Rabbi Noach Weinberg, who died last week at 78 in Jerusalem, was described by JTA as “the founder and dean of the sprawling global outreach operation Aish HaTorah.”
He was also one of the most influential figures in my religious life, although I don’t know how pleased he would have been at the suggestion.
I stumbled onto Aish’s Jerusalem yeshiva in 1983, ignorant of Orthodox Judaism as well as the network of Jerusalem yeshivas like Aish devoted to creating “baalei teshuva” — newly minted Orthodox Jews who had been raised in non-Orthodox or secular homes. I was a recent college graduate with a full backpack and largely empty brain. Aish offered a bed and three squares, and only asked in return that you sit in on their classes for beginners.
I had been in Israel for six weeks, four of those spent on a secular kibbutz, and I was intrigued. I had arrived in Israel with an understanding of the place no thicker than the copies of Exodus and The Source I had brought over. I thought perhaps some time in the classroom might give me a better understanding of the traditonal Jews I saw scrambling through Mea Shearim and the Jewish quarter and in the background of the “Jewish literature” I had always read avidly. And the price was right.
R. Weinberg taught the signature class, announced on flyers stapled on the walls at Richie’s Pizza and other haunts of the Eurail crowd. “The 48 Ways,” I would later learn, was based on Pirke Avot or “Ethics of the Fathers,” a collection of ethical maxims from the Mishna. (“If I am not for myself,” etc.)
Tall, with a snowy white beard that grew down his chest, Weinberg looked like God Himself . (Could he have only been 52 in 1983? Even then I thought he had livved much of the Jewish hsitory he spoke about.) Weinberg’s mission, I would learn (mostly from a famous Rolling Stone article about him that was passed around the Aish dormitory like samizdat), was not adult ed, but winning converts, from Judaism to Judaism. And he couldn’t do this without rocking our world. His famous question, asked during almost each of the lessons, was “How do you know what you know?” If he was going to convince you about the truth of the Torah and the way of life of those who followed it to the letter (and truth claims were central to Aish’s vision), he’d have to make us doubt the things we already regarded as truths. Secular humanism? Reform pluralism? Conservative centrisim? Enlightenment relativism? Western feminism? If Weinberg could shake the foundations of what we had learned in our previous two decades of secular and Jewish education, that might leave some of us ripe for his vision of Jewish truth — theological certainty wrapped in a scroll of inquiry.
And many of us were ripe. Jerusalem attracts seekers, and turns tourists into pilgrims. The plaza in front of the Western Wall was a bedlam of hasidic worshippers, American bar mitzva boys, bemused German tourists, post-60s burnouts, New Age loonies, and guys like me – suburban kids trying to get a handle on why the site was so moving, or, the flip side, why it didn’t move us at all. The Orthodox guys offering Shabbos meals and a place to stay or learn inside the very walls of the Old City were scratching our itch to connect to this place we had been told was ours.
I ended up staying for four weeks, thrilled to be discussing The Big Ideas with other 20-something American guys. (Where were the women? Somehow I never thought to ask. Turns out they had their own baalat teshuva yeshivot.) I began writing excited (and embarrassing) letters home, saying I was being introduced to a tradition that was mine all along, but which had never been taught me in my Reform Hebrew school. I told friends and family that I was experimenting with keeping kosher, and learning the prayers, and observing Shabbat, but most of all talking deeply with guys who had more on their minds than sports and partying and rock and roll. (Can you tell I didn’t have a great time in college?) I was like Kurtz in “Apocalpyse Now,” writing home, “Sell the house. Sell the car. Sell the kids. Find someone else. Forget it. I’m never coming back.”
Except I did come back. By the end of my month I accepted Weinberg’s critique — basically, that young people like me accepted secular culture and the assumptions of a liberal arts education not because we had done the intellectual heavy lifting of justifying them, but because we lived in default mode. If this is “normal,” we told ourselves, it must be right.
Weinberg had asked the right question — “how do I know what I know?” But I began rejecting his answer — that having lived the “examined life,” we would naturally see the unassailable truth of the Torah and accept the yoke of the mitzvot. Unlike the Chabad-Lubavitch, Aish measured success not by counting how many additonal mitzvas were being performed by more and more Jews, but how many Jews were performing all the mitzvas. Its business was creating newly Orthodox Jews, not sending Reform Jews home a little wiser about their own tradition.
Two forces drove me away from Aish and what they called the “Torah-true” lifestyle. One pushed, one pulled. The push came from an American baal teshuva who — on assignment by Aish I can’t say for sure — attached himself to me as a tutor/mentor. He invited me to the balconies of the Aish properties looking over the Wall, rhapsodized about the beauties of Shabbat and decried the shallowness of the mainstream culture, had me over for meals with his young family. But then he learned that I had a a plane ticket for Ireland, where I planned to meet up with my girlfriend. He got assertive, then aggressive, and then downright belligerent. He urged me to cash in the ticket and extend my stay at Aish with all the subtlety of a salesman trying to close a deal on a time-share. I was repelled.
And Sharon, obviously, was the pull. Not just because we were falling in love, but because she had grown up in a Jewish home more traditional than my own. She was able to remind me that there were many more ways to live a deeply Jewish life than Aish’s version. There were even traditional communities — could I believe it? — where women and men were given equal roles. Sharon presented me with a choice — a Jewish life that we could explore and grow into together, or one without her. It was no contest, and we’ve been married for 22 years.
I left Aish, but in a sense it never left me. Sparked in large part by my short stay and R. Weinberg’s disorienting lessons, I began a journey that put Judaism and Israel at the center of my life — personally and, eventually, professionally. I embraced tradition in my own way, and became part of Jewish communities that accepted me for who I was, not for what they hoped I would become. I found teachers who were every bit the Torah scholars of those working at Aish, but whose inquiries led them to a more expansive definition of Jewish possibilities. When they asked, “How do I know what I know?” it was not only an invitation to examine my own assumptions, but a warning to be wary of those who were absolutely certain in their own.
Over the years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to criticize Aish. I found their “Discovery” seminars, which use the so-called Bible “codes” to ”prove” the divine origin of Torah, to be just so much numerological mumbo-jumbo. And their forays into politics — the organization’s fingerprints were all over the distribution of a virulently anti-Muslim video sent to hundreds of thousands of homes during the presidential campaign — were greasy.
But I’ll never forget R. Weinberg, and I’ll forever remain grateful for his gift to me. It’s the gift of Torah — maybe not on his terms, but on terms that have enhanced my life in innumerable ways.