Remembering Dr. Michael Wyschogrod
by Rabbi Marc D. Angel
With the passing of Dr. Michael Wyschogrod on December 17, 2015, the world has lost a remarkable thinker, a fine human being, and an eloquent spokesman for Jewish faith and tradition. The Modern Orthodox Jewish community has lost one of its greatest contemporary philosophers.
Dr. Wyschogrod was born in Berlin in 1928. As a child, he witnessed Kristallnacht as the great synagogue in Berlin was desecrated by anti-Jewish mobs, when a Torah scroll was stretched on the street so that hooligans might trample on it. His family was fortunate to emigrate from Germany in 1939, coming to the United States.
Dr. Wyschogrod went on to establish a distinguished academic career in America, as a teacher, writer and lecturer. He was a scholar of modern Western philosophy, with a special interest in the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Along with his deep knowledge of Western philosophy, he was a deeply learned Jew—steeped in the Bible, Talmud, and the many centuries of Jewish intellectual creativity.
I was honored to know and work with Michael Wyschogrod for many years. He was soft spoken, almost always with a gentle smile on his face. He was one of the German-born Jewish thinkers who loved ideas and lived with ideas. Like his colleagues Walter Wurzburger, born in Munich in 1920, and Steven Schwarzschild, born in Frankfurt in 1924, Michael Wyschogrod was a clear-headed and wide-ranging thinker. These men had a grand vision of Judaism. Their philosophic minds were able to draw the best of Western thinking into relationship with Judaism, and to expand our way of viewing and understanding Judaism itself.
Michael Wyschogrod was well-known for his strongly held views on the special relationship that exists between God and Israel. He was as “particularist” a Jewish thinker as Yehuda Halevy. At the same time, he was a “universalistic” thinker. He did not see Judaism as a small sect living in isolation from the world. On the contrary, he was active in his participation in dialogue with Christian theologians and philosophers. He was highly admired by Jews and Christians alike for his candor, clarity, openness to ideas, and his gentlemanliness. He sincerely believed that Judaism has a message for all humanity, not merely for a small in-group of Jews.
The passing of Michael Wyschogrod represents the coming to an end of an era of German-born, Orthodox Jewish thinkers. These thinkers had expansive and inclusive minds, searching minds. They were not merely scholars who mastered texts; they were creative thinkers who shed new light on the ancient teachings of Judaism. They were not merely academics; they were visionaries.
Michael, Michael: we will miss you. You have bequeathed to the coming generations a wealth of ideas and an approach to ideas, deeply faithful to Torah and mitzvoth, and deeply committed to the wellbeing of all humanity. Rest in peace, Michael, our teacher and our friend.