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From the JFR Library – June 2020

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From the JFR Library

In Pursuit of Godliness and a Living Judaism: The Life and Thought of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

by Edward Feinstein

Reviewed by Michael Berenbaum for the Jewish Journal, May 13, 2020

One of the few delights of this period of enforced home stay has been the possibility of reading all those books one has wanted to read but for which one simply did not have the time. Last year, I heard that Rabbi Edward Feinstein was writing his doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary on his mentor and colleague, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, and set out to order the thesis. When I heard the book was available, I ordered it and started to read.

Schulweis, the innovative and imaginative rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino for more than 40 years, was widely and deservedly regarded as one of the leading rabbis of the United States. In “In Pursuit of Godliness and a Living Judaism: The Life and Thought of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis” (Turner Publishing Co.), Feinstein documents why. He begins with what seems like a digression into a discussion of the American rabbinate and what makes for greatness in a rabbi — at least, in a liberal rabbi — but soon, the reader comes to understand that without understanding the rabbinate and the many tasks of an American rabbi, one cannot begin to understand the life and legacy of Schulweis. We who lived in his presence came to see the fragments of what we know form an integrated whole. His person and his role were one, the disparate ways in which he defined his rabbinate also were whole.

Born in the Bronx — then the heart of New York’s Jewish community — his father was a secular Yiddishist, a nonobservant socialist; his mother was enamored of the American experience and the opportunity it offered to the sons — and some daughters — of the immigrant generation; and his grandfather, a traditional pious, learned Jew. Schulweis was pulled in three directions. He even gave his bar mitzvah speech in three languages: English, Hebrew and Yiddish. As his rabbinate evolved, he was to integrate all three formative ancestors, all three approaches to the world, all three sets of values into the way he served as a rabbi, into his very being as a Jew, as man.

The role of rabbi for a post-World War II liberal congregation was most difficult. Congregants wanted their rabbis to be models of piety — to observe what they did not observe, believe what they could not believe. They wanted rabbis to be prophets, demanding of them actions and commitments they were not ready to make, and priests confirming them in who they were and enabling them to go through life-cycle events and the struggles, pain, disappointments and inadequacies so basic to human existence — even for aspiring and affluent suburban professionals.

They wanted their rabbis to be scholars; the rabbi’s office is called a “study.” Two generations ago, the rabbis routinely were the best educated of their congregants; in today’s pews, especially in the congregations Schulweis served, congregants are professors and lawyers, physicians and scientists, brilliantly educated women and men who expect their rabbi not only to know Judaism, but also to be conversant in their own fields of specialty. They want them to be fine orators but to speak briefly, be skilled CEOs yet deferential, if not subordinate, to lay leadership. On some levels, they wanted the rabbi to affirm their own modest commitments to Judaism, yet demanded of the rabbi something they were not willing to be. They needed their rabbis for births and bar/bat mitzvahs, marriages and funerals, and for the two or three days a year they entered the synagogue.

Feinstein shows how Schulweis fulfilled these roles as he transformed them. He respects Schulweis the scholar, the Jewish thinker, and like Schulweis, Feinstein explains complex philosophical thought in terms accessible to the non-scholarly reader. Schuweis was one of the first to write of Martin Buber in English, learning from him his concepts of the interpersonal, of I-Thou and I-it, but neither of Buber’s mysticism nor his infatuation with Chasidism. Schulweis was a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, the Jewish Theological Seminary professor most venerated by his students — a sentiment not shared by his seminary colleagues — as Kaplan was wrestling with their question of how to take Judaism seriously when one did not take its faith claims literally.

Schulweis, like many Conservative rabbis of his generation, was a graduate of Yeshiva University (YU), fully committed to Jews and Judaism, but he was a Jew who could not merely accept the traditions bequeathed to him, most especially in the philosophical language and lifestyle of his teachers. Contemporary rabbis often come to Judaism — not from Judaism. Kaplan was an Orthodox rabbi by training and in the founding class of what became YU: his agenda to demythologize Judaism and provide for a religious humanism relevant to 20th-century Jews. Schulweis continued that task of making Judaism relevant well into the 21st century, and addressed a Jewish community far more open to symbolism and myth-seeking to remythologize a desacralized world.

When the question of evil took center stage in the Jewish conversation in the mid-’60s and as Jews started to grappling with the Holocaust — especially with God’s role in the Holocaust as presented by Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim and Eliezer Berkovits — Schulweis took the conversation a step forward in writing of “predicate theology.”

For Schulweis, “God is just” became “doing justly is Godly; God is merciful, acting mercifully is Godly; God is good, doing good is Godly.” With such a theology, it is easy to understand why Schulweis saw the presence of God not in the perpetrators and their demonic deeds, but in the rescuers and their lifesaving deeds. It was natural that he established the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, offering recognition and support to those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. As a rabbi, he was looking for a usable history of the Holocaust, one that could inspire Jews and not fill them with fear or guilt.

As Feinstein well understands, Schulweis was a social activist embodying the prophetic role of Judaism afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. He often told his congregants what they did not want to hear. He spoke out loudly and consistently on civil rights against slumlords and unethical merchants and landlords even when they were congregants. He was one of the first to speak on the acceptance of gays in the synagogue. Offended, some congregants left or moved, some changed. Those who ignored his preaching felt uneasy (not an unimportant accomplishment for a rabbi). He created institutions to ensure the call to action was not a momentary passion but a sustained commitment; the Jewish World Watch was another of his creations.

As a rabbi, he continued to serve his community and create community. At a time when other synagogues primarily catered to children and old people — not yet called” seniors,” and when kids were dropped kids off at synagogue but busy professionals would never set foot in it on their own − he created an adult Jewish community for his congregation, Valley Beth Shalom. His sermons were demanding. They created an agenda for community: chavurot, social actions, outreach to the unchurched.

Perhaps most importantly, Schulweis was a national figure who remained locally rooted in his community. He did not do what many prominent rabbis who had established national reputations of his generation did: “go national or international,” spending much of their time away and gracing the congregation with their presence. Schulweis remained committed to his synagogue, to his community, to these Jews, being with them in joy and sorrow, in times of travail, in moments of exaltation. He never outgrew them; he grew with them as they grew with him. He continued to learn from them and to learn how to teach them.

Feinstein has written a fine book. Clear, concise, moving, loving and humorous. Nevertheless, there are two shortcomings in the work.

If one did not know it, a reader would not learn that Feinstein and Schulweis worked together for many years. Feinstein conceals what was most personal about their relationship, what he observed and learned in the inner chambers, rabbi to rabbi, man to man.

The second is that he did not explore what Schulweis did admirably: manage a seamless transition between a charismatic rabbi and his/her successor. Many synagogues have floundered after the long service of a charismatic rabbi who was so self-absorbed he did not take time to mentor and to think of what would follow. To some rabbis and institutional leaders, the final measure of their importance is their indispensability. Schulweis handled the transition to Rabbi Feinstein, and Feinstein the transition from Schulweis, seemingly effortlessly so VBS has truly gone from strength of strength. And this is a timeless lesson, so timely for so many organizations.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

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