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A Eulogy for Professor Israel Friedlaender, z”l

Eulogies and Words of Tribute
Responsa by David Golinkin

July 10, 2001

At the end of the book of Genesis we read the story of Joseph’s death (50:24-25):

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.

The story continues three generations later in the book of Exodus (13:19):

And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.

Indeed, at the end of the book of Joshua (24:32) we are told:

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought….

Prof. Israel Friedlaender z”l was murdered for the sanctification of God’s name 81 years ago in the Ukraine. He did not have the opportunity to leave a will regarding his place of burial. But there is no doubt that had he had the opportunity, he would have said “you shall carry up my bones from here”. We have the great merit today of burying him in his family’s burial plot on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem.

But I have not come here today to talk about Prof. Friedlaender’s tragic death, but rather about his life, which was filled to the brim with the study of Torah and good deeds.

Prof. Friedlaender was a Renaissance man – an excellent teacher, an impressive speaker, a serious scholar, a thinker, an enthusiastic Zionist and a public servant who was fluent in nine languages (at least).

I shall try to sketch an outline of his life and his major contributions to American Jewry. Prof. Friedlaender was born in Poland in 1876, studied in Berlin at the University and at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary and received a doctorate in Strassburg from Noeldeke, the greatest Orientalist of his time. Prof. Solomon Schechter spotted Friedlaender’s greatness and invited him to become a Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York in 1903, where Friedlaender taught until his death.

  • The Teacher: We have learned in Pirkey Avot (1:1) “Raise up many disciples” and Friedlaender did. His uniqueness as a teacher comes through in a letter which he wrote to Schechter when he accepted his invitation to teach Bible at JTS:

My responsibility to my students is to impart to them a basic knowledge of the Bible, knowledge which will awaken in them the love of Bible. I do not intend to treat the Bible as a document of the past, of mere antiquarian interest. Instead, in the spirit of historical Judaism, I will demonstrate how it will form the basis of the Judaism of the present and the future.

(Baila Shargel, Practical Dreamer: Israel Friedlaender and the Shaping of American Judaism, New York, 1985, p. 18)

In other words, Friedlaender understood that as a lecturer at a rabbinical seminary, he must not only engage in scientific study but he must arouse in his students a love for the Bible. Indeed, his students related that he not only taught Bible and medieval Jewish philosophy, but also gave private lessons in Hebrew and Arabic, distributed scholarships to needy students, hosted students in his home, and helped them find pulpits. Furthermore, an entire generation of Conservative rabbis became Zionists as a result of his influence.

  • The Scholar: Friedlaender was brought to JTS as a Professor of Bible, but his real field of interest was Jewish and Arabic language and culture in the Middle Ages. It was in that field that he published three books and a series of important articles on Maimonides and on Jewish and Arab Messianism in the Middle Ages.
  • The Public Servant: But Prof. Friedlaender was not able to close himself up in the House of Study. He fulfilled in his life the consensus of the famous passage in the Tractate of Kiddushin (40b): “Great is study for study leads to action”. One can state very simply that there was not one important educational or Zionist enterprise in New York between 1903 and 1920 in which Friedlaender did not participate. He was the founder or on the Board of Young Judea; The Educational Alliance; the Kehilla of New York; the Bureau of Jewish Education; Young Israel; the Intercollegiate Menorah Society; and the Federation of American Zionists.
  • The Zionist: Finally, Friedlaender was an enthusiastic Zionist for his entire life. He met his wife Lilian Bentwich, by coincidence, on July 3, 1904, the day of Herzl’s death. She related fifty years later that when the doorbell rang, she answered it only to discover a disheveled young man who appeared to be totally disoriented. Approaching her father, the stranger blurted out “Herzl is dead! A telegram has just arrived from Vienna!” Lilian insisted that at that moment she decided to marry him. (ibid., pp. 164-165)

In 1918, Friedlaender was chosen by the Joint Distribution Committee to travel to Palestine as the Jewish representative in the Red Cross expedition in order to bring relief to the Jews of Palestine. He later wrote:

The ease with which I reached a decision, fraught with grave possibilities and responsibilities both of a public and private nature, was due to the fact that the prospect of assisting, however humbly, in the establishment of the Third Jewish Commonwealth appeared in my eyes as the realization of a dream fondly cherished by me since the days of my childhood, and as the consummation of a life and training which seemed to have been a continuous preparation for the task in store for me. (ibid., p. 25)

Yet despite his love for Herzl, Friedlaender was a staunch disciple of Ahad Ha’am. He thought that the majority of the Jewish people would not make aliyah, but Eretz Yisrael must be a cultural center for the entire Jewish people. But, unlike his teacher Ahad Ha’am, Friedlaender thought “that a normal Jewish life in Palestine, will revive the religious spirit of Palestine”. (ibid., p. 175)

And thus he wrote in 1917 in an article entitled “Zionism as a Stimulus to Jewish Faith”:

Assembled on its hallowed soil, where every footstep re-echoes the religious message of its ancient leaders, neither shut out from the rest of the world by cramping walls of the Ghetto, nor yet crushed or crippled by the tremendous impact of non-Jewish influences, Israel may work out its own destiny and may become again a potent factor in the religious life of humanity. (ibid., p. 177)

This is the ethical will which Prof. Friedlaender left us all: to create a State which is not a spiritual-cultural ghetto on one hand, but also not a cheap imitation of other cultures on the other hand, but a State which will become “a potent factor in the religious life of humanity”. May we merit to fulfill his dream! May his memory be for a blessing!


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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