Literary Man of Faith: The Integrated Torah Vision of Prof. William Kolbrener

In his latest book, Bar-Ilan literature Prof. William Kolbrener unabashedly advocates renewed Jewish commitment – and openness – for the twenty-first century.  What exactly does this have to do with John Milton, a Christian poet who was one of the most celebrated writers to emerge out of the Protestant Reformation in 17th century England?


“I’ve long been fascinated with the relationship between religion and individual freedom, and of course this is a central theme in Paradise Lost,” says Kolbrener, adding that Milton’s epic poem, which describes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, is sometimes seen as “proof” of Milton’s Christian orthodoxy. “But in his prose, Milton was a radical political thinker as well as a great proponent of English liberty. By synthesizing a religious worldview with a profound commitment to the individual, I believe that Milton demonstrates how it is possible to embrace tradition without being extinguished by it. And that’s the key to creating a committed – yet non-coercive – Jewish life.”


An expert on Milton, Spencer and Shakespeare, who holds degrees from Oxford and Columbia, Kolbrener’s own embrace of tradition is what brought this American-born scholar to Israel – and eventually to Bar-Ilan.  “I grew up in a Reform Jewish home, and when I began studying Milton, I found it helped me express my own growing interest in what it means to be a Jew,” he recalls. “Later, as I gradually moved closer to tradition, I found that I was operating on two tracks – the literary theory I was learning at the University filtered into my Jewish study, and vice versa.  This provided me with insights that I might not otherwise have reached.”


Kolbrener’s recently published book is entitled Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love.  In it, he draws on his fascination with Milton and Shakespeare – as well as modern touchstones like psychoanalysis, the stock market and baseball – as the basis of highly personalized essays about the nature of individual freedom, community commitment, and religious devotion in the modern  world. By opening a window to pluralism, he says, Torah Judaism is actually strengthened –creating an authentic – and authentically Jewish – alternative to the twin extremes of fundamentalism and disbelief. 


“The essays in my book are about allowing people to find their voices within – and in relation to – Judaism,” Kolbrener says. “For fundamentalists or secular-minded people, the very concept of ‘open minded Torah’ may seem like a contradiction in terms. But for Judaism to exist, you need people – people with distinct personalities – to be engaged with it.  This is what I believe the Sages meant when they say that when God declared the creation of man was ‘very good.’ The adverb – very – refers to the boundless and uncategorizable nature of humankind.  This parallels what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips calls the ‘voice in the plural.’ These voices together are what create a living religious community.”


Kolbrener’s connection began serendipitously, as he happened to be in Jerusalem working on his doctoral thesis just when BIU’s top Milton expert – former BIU Rector Prof. Harold Fisch – retired. Today, living in Jerusalem’s Bayit V’Gan neighborhood together with his wife and seven children, Kolbrener says that Bar-Ilan remains an excellent place to pursue the humanistic, integrated vision upon which his teaching and writing are built.


“Bar-Ilan represents the possibility of a conversation between religious Jews, secular Jews, and non-Jews, particularly in the humanities,” Kolbrener says. “As a person who frequently walks around with a copy of Paradise Lost in one hand, and a tractate of the Gemara in the other, I’m happy to be one of the people at work, getting the conversation started.”