Rabbi Berel Wein is the history teacher of an entire generation. Whether describing Israel’s lightning-swift victory in the Six Day War or the Holocaust, the Medieval Crusades or the biblical account of Creation, Rabbi Wein captures the drama of events and puts them into global perspective. His prolific output includes 1,000-plus audio lectures, four-volume series of coffee table books, and more recently the Destiny Foundation films on the life of Rashi and Maimonides (narrated by Leonard Nimoy), plus a history of Jews in the 20th century, “Faith and Fate.”
Raised in Chicago and trained as a lawyer, Rabbi Wein “heard the calling” and became a driving force in American Jewry for four decades – as synagogue rabbi, kashrut administrator, lecturer, author and Rosh Yeshiva. In 1997, he packed up and fulfilled a lifelong dream of settling in the Holy Land. With keen insights and innovative approach, coupled with a dry and endearing Midwestern humor, Rabbi Wein continues to inspire tens of thousands.
Aish.com spoke with Rabbi Wein at his home in the Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Aish.com: What makes you so passionate about history?
Rabbi Wein: I had a friend who made picture frames. I’m not talking $5 in Walmart; these were $250,000 frames for Rembrandts hanging in museums. The difference between seeing a painting on canvas and seeing it in a frame is enormous. When it comes to current events, history is our framework.
Today it’s 30-second sound bites and therefore we’re blindsided by current events. We don’t realize that we’ve been through this before. In the past, some of our actions proved successful; others were not. The more we’re informed about our history, the more wisdom we have for living today.
Aish.com: It’s been said that the story of the Jewish people is the most incredible in all of human history. What makes Jewish history so unique?
Rabbi Wein: Jewish history teaches us faith, evidence of God’s existence. If you see how the Jewish people have survived over the ages – against such enormous odds, how we’ve remained resilient, and how we’ve repeatedly rebuilt ourselves – you have to stand back in amazement. You know there is something special about the Jewish people.
Jews need to know their special story. Because if you feel special, you act special. And acting special is pretty much the definition of being a good Jew.
Aish.com: Why is there such an ongoing failure to learn from history?
Rabbi Wein: In much of the world, history is not taught at all, except as an academic subject for those who are interested. Or it’s taught in a boring fashion – dry facts and dates. If I tell you the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, what’s that got to do with my own life? If there is no personal connection, I’m going to tune out.
A dynamic approach to history says: I’m not telling you about past events; I’m telling you something about yourself. The Torah itself says: Zeh sefer toldos Adam – “This is the book of human beings” (Genesis 5:1). Our Torah is not a history book; it’s a guide to yourself. Every Jew needs to know how he is personally affected by the Romans, the Greeks, the Holocaust, immigration to America, the State of Israel.
If a person can identify in those terms, then history becomes fascinating. Otherwise, it’s just a date and a place. And a person can go through life thinking that the world began in Phoenix where he was born.
Aish.com: What seems to survive best are the stories and legends of great historical figures.
Rabbi Wein: After biblical times, not all legends about previous generations are literally true. Not everyone was an angel but they were all human beings. There's a great danger in making the previous generations out to be angels: That doesn't impact my life, since I'm not an angel nor is my goal to be an angel. It sets a bar so high that it becomes irrelevant. But if you say that the previous generations were human beings who struggled against their flaws, then I look at myself and say, “They were human beings, so why am I behaving like a donkey?”
My father-in-law grew up in the house of the Chafetz Chaim [the leader of European Jewry in the early 20th century]. The Chafetz Chaim, as a Kohen, was short-tempered. But when he felt himself getting angry, he walked into a corner of the room until he talked himself out of it. To me, that’s much more impressive than to say “he never got angry.” It’s something I can emulate. I can rise to the challenge.
Aish.com: You are a great advocate of studying the biblical prophets. Are there certain episodes or characters that you see being reflected in today’s reality?
Rabbi Wein: I think the books of Shoftim and Shmuel are really the newspaper of our time. Ein melech b’Yisrael – there’s no strong leadership. Everybody thinks they can do their own thing. But God conspires to have certain individuals arise to save the people – the prophet Samuel, King Saul, King David. These were all unlikely leaders. Shmuel was never supposed to be born because his mother was barren. Shaul was hiding, looking for a donkey. David was the youngest brother. The most unlikely candidates are the ones that God chose.
We have to be more receptive to what God wants. When people arise with new ideas, we should not necessarily see them as negative. They may be messengers from Heaven.
For example, it’s interesting that the State of Israel was founded by secular Jews. If it would have been founded by religious Jews, chances are the masses would not have rallied to it, and it would not have become what it is. I can’t read God’s mind, but that’s my gut feeling.
In the early 1940s in Chicago, Rabbi Wein’s grandparents watched their pennies and saved up enough money to paint the interior of their modest home. Finally the big day arrived, but that morning the grandparents received news from Europe of the deportation and mass murder of Jews. Young Berel watched intently as his grandfather phoned the painter and said: “We’re canceling the job, and we’ll pay you the money anyway.” He then turned to his wife and said: “How can one make his house fancy when Jews are suffering so much?”
Aish.com: Anti-Semitism has been such a pervasive, constant theme in Jewish history. What is its primary cause?
Rabbi Wein: It morphs and mutates. The original anti-Semitism in Greek and Roman times was nationalistic. It wasn’t religious, because they were pagans who had 100 gods and didn’t care if you added another one. What bothered them was the exclusivity of the Jews, the national entity that refused to integrate. This became especially true when the Jews fought in wars and rebellions against the Greeks and Romans. War always brings great animosity not easily forgotten.
Things changed when Christianity came into the world. Christianity was and is bothered by Jewish obstinacy in not accepting the so-called Jewish Messiah. That became religious anti-Semitism, and the mere fact of Jewish survival presented a challenge, especially to the Roman Catholic Church.
As the church waned in more modern times, things morphed into racial anti-Semitism, a “problematic DNA” within the Jews. Religious anti-Semitism can be solved by converting, but if it’s in your bloodstream, there’s nothing to do about it. The culmination of this, of course, was the Holocaust with its racial doctrines.
Also in our time we’ve seen ideological anti-Semitism. No matter how many Jews profess loyalty to Communism or any of the so-called progressive ideas, Judaism always presents a barrier. Jews could never be fully accepted as “good” Communists.
Aish.com: What is driving the anti-Semitism of today?
Rabbi Wein: We’re back now to the original nationalistic anti-Semitism. The mere existence of the State of Israel raises the questions: Why are the Jews entitled to a nation? Why do they win wars? Why do they need an exclusive Jewish state, instead of something more universal like the United States? People are disturbed that the Jews, so few in number, have a state that makes so much noise. This fuels the old anti-Semitism.
Aish.com: Let’s talk about what’s going right in the Jewish world. What stands out in your mind as a true ongoing success?
Rabbi Wein: The State of Israel is something we’re doing right. It’s a wonderful country, where you can live a fulfilling Jewish life.
Another positive trend is how Torah study has achieved great things in the last half century, not only in sheer numbers but in the diversity of thought.
That excitement is spreading: The Torah message is reaching people who 30, 40 years ago weren’t even willing to listen, but today are willing to acknowledge a different way. That’s a great phenomenon which has never before happened with the Jewish people.
Aish.com: It seems that many American Jewish families would be open to a day-school education, but it’s so unaffordable. Is there a solution?
Rabbi Wein: Growing up in Chicago, I attended public school until seventh grade, because there was no Jewish school. Then some old-time Lithuanian rabbis opened a school and went knocking on doors – collecting money and begging parents to send their children. It’s a matter of determination. For the first 10-12 years, there were no tuition fees.
Today there’s enough money in the Jewish world today to float everything, to support all Jewish education without tuition. I had a yeshiva for 20 years in Monsey and no student was ever refused entry because of tuition, no student was ever expelled because of non-payment of tuition, and many people never paid tuition. But as someone who has raised funds for my synagogue and other institutions, I know that fundraising is hard work. It’s easier to just say, “Let’s raise the tuition.”
Today, the Jewish Federations have awakened to the fact that Jewish education is a good thing to support. But they still provide a very small slice of the budget. The solution is for the Jewish community to accept that these schools need to be supported by the entire community, not just by those parents who send their kids.
When Rabbi Wein was building his yeshiva in Rockland County, the contractors offered him a choice: wood that was guaranteed for 90 years, or special wood from Finland guaranteed for 300 years. Rabbi Wein refused the special wood, saying: “Who knows what’s going to be here 300 years from now. Where have the Jews been anywhere for 300 years?”
Aish.com: American Jewry is increasingly losing ground to assimilation. How do you envision this playing out over the next 50 years?
Rabbi Wein: In 19th century Europe, 250,000 Jews converted to Christianity – French, German, Austrian Jews. Some of them were still judged Jewish by Hitler; most were not. I imagine there must be millions of people in Europe with Jewish antecedents – in Spain, Portugal, Holland, Poland. But they’re not part of the Jewish people. The same thing will happen in America. It’s only a question of time, because people who intermarry rarely raise their children as Jewish, and the next generation certainly is not Jewish. It’s a war of attrition.
The solution is to give people a positive reason to remain Jewish. If a person doesn’t want to identify as Jewish, the fact that you count him as a demographic is useless.
Aish.com: How was the Six Day War a turning point in so many ways, in terms of Jewish pride?
Rabbi Wein: The Six Day War vindicated the Jewish people after the Holocaust, more so than the establishment of the State. Anyone who lived through the months preceding the Six Day War knows the palpable feeling of depression, fear, trepidation. Here was the specter of the Holocaust happening all over again. I was a rabbi in Miami Beach and Jews I’d never seen before came and sat in the synagogue all day. They thought it was all going to be over, and they felt drawn to a Jewish place.
When the triumph came, the Jews felt vindicated. It was an indication of the hidden capabilities of unity and strength that lies within the Jewish people.
Aish.com: The ’67 war led to all sorts of geopolitical issues which have not sorted themselves out yet – Gaza, Egypt, Syria, settlements. How do you see things moving forward?
Rabbi Wein: One thing I admire about the Palestinian leadership is their intransigence. They have the patience to do nothing. They say the same things now that they said 65 years earlier. This can go on indefinitely. Maybe 150 years from now our descendants will still be asking what to do about the Arab-Israeli crisis.
That’s why I mentioned the Book of Shoftim (Judges). Four hundred years after the Jewish people came into the Land, not one issue was settled. Battles, conflicts, internal strife – it was the same story for 400 years. So God has time. We are constrained, because our mortality always lives with us. We’re impatient; we want things settled now. God is not bound by our timetable. So maybe we should do nothing. “Sit and wait” is also a policy, you know.
Aish.com: Tell me about your decision to make Aliyah, having been the leader of a congregation and yeshiva. What informed your decision and the timing?
Rabbi Wein: I always wanted to live in Israel. There’s no “right time” to go, but I wanted to come while I was still young enough to accomplish something. And I’m very grateful the Lord helped me. I landed here on my feet. I’m the rabbi of a wonderful shul and my foundation disseminates Jewish educational materials all over the world. I’m busy – teaching, writing, doing what I want to do. I never dreamed in my life I’d be a rabbi in Jerusalem. Do you know how many people far greater than I had that dream?
On one hand, it’s a big sacrifice because my children are in the United States. But I love being here. As I said, it’s a Jewish life. I don’t have a Christmas, I don’t have a Halloween, and I don’t have the pressure to prove my loyalty to the United States. Plus the weather is great.
In the early 20th century, a Russian Jew named Wissotsky owned the contract to supply daily tea to the Czar’s millions of soldiers. The Zionist leadership approached Wissotsky and asked him to help supply tea to the residents of pre-state Israel. Wissotsky was not interested in what appeared to be a losing proposition, but he was eventually persuaded to help.
In 1917 the Communists came to power and seized all private assets. Overnight, Wissotsky’s tea business became worthless. He fled to Israel and nurtured his only remaining asset, the small Israeli tea business. Today, Wissotsky is the leading tea distributor in Israel. Says Rabbi Wein: “Investment in Israel is gilt edged.”
Aish.com: It seems that one of the greatest problems facing the Jewish people is the dearth of good leadership. Why is that?
Rabbi Wein: One of the immediate after-effects of the Holocaust was that we were challenged to rebuild the Jewish people, and therefore everybody had to assume some kind of leadership role. My teachers were all Holocaust survivors. They all had a vision to take raw American guys and develop them into rabbis who would go out and make a difference.
I don’t think that challenge exists today. You have a lot of good people that could be rabbis, teachers and community leaders that are working on Wall Street. Not to demean Wall Street, but that’s not what we need right now.
We need teachers who will not just give over facts, but will inspire people to do something. Unless there’s an inspirational vision, then “comfort” becomes the natural course of events. We have to try for the inspirational vision. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve got 30 rabbis out in the field. And of course that’s what Rabbi Weinberg successfully did with Aish.
Aish.com: In terms of today’s needs, which personality from Jewish history would you wish to transplant into today’s reality?
Rabbi Wein: The Prophet Samuel sacrificed his entire life on behalf of the Jewish people. He traveled around, speaking to every Jewish community. The verse says, “V’sham baiso” – his home was wherever he was.
He was a person of enormous stature who was incorruptible. I think part of the great problem in Israel is that to a great extent it’s corrupt. You find an honest politician, he retires.
Another part of the problem is that everything in Israel is political. I would prefer if there were no religious parties. I’m convinced that if there were no religious parties in Israel, much more of the Israeli public would be observant and traditional. I can’t change that, but I’m very optimistic. I’m very sanguine about the future here.
Aish.com: Final question: What message do you have for those who don’t yet appreciate the value of studying history?
Rabbi Wein: Jewish history is our rear view mirror. If we don’t know where we've come from, we cannot know where we're going.