The Man Behind a Quiet Revolution

Rabbi Richard Levy was in Reform rabbinical school the first time he attended a traditional morning minyan. It was a requirement for his liturgy class, but for Levy, who some 35 years later is one of the most influential Reform rabbis in the country, it became much more.

“I found that I loved it. I bought my first tallis at the synagogue where we davened, and the pair of tefilin that I still use,” says Levy.

By the end of his first year at HUC in Cincinnati, Levy was well on his way to keeping kosher, to wearing a kippah full-time and to observing a traditional Shabbat.

Levy, along with his wife Carol, became what some might view a walking contradiction, but what history would prove was actually the future of Reform Judaism: a firm believer in the Reform ideology of personal choice and an evolving Judaism, who also observed many of the rituals long thought to be solely in the domain of the more traditional denominations.

“God didn’t give the mitzvot at Sinai, some to Reform Jews, some to Conservative Jews, some to Orthodox Jews,” says Levy, 62. “The whole of the Torah was given to the Jewish people.”

That kind of thinking comes through in the Pittsburgh Principles, Levy’s brainchild, a document the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement passed a few months ago, under Levy’s presidency. The statement opens up “the whole array of mitzvot” to Reform Judaism, which historically rejected many rituals and mitzvot as antiquated and irrelevant.

Levy, soft-spoken and unassuming, shepherded this quiet revolution in American Judaism’s largest movement from its premise through its passage. Reform leaders from around the country lauded Levy’s work in guiding the extensive and often raucous revision process, which involved hundreds of rabbis.

If his impact on the national scene has been broad and deeply felt, it is about to become more immediate and quantifiable on a local scale. After spending 24 years as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, Levy recently became the director of the rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which will soon begin to ordain rabbis.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, national president of HUC-JIR, says the decision to allow students to complete their studies in Los Angeles, rather than having to move to New York or Cincinnati, is a reflection of the burgeoning significance of the Reform movement in the Western states.

And, he says, Rabbi Levy, along with Dean Lewis Barth and Provost Norman Cohen, can make this program work.

“As a person who has worked with college students in the past, Rabbi Levy understands their needs and aspirations and knows how to recruit them,” Zimmerman says.

“His impact is already being felt on the campus as students gravitate to him naturally for both matters having to do with their course of study and because he is an extraordinary counselor, mentor and mensch,” Barth says.

Levy says he plans to tap into the array of professional schools at the Los Angeles campus — from education to Jewish communal service — to create an integrated approach to the rabbinate.

“Too often the academic, spiritual and professional elements are seen as isolated,” Levy says. But a more holistic approach can “deepen the spiritual experience of the rabbinical students so they can help other people deepen their own spiritual lives.”

One way he plans to do that is through a Shabbat minyan at HUC, which will also be a testing ground for the new Reform prayerbook, due out in a few years. Levy, who edited a Haggadah, High Holiday prayer book and Shabbat prayerbook, all published by KTAV and Hillel, is on the editorial committee for the new Reform prayer book as well.

“The book will have both creative examples of prayer and it will restore some of the prayers which have been missing from Reform prayer books for 100 or so years,” he says.

That dualism — innovation and appreciation for tradition — is very much at the heart of Levy’s Reform Judaism.

Levy says he knew he wanted to be a rabbi from the time of his bar mitzvah in suburban New York. He is intellectually honest, refusing to give pat, dogmatic answers about his complex beliefs.

He regards the Torah as divine, but believes critical scholarship is essential. He views ritual as meaningful but not mandatory.

“God is revealed through history and through time, through text and through our experience and our prayer. If we are open to it we can be parties to ongoing revelation,” he says.

And now while Levy is best known for his push for tradition, he is also a great innovator, one who pushes for social action and equality for women.

Both Richard and Carol are staunch supporters of liberal Judaism and social action. Richard spent a night in jail in St. Augustine, Florida, during the civil rights movement, two weeks after he was ordained. They joke that one of their first dates was attending a Soviet Jewry rally. The two have often taught together, and for 15 years ran an experimental, egalitarian minyan in their home.

“I think both of us care deeply about the future of the Jewish community, and what shape it will take for the future. Both of us have devoted our lives to thinking about these issue and working on small solutions toward a larger answer,” says Carol.

Carol, who was once a professional singer, appearing on Broadway and in commercials, recently became assistant campaign director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, after serving for several years as executive director at the American Jewish Congress.

She is as gregarious as he is quiet, as flamboyant as he is understated, but the two do not fall neatly on either side of the intellectual/creative divide.

Richard has written poetry, was editor of the Harvard Crimson, and Carol has taught at Brandeis-Bardin on topics as diverse as women’s ritual, the environment, tzedakah and Jewish communal structures.

“Richard is more than the intellectual, spiritual guide people see him as, and I am way beyond the vivacious cheerleader that people see,” Carol says.

They are each other’s mentors, and have taught their two daughters, Sarah, a teacher in New York, and Elizabeth, a student at the University of Chicago, to live by a guiding principle.

“What the individual does makes a difference,” Richard says. “It’s important to act on what we believe in because we really do mentor for other people. If we are not afraid of doing new things and trying to change things, we usually find there are unnamed numbers of people who are waiting for somebody like you to take a step, and they will join you.”