) was the editor of the Orthodox Jewish Journal Tradition. This 2008 book contains twenty-seven of the rabbi's essays that are presented in four parts: ethics, Jewish thought, Jewish community and Jewish life. It includes chapters on the thinking of Maimonides, Rabbi Hayyim of Valozhin, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Wurzburger seems to prefer mystical views; he occasionally quotes from the mystical book Zohar and states on page 312 that Maimonides was a mystical thinker.
Rabbi Wurzburger's worldview is based on his belief that God revealed his will and his commands in the Torah to the Israelites and that these divine laws must be obeyed. However, he quotes Rabbi Soloveitchik: "Halakhah (meaning Torah law as explained by the rabbis) is a floor, not a ceiling." Thus, while Torah is the basis of a Jew's life, it is not, to use another metaphor, set in cement; one can and should build upon God's revelation. The question, however, is how should Jews go beyond Torah law?
The book's title Covenantal Imperatives reflects the volume's primary theme and answers this question. Rabbi Wurzburger states that Jewish ethics, which are not explicit in the Torah, should still be based on the Torah, not on reason. Jews, he writes, can use "intuitive judgments to ascertain" what God wants, but it must be what God wants. They should listen to eminent Torah scholars who drew their understandings of ethical behavior from the Torah laws and from biblical narratives.
He refers readers to Nachmanides' comment in his Commentary on the Torah on Deuteronomy 7:18 (the citation should be 6:18). The Torah tells the Israelites "You shall do what is right and good in the eyes of God." Nachmanides writes (in the Charles B. Chavel translation) that there are times when Jews should go "beyond the requirements of the letter of the law." Nachmanides explained: "since it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man's conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions… (Moses stated) in a general way that, in all matters, one should do what is good and right."
While Rabbi Wurzburger bases his view upon Nachmanides' statement, it should be noted that Nachmanides does not say that the ethical behavior must be based on Torah and not on reason. In fact, Nachmanides does not address the source of ethical behavior at all.
Rabbi Wurzburger recognizes (on page 168) that Maimonides developed the idea of "ethics of the pious" in his introduction to Pirkei Avot a generation before Nachmanides. Maimonides taught the teaching of the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) that people should develop habits of behavior in accordance with the "golden mean." The behavior should not be the extremes of avoidance and excess. Thus, for example, people should not give too much or too little charity. However, Maimonides also said that this principle should be followed by the general population; however, there is also a concept of lifnim meishurat hadin. This means that if a person has intelligence and can evaluate situations properly, the intelligent person need not be straight-jacketed into the middle path but can move away from the "mean" to behavior that fits the situation.
Rabbi Wurzburger did not like the Maimonidean approach, apparently because it does not fit his ideology: it is not Torah based and it relies on intelligence and not on the behavior of pious rabbis.
Thus, it is no surprise that he also appears to dislike Maimonides human oriented approach. Maimonides stated in his Guide of the Perplexed that the purposes of the Torah are to give true ideas and to improve people and society. Rabbi Wurzburger preferred a mystical God-oriented approach. He insisted that the "ultimate objective of Jewish ethics is not the collective well-being of human society but to make human individuals as God-like as possible."
Thus, in short, the title Covenantal Imperatives denotes Rabbi Wurzburger's view that Jews should go beyond the specifics of the Torah, but it is imperative that their behavior be based on the divine covenant, the Torah.