The rabbi Leo Jung (1892-1987) provided practical and theological leadership to American Orthodox Judaism, helping it become more dignified and responsive to the needs of contemporary Jews while retaining traditional rabbinical values and laws.
When Leo Jung (born June 20, 1892, in Ungarisch Brod in Moravia) first came to the United States in 1920 he was charged with hypocrisy. Americans could not believe that an intellectual rabbi, who spoke in elegant English and whose approach to Judaism was sophisticated and modern, could be truly Orthodox. After more than 60 years that mistake (ludicrous even in its own day) was unthinkable; by the 1980s American Jewish Orthodoxy itself demonstrated a dignity, intellectualism, and responsiveness to modernity that resulted in no small measure from the work of Jung.
A Life Dedicated to Orthodox Judaism
Jung was educated in both secular German studies and in traditional Hebraica by a father who understood the challenges of the modern world and who was totally committed to Jewish tradition. By 1910 Jung had graduated his gymnasium summa cum laude and matriculated at Vienna University while pursuing training at Orthodox Yeshivot as well. From 1911 to 1914 he was in Berlin studying at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary and gleaning secular scholarship from various German universities, including the University of Berlin and Geissen University, in which he pursued doctoral studies with a thesis on the concept of God in Anglo-Saxon philosophy.
The outbreak of World War I prevented completion of this course of study. From 1914 to 1920 he was in England studying at Cambridge (1916-1919) and earning both a bachelor's and a master's degree, obtaining three rabbinical ordinations, and beginning his practical rabbinical work. In 1920 he returned briefly to Germany to gain a definitive rabbinical ordination from the Hildesheimer Seminary. Both his intellectual training and personal qualities were evident in the variety of his achievements in England.
From his first years as rabbi of Congregation Kenesset Israel in Cleveland, Ohio, he began pioneer work transforming American Orthodox Judaism. He fought for decorum in worship and for improved Jewish education, creating a movement directed at the needs of Orthodox Jewish youth. In 1922 he left Cleveland to become spiritual leader of the New York Jewish Center, where he remained as rabbi for 50 years, becoming emeritus rabbi upon his retirement in 1976. His concern for practical issues led him to head the Beth Jacob Movement for the Religious Education of Women, to chair the New York State Government Advisory Board on Kosher Law Enforcement from 1935 to 1965, and to accept chairmanship of the cultural committee of the American Joint Distribution Committee, beginning in 1940, working for the good of European Jews. In that capacity he helped bring more than 9,000 refugees to the United States. Although associated with the Agudath Israel group within Jewish Orthodoxy, he resigned in 1929 to protest its anti-Zionist stance.
Jung's sensitivity to pressing issues of his day was reflected in his academic and professional work. His approach to worship emphasized meeting modern esthetic standards while remaining true to traditional regulations. He championed an atmosphere of decorum, dignity, and sanctity in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue. At the same time he spoke out against the insularity of many Orthodox rabbinical leaders and castigated Jewish intellectuals who rejected the Judaic tradition without fully knowing its content. He was sensitive to the changing needs of the American Jewish community, speaking out on behalf of Orthodoxy, offering critical analysis on such questions as Jewish intermarriage, proselytism and conversion, love and family life, and business ethics. His academic interests focused on ethics, which he taught at Yeshiva University for more than 40 years beginning in 1931. He became professor emeritus upon his retirement in 1968. He also taught at the university's Stern College for Women, where he introduced a course in ethics in 1956.
Writings on Everyday Problems
Jung's writings display an engaging and wide-ranging competence. He wrote or edited more than 31 books. His most ambitious task, beginning in 1928, was to serve as editor of the Jewish Library, to which he also contributed original essays. Jung was the only American contributor to the prestigious Soncino translation of the Babylonian Talmud (the foundation of rabbinical Jewish law and thought). He was not an ivory tower academic. Constantly aware of contemporary needs, he wrote in response to critical questions of Jewish life. The observance of Jewish law and the problems of living as an Orthodox Jew in a secular environment were dealt with seriously, sympathetically, but always from the perspective of a committed traditional Jew. He taught it was more important to "judaize" the modern world than to modernize Judaism—an approach mirroring that of the German Jewish thinker Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose influence Jung acknowledged.
Theologically Jung confronted the problem of evil, whether experienced as the trauma of Jewish history and particularly the Nazi Holocaust, or in personal tragedy. He contended that misery was not an argument against God but rather a challenge for human beings, that free will is not only a blessing but also a demand. Jung believed the Torah, Jewish teaching, is a way of peace and truth, but that human evil perverts it and engenders sorrow and distress. Jung's ability to listen sympathetically to those in pain could bring them slowly to recognize the enduring and eternal presence of God and the value of Jewish tradition amid their distress.
Jung's most impressive work involved Jewish ethics. His moral writings are not abstract and distant. He wrote about such subjects as business ethics, the needs of the poor, and interhuman obligations. A collection of his writings—Between Man and Man—has been revised and expanded a number of times and translated into Hebrew. The title demonstrates his practical concerns with human relationships. Daily acts of kindness no less than dramatic deeds are considered acts of self-sacrifice.
The Hebrew term for such sacrifice is kiddush hashem —the sanctification of God's name. Jung wrote at length on the meaning of holiness (kedushah) and of the love of God and others. His theoretical exposition of sanctification, both in ritual and ethics, is persuasive: the purpose of being a human is to bring God into the world and make the world more holy. His essays on Jewish ethics as a means of sanctification provided a fitting foundation for his practical and educational efforts.
Despite his age and his emeritus status, Jung remained active at the Jewish Center in Manhattan until his death in 1987.
Further Reading on Leo Jung
A useful sketch of Jung the man and the religious leader is found in Nima H. Alderblum's essay "Leo Jung" included in The Leo Jung Jubilee Volume, edited by Menahem M. Kasher, et al. (1962). Jung's autobiography, The Path of a Pioneer (London, 1981), provided important information and insight about his life and character as well as about the struggles involved in being a modern Orthodox Jewish leader. The most recent dialogue on Jung's legacy can be found in Reverence, Righteousness and Rahamanut: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung, edited by Jacob J. Schacter (Baltimore, 1996).