Meeting Leonard had an impact on me that I could not have anticipated. As a young boy I looked at him from afar with a sense of awe. His resonant voice and gentle manner comforted me, and his message stirred and lifted me to think about life and the world in a way that no one else did or has since.
There was no Rabbi on the American scene like him. No one had as much moral courage and insight. No one was as principled. The only other Rabbi who compared to Leonard as a moral leader was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Leonard Beerman became a father-figure for me but I didn’t realize it until I spoke with my wife after I had finished reading this volume “The Eternal Dissident – Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman and the Radical Imperative to Think and Act” edited by Professor David N. Myers, Professor of Jewish History at UCLA (2018). The book includes forty sermons and essays accompanied by commentaries by forty of Leonard’s friends, colleagues, congregants, and students from across the religious and political spectrum – I am one of them.
Barbara said: “You know, John, Leonard was a father figure to you! You’ve always spoken of him that way since I’ve known you.”
She was, of course, right. I suspect I’m not alone.
In the last three years of Leonard’s life (he died in 2014), he and I had become close. We regularly met for lunch at his favorite Beverly Hills Tennis Club where he played tennis into his 90s. He had been reading my blog and liked the way I thought and wrote, so one day he wrote to me and I jumped at the chance to connect with him. Our friendship began and grew. He always said as we parted, “John – I’m an old man but you make me feel young again!”
Leonard was like that. People felt seen by him, and they loved and revered him as a great moral rabbinic leader. He was as eloquent a writer and speaker as there was in the American rabbinate. Strangely, Leonard didn’t think he was a very good writer. He was so wrong. He was among the most thoughtful and moving writers and thinkers that there was on the American Jewish scene.
Leonard drew liberally from the visions of the Biblical prophets and classic Jewish text while weaving poetry and other literary sources together as he reflected about what it means to be human, moral and accountable. He was tortured by the suffering of the innocent. He loved Israel but didn’t spared his moral critique of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians under occupation.
Leonard served as a US Marine during World War II and he fought while studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before and during Israel’s Independence War.
I asked him about the impact of his military service in those two wars. He explained that he served twice to test himself, and he came away a confirmed pacifist.
Reading “The Eternal Dissident,” especially at this time of year in the Hebrew month of Elul before the High Holidays, prepared me spiritually and morally to lead my congregation for the last time before I retire next year. Leonard’s soft yet powerful and resonant moral voice rings in my ears. Even in his death he has given me a precious gift.
The last time we shared lunch together was only a month after the end of the fighting in the 2014 Israeli-Hamas War in Gaza. He and I both were preparing to speak about the war (we did so very differently). His sermon was highly critical of Israel even as he acknowledged the brutality of Hamas. For me, his pacifism was a conundrum of conflict. But he did not budge from his moral convictions.
I wrote to David Myers (the editor of the volume and Leonard’s dear friend) and Leonard’s widow, Joan, when I finished reading the book this week to thank them for producing this extraordinary volume.
A better model of a man, a more courageous religious leader, and a kinder, more sensitive and provocative rabbi there has not been in the American rabbinate in my memory.
This book ought to be read by every religious leader in every faith tradition, and by atheists and skeptics too. Few works are as important as this one, and I recommend it without hesitation. You can find it on beermanfoundation.org.
I mourn still the loss of Rabbi Leonard Beerman. His life, however, is impressed on my heart and in my mind and soul and always will be. In this I know I am not alone.