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A Rabbi's Struggle for Religious Middle Ground

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, a survivor of the Holocaust and director of the Harvard Hillel for some 30 years, has died at 93. His eulogists will emphasize his sociological contribution: Under his guidance, Jewish life became a sanctioned part of a flagship university campus where its presence had previously been tenuous.

But what makes Gold’s life most distinctive, and his passing so noteworthy, is his complex connection to the lost world of the pre-war European yeshivas and the way he tried to reconfigure his religious worldview after the Holocaust made him lose his traditional faith in a personal God.

Gold’s odyssey back into a modified religious observance reflects the predicament of modern American Jewry. It helps explains its division into an orthodoxy that seeks to restore the old faith, a progressive strand that rejects the binding nature of Jewish law and a struggling middle way that seeks to preserve some of each.

Gold’s childhood in Radom, Poland, and his boyhood spent studying Talmud before the war, are the subject of a beautiful memoir published in 2007. Especially striking are the vignettes of people he encountered, the literary equivalent of evocative pencil drawings. Gold’s father looms large, an unusual man who had been trained in Talmud, ran a brewery, served as a city counselor and every morning read both a Yiddish ultra-orthodox newspaper and a Polish communist one.

But there are other delicate portraits, often only a few lines long. One of my favorites is Bathya, a beautiful, worldly-seeming young woman in lipstick, who examines the young Ben-Zion about his Talmud studies, revealing a knowledge that was rare for women. Bathya turns out to be the daughter of a rabbi. She’s engaged to marry the heir to a Hasidic dynasty, described as having “hunched shoulders, thick spectacles, and a long, red nose.” Instead Bathya breaks the engagement and marries the son of an apothecary. The poignancy of the story derives not only from its literary power, but from the knowledge that Bathya and her chosen spouse probably did not survive the war.

Gold studied in a number of yeshivas, most notably in the preparatory program of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, which had opened just a few years earlier in 1930 in a handsome, brand-new building that still stands. The five-story structure, complete with columns and pilasters, was meant to convey that traditional yeshiva study could be elegant and up-to-date. One contemporary photo shows a carefully tended garden in front. Gold may have been the last living person to study at the yeshiva, although the grapevine suggests that there may be a 100-year-old graduate still living in Israel.

The Holocaust took Gold’s parents and three sisters and with it, Gold’s ability to believe in a personal God. He found himself unable to pray, yet attached to his religious tradition. Struggling, Gold went back to the sources he had studied, this time with fresh eyes and “a minimum of preconceptions.” He was able to shape for himself a form of moderately progressive religious practice, infused by a calm spirituality that drew on Hasidic melodies and emphasized good deeds and Torah study over religious faith.

For Gold, the combination worked, and with followers in academic Cambridge, he forged a community dedicated to “worship and study.” The congregation still flourishes without strong institutional ties to any of the major movements in American Judaism.

Seen from the standpoint of Orthodox Judaism, Gold’s complicated compromise looks tenuous. Jewish orthodoxy emphasizes observance of the commandments, to be sure, and often pays little attention to theology. But orthodox observance rests on a commitment to traditional beliefs, including a God who rewards and punishes, and the eternal truth of the revelation delivered at Sinai. To follow the commandments without these beliefs might be praiseworthy, but it isn’t orthodox.

Reform Jews, committed to progressivism, might also question Gold’s approach because of its orientation toward traditional observance. Gold came to his religious compromise via the law, in which he was classically trained. But for modern people who begin without that training, it might seem counterintuitive to focus on study of ancient laws that seem irrelevant to modern lives and values. Better to start with progressive values and find those elements of the past that match, jettisoning the others.

Gold’s middle path is harder, and its road rockier. It may work, as Conservative Judaism long did, for people whose souls were forged in the bosom of Jewish tradition. But it’s hard to sustain a Burkean conservative commitment to tradition without the Orthodox ground from which it grew. The tendency is either to deviate back toward orthodoxy or embrace full progressivism.

What sustains Gold’s way, for those who cling to it, is the intellectual and spiritual beauty of a tradition that has lasted millennia, evolving along the way. Connecting to that tradition is never uncomplicated. Rabbi Gold officiated at my parents’ wedding, and held me when I was circumcised. Yet in my own life I haven’t always followed the way he (or my parents, or my rabbis) would’ve chosen for me. Gold’s life shows, I think, that this struggle can be worthwhile. He lived with what he called “imponderable paradoxes, with questions more than answers.” That isn’t easy. But it can be noble and beautiful.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net