The unique life story of Rabbi Berel Wein, a scholar of the past

“I was not a great sportsman. So, I drifted into the library and the librarian got hold of me and ‘fed me’ books"

‘JEWISH HISTORY is the key to faith and belief,’ opines Wein. (photo credit: EUGENE WEISBERG)
‘JEWISH HISTORY is the key to faith and belief,’ opines Wein.
(photo credit: EUGENE WEISBERG)
Sitting in his apartment in the heart of Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, Rabbi Berel Wein, the prolific and popular rabbi, scholar and lecturer in Jewish history, clearly recalls the moment when the past became his passion.
“When I was a 16-year old student at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, we had an hour break for lunch each day. Afterwards, before the next study session, a lot of the boys went to play sports.”
Warming to the subject in his distinctive Midwestern accent, Wein continues, “I was not a great sportsman. So, I drifted into the library and the librarian got hold of me and ‘fed me’ books. She asked me, ‘What would you like to know?’ That day, we had studied the commentary of Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, and I said, ‘I’d like to know who he was.’ She brought me a book about him, and I was hooked. I would go in every day and read, and she would give me books.”
As Wein’s interest and knowledge of history grew, he began to give classes on the subject. The combination of his droll, dry sense of humor and storytelling ability was a winning formula. Throughout his many and varied occupations – as a lawyer, a congregational rabbi, and the head of a yeshiva, one thing was constant – his love for history, and his ability to teach it to others.
“I saw that there is a thirst for it. People want to know,” he says simply.
Seventy years later, at the age of 86, Wein has successfully pursued his passion, having authored 15 books on Jewish history, recording more than 1,000 lectures, offering educational tours, and most recently, producing historical documentary films through his Destiny Foundation.
Wein moved to Israel in 1996 and has continued lecturing and teaching both in Israel and abroad, while serving as the rabbi of Beit Knesset Hanassi in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood for more than 20 years. This past summer, Wein’s synagogue dedicated a Torah scroll in his honor, and established a Jewish history scholarship program.
“We had an idea to have a scholarship that would help people who were interested in spreading Jewish history as a popular subject – not necessarily as an academic subject,” he explains. Four students – Aviel Javasky and Oz Zuckerman from Herzog College, Dror Yahav from Bar-Ilan University, and Nimrod Soll from Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute – were selected.
Wein will mentor the scholarship recipients, and beginning next fall, they will deliver lectures at Beit Knesset Hanassi. He will recommend books for them to read, and discuss different viewpoints to take into consideration. The lectures, which will be delivered in English, will focus on Jewish history from the 17th century until modern times. The idea of a Jewish history scholarship program within Beit Knesset Hanassi is a logical one.
“I conduct a Jewish History lecture series in Beit Knesset Hanassi every year,” he says. “Looking past me, that was the idea of the scholarship, that these young men will be able to create their own programs, even beyond Beit Knesset Hanassi, and beyond the one lecture that they will give.”
What makes the scholarship program unique in Wein’s view, is that “it is not meant for academics. It’s meant for the masses.”
The ability to make history appealing to a broad audience is perhaps Wein’s greatest legacy, and one that he wants to impart to the scholarship awardees.
“History as an academic subject is boring,” he says. “We all know that from school. You have to make it not boring. In order to do that, you have to know a lot, and you have to know how to present material. That’s where the mentoring comes in.”
He attributes his vast popularity in the English-speaking world to his ability to make the study of history interesting and appealing.
“I am telling a story, and people like stories,” he explains. “The history of the Jewish people is a story. The Torah is a story in a certain respect. That’s why it is full of details about people, about incidents, because that’s what we are.”
Throughout his stories and lectures, Wein attempts to impart one basic message. “In my opinion, Jewish history is the key to faith and to belief, and to explain what we’re doing here in Israel. If you have no idea of where you are coming from, you have no idea where you are going.”
THE FIRST history book written by Wein was Triumph of Survival, published by Artscroll’s Shaar Press impression. It traced the history of the Jews from 1650 until 1995. While written primarily for an Orthodox audience, it told the story of the Jewish people from the perspective of general world history. The book was a great success, and together with Wein’s audio recordings, which originally were issued on cassette tapes, then on CD, and today as MP3 downloads, helped to popularize Jewish history, especially among the right-wing Orthodox segment of the Jewish population, which heretofore had downplayed the subject.
Wein suggests that the study of Jewish history was not popular among Orthodox Jews for several reasons. The study of history had become a popular subject during the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and among the secularists, which automatically made it unpopular among the religious. Additionally, he says, the Orthodox world has generally concentrated on written texts such as the Bible and Talmud, and with no “official” Jewish history text, there was little to recommend.
Finally, and most poignantly, he mentions that history to a large extent is an oral tradition, and largely depends on the stories and traditions that are passed down from parents to children.
“It got cut off in our time for various reasons, such as the Holocaust, and even before that, because of immigration. My parents never spoke to me about their childhood, or what life was like in Eastern Europe. Children are influenced by what is discussed at home, and it was ignored in the Orthodox world, which places an emphasis on behavior and scholarship rather than knowing what happened before. Only in our time has it has slowly dawned on us that it is an error.”
In 1996, Wein founded the Destiny Foundation, which in addition to distributing the recordings of his lectures has produced a series of films on Jewish personalities such as Rashi and Nachmanides, as well as a documentary series based on his history of the Jews in the 20th century, titled Faith and Fate. A number of these videos are available on YouTube, and the first volume, The Dawn of the Century, has been viewed more than one million times.
The Destiny Foundation has designed an entire Jewish history curriculum based on the films that is in use by hundreds of Jewish schools in the United States. Wein notes that the program is used across the Jewish religious spectrum, from schools affiliated with the Reform movement to hassidic schools.
“That’s one of the unique things that we have accomplished. We speak to the entire Jewish people, and we are not agenda-driven. Everything is from a traditional point of view.”
“Part of my view of Jewish history,” says Wein, “is that Heaven, so to speak, pushes us. It doesn’t just happen at random. We think it does, but there is overarching plan and guidance. We would call it hashgacha, or Divine Providence – how to be able to see that in Jewish history and how to see the Jewish world within the greater world.”
Wein has recently began a new lecture series at his synagogue, titled One Hundred Years Later – How World War I Continues to Affect the World and The Jewish People Even Today.
“People call me and ask, ‘What does World War I have to do with anything?’ If you don’t know what happened before, during, and after World War I, you don’t understand what happened to the Jewish people.”
Continuing his thread of the necessity of recalling the past, Wein reaches for a copy of his newest book, In the Footsteps of Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet), which was published this past April. The book offers both a geographical and chronological look at the people, places and movements of the Jewish people, and is a history of the Jews of the Diaspora, by country. As is typical of books by Wein, it features hundreds of colorful photos of the places where the Jewish people have lived throughout the world.
“There are Jews here in Israel that come from every country of the world. Most of them don’t know how they got to that country or why they left that country. A book like this gives insight in your life, and into who you are.”
GEORGE SANTAYANA, the well-known philosopher, essayist and poet, famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Looking at Israeli society today from a historical perspective, Wein says, “There are many ‘Second Temple’ issues, recalling the divisions and hatred that existed between Jews at that time. There are splits in society, viciousness of politics and short-sightedness of personalities.”
When it comes to contemporary antisemitism, he says it is “very hard to eradicate a 3,000-year disease,” noting that societies where antisemitism gain strength are greatly weakened, and eventually meet their downfall.
“It happened to Czarist Russia, Germany and Spain,” he notes. “Antisemitism is not subject to logic, nor to emotion. It’s a disease.” Regarding the Jewish community in the United States, he says dryly, “Intermarried couples do not produce Jewish grandchildren. On the other hand, Orthodoxy is much stronger than it ever has been, so it is going in two directions at the same time.”
It is Wein’s hope that Beit Knesset Hanassi’s Jewish History Scholarship Program will continue to promote the importance and meaning of the study of Jewish history, so that future generations will understand its importance, and appreciate his statement that “history is our rearview mirror.”
Wein has written about the great figures of Jewish history from Rashi to Rav Kook. When asked which famous historical personality he would choose to be, he laughs and says, “Rothschild.” After the laughter subsides, he says that he would like to have known the Gaon of Vilna, because of the key role that he played in how the Jewish world developed.
“The Yeshiva movement grew from him, the Mussar [ethics] movement grew from him, a lot of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) grew from him. He was a towering figure.”
As Hanukkah approaches, Wein notes that the Jewish holidays reflect Jewish history.
“The rabbis instituted the holiday of Hanukkah to remind us of our past and to give clarity to our present world as well. I have always felt that a knowledge of Jewish history enables us to appreciate the significance of our holidays and the importance of their commemoration. It grants immediacy to what on the surface can only somehow appear as being a narrative of past events.”
In that vein, he retains his optimism for the Jewish future.
“Look back 80 years ago to 1940, and see where we were, and where we are today. Who could have imagined such a thing – that seven million Jews are living in this country, and 900,000 Jews living in Jerusalem? How did that happen?” he marvels.
“You have to be an optimist to be a Jew, and you have to be an optimist to have a family, and you have to be an optimist to live in the Land of Israel.
“I think the Lord has brought us a long way and he’ll bring us the rest of the way. There will be ups and downs, and it is not easy.
“But,” he concludes in his trademark style, “that is life.”