Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity is a collection of essays on twentieth-century Modern Orthodox leaders who bridged the worlds of Torah and the West. Each portrait, itself crafted by a contemporary Modern Orthodox thinker, provides a brief biography of the subject’s life and milieu, his or her contributions to Jewish and Western thought, and his or her impact on contemporary Jewish life. The portraits are of Rav Kook, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Professor Nechama Leibowitz, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, and Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky. Collectively, these thinkers have tackled topics as complex and diverse as Jewish medical ethics, biblical Interpretation, Jewish History, Zionism, and the place of a liberal arts education in Jewish life.
The chapter entitled “Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits and the Birth of Jewish Medical Ethics,” written by the physician and ethicist Dr. Alan Jotkowitz, provides the reader with both a broad understanding of Jakobovits’ methodology and an in-depth analysis of key topics, including end-of-life care, artificial reproduction, and cosmetic surgery. Despite the complexity of these issues, the chapter is accessible to the average but interested reader. The author makes it clear that Rabbi Jakobovits understands Jewish medical ethics to value responsibilities and duties over “autonomy and unlimited human freedom.” At the same time, Jotkowitz concludes with an appreciation of Rabbi Jakobovits’ contribution in “imbuing Judaism with a sense of mission to the nations of the world” and the “moral life of humankind.”
The book includes one woman in its collection of portraits. The chapter on Professor Nechama Leibowitz, written by her biographer Yael Unterman, shares the life and immeasurable contribution of an innovative educator and revolutionary in biblical studies. At the same time, Unterman laments that Leibowitz “is often woefully overlooked in both traditional and academic circles.” With deep appreciation, the profile suggests how Leibowitz’s work “fits with the current trends in the world of Torah study that presage the future of Jewish education.” Unterman advocates that if Leibowitz’s methodology is “integrated alongside other Tanakh-teaching methods, it can continue to play a vital role in Jewish education.”
Torah and Western Thought provides the opportunity to be challenged by the collective wisdom of ten great minds that have transformed Jewish life and Western civilization in the twentieth century. Each chapter inspires the reader to take a fresh look at how our ancient tradition has shaped the thinking of millions. At the same time, Torah and Western Thought encourages us to see Torah study as a timeless treasure that we should all seek to understand more fully.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.