“Speak truth to power” is a phrase that originates with the Quakers, but the notion itself is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible, where prophets courageously confronted pharaohs and kings, including King David himself.
Among the modern figures who acted in the same tradition was our own Leonard I. Beerman, the long-serving rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple. His writings are collected and explained in “The Eternal Dissident: Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman and the Radical Imperative to Think and Act,” edited by UCLA history professor David N. Myers (University of California Press). The book is a fitting tribute to one of the great moral exemplars in Judaism, and a way of preserving and extending his powerful voice.
“The Eternal Dissident,” not incidentally, is published by the University of California Press under the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies, a laudable example of the good works that Rabbi Beerman remains capable of inspiring even after his death in 2014 at the age of 93.
Myers places Beerman in the company of Stephen S. Wise, Judah L. Magnes, Abba Hillel Silver, Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel as Jewish spiritual leaders who “reimagined the rabbinate as a vehicle for broad social engagement, consistent with their vision of an ethical Judaism rooted in the ancient Hebrew prophets’ demand for justice.” And Myers shows us that Beerman resembled a modern Jeremiah in his moral courage.
“Never content to settle for the easy path, Beerman challenged and chastised his fellow Jews — and himself — with fiery intensity,” Myers explains. “He was willing to alienate, indeed, to afflict the comfortable in order to comfort the afflicted, as the well-known phrase has it.”
Myers, himself a notable Jewish leader, adopted a talmudic approach to the wisdom of Rabbi Beerman in “The Eternal Dissident.” For each sermon, essay or review by Beerman that is reproduced in the collection, he provides a commentary by one of the rabbi’s colleagues, a list of luminaries that includes Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer, religious scholar and critic Jack Miles, feminist theologian Rachel Adler, producer Norman Lear, former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine and a whole constellation of rabbis who followed in his footsteps. Among the commentators is Dr. Joan Willens Beerman, the rabbi’s wife, and the book includes the mugshots that were taken after both of them were arrested at a Janitors for Justice protest rally in Los Angeles in 2000.
Miles, for example, makes an explicit comparison between Beerman and the biblical prophets in his commentary on a sermon that Beerman delivered in 1983. Beerman conceded that the prophets “were not wholly admirable men,” but he admired them nonetheless precisely because “they asked, questioned, challenged, re-examined what passed for dogma, they were men of the critical spirit, they irritated, annoyed, disturbed, frightened their contemporaries by making them think.” To which Miles adds: “Whatever his faults, [Beerman] was touched with the fire of prophecy.”
“The Eternal Dissident” is a fitting tribute to one of the great moral exemplars in Judaism, and a way of preserving and extending Beerman’s powerful voice.
The collection of Beerman’s writings, sermons and speeches starts with the very first sermon he delivered in 1948 on his graduation from Hebrew Union College (and, unwittingly, provided Myers the title for his book). “Israel is the conscience, the raw, exposed nerve,” young Beerman declared. “Israel is the eternal dissident, the great disobedient child of history.” The last entry is the sermon that Beerman delivered at Leo Baeck Temple in 2014, mindful that it would be his “last cri de coeur after sixty-six years of teaching, admonishing and inspiring his congregation,” as Myers puts it.
“Another Yom Kippur, another war in Gaza,” is the phrase that Beerman repeated throughout the sermon. “As for me, it seemed clear that somewhere on the way to Gaza, Israel had lost its moral compass; it was the very moral compass that had brought such glory to the people of Israel, the high ideals that had gone into its making, the passion for justice for all, the yearning for peace, the wonderful, warm, human decency that could be found among its people.”
The commentary that accompanies Beerman’s last sermon is contributed by Nomi M. Stolzenberg, a USC law professor who was among a group of colleagues that discussed the sermon with Berman before he delivered it. She reveals that the group challenged Beerman on using the word “slaughter” to describe the Arab death toll that resulted from the Israel Defense Forces’ operations in Gaza, and recommended that the phrase “callous disregard” be used instead. “Yet Leonard refused to completely let go of his original word choice. For him, no passive, agent-less language, no ‘mistakes were made,’ would do. And if the only choice was between language that implies responsibility for slaughter and language that evaded Israel’s moral agency, he was going to go with ‘slaughter.’ ”
On the subject of Beerman’s sermon, Miles compares Beerman to the prophet who speaks truth to power after David took Bathsheba as his wife and arranged for her husband to be killed. “Beerman in that moment was like Nathan turning on the guilty King David with the electrifying cry Attah ha’ish! [“You are that man!”],” Miles writes. “An ever kindly but sometimes terrifying voice. Remember him thus.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.