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Straus Center Class Spotlight: Malbim & Modernity

This semester, Rabbi Dov Lerner, a Resident Scholar at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, will teach Malbim & Modernity, a course in Jewish history and Jewish philosophy. The class will focus on Malbim, a 19th-century rabbi, philosopher and playwright and his reaction to the emancipation of Europe’s Jews.

YU News sat down with Rabbi Lerner to discuss the course, which will be offered at Stern College for Women.

Who was Malbim? 
In a eulogy published in the weeks following his passing, an editorial team of one of the most widely-read Jewish newspapers of the 19th century compared Malbim to both Rashi and Abarbanel—and accosted his adversaries for causing his untimely death.


Born in 1809—three weeks before Abraham Lincoln, in a small village a world away—Malbim lived a life marked by both personal and professional tragedy and yet went on to become one of the most industrious Jewish thinkers of the age.

He lost his father at the age of six, was first married at 14 and divorced by 20—having already had two children. After taking refuge among mystics under the tutelage of the first Zidichover Rebbe, he published a halakhic [Jewish legal] compendium in a bid for both a rabbinic position and a spouse, both of which he found in the town of Wreschen in the coming year. He served in a further seven pulpits over his turbulent career—including as the Chief Rabbi of Romania in Bucharest, a post from which he was expelled by the government due to the efforts of disgruntled Jews.

Over the course of these years, Malbim lost, it appears, more than five young children, and his wife wrestled with bouts of mental illness. Despite this catalog of crises, Malbim penned and left as his legacy a series of sermons, a morality play, a halakhic treatise and one of the most comprehensive, compelling and systematic biblical commentaries ever produced in Jewish history.

Malbim spent time in cities spanning the breadth of Europe—from Constantinople in the East to Paris in the West and everywhere in between—and declined an offer to serve as the Chief Rabbi of New York City before passing away in Kiev on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1879.

What can students expect to gain from the class? 
Malbim’s personal and professional dramas took place against the backdrop of some of the most significant cultural crises in Jewish history.

After nearly three centuries forcibly contained within ghettos across the continent, the emancipation of Europe’s Jews led to a confrontation between their traditions and the forces of modernity. Students can expect to explore those forces and the assortment of rabbinic responses to gain a deep sense of Malbim’s position on the continuum. They can hope to finish the course knowing who Malbim was, what he believed, the world in which he lived and how he sought to shape it.

How does the class exemplify the creed of Torah Umadda?  
The crises of emancipation faced by the Jews of Europe arose as a result of both their novel access to a range of secular pleasures and a clash with the two major intellectual movements of modernity—Enlightenment and Romanticism. The class will explore the major tenets of these two movements and examine how their respective outlooks influenced traditional authority structures and, most crucially, the reading of the biblical text. We will also assess to what extent the rabbinic responses rejected, disregarded or harnessed these cultural forces as they sought to buttress Jewish life and culture.

What texts will students be reading and discussing?  
To set the stage of modernity, we will read, as a pairing, a seminal essay by Immanuel Kant and the First Discourse of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. To get a sense of Malbim’s outlook—his theology, exegetical theory and ethics—we will read a combination of his sermons and biblical introductions and commentaries. And, finally, to serve as a contrast to Malbim’s exegesis, we will read one of Lord Byron’s plays, an essay by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a sermon penned by Laurence Sterne.

Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it interesting and meaningful to you? 
In many ways, we all still live in the shadow and at the mercy of the cultural forces forged at the dawn of modernity. The clashes between Enlightenment reason and Romantic feeling, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, traditionalism and progressivism all inhabit our social, political and religious imaginations and inform almost every facet of our outlooks. To see how the leading traditional thinkers of Jewish Europe navigated the choppy waters of a new world—with Malbim at the center—not only offers historical edification and fills in the picture of our own living influences but can inspire us to consider the ways in which we live our lives right now.