October 21, 2018

Prophets and mensches; Remembering Rabbi Schulweis and Rabbi Beerman

I’ve only fallen in love with two rabbis in my life. One I married. The other was Harold Schulweis. 
 
He had been ailing for months, so his death Dec. 18 at the age of 89 was not unexpected.
 
So, too, the passing of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, who died Dec. 24 at 93.  
 
These were elderly men who lived full and ever-so-useful lives, but still their passing has left a prophet-shaped hole in this community. 
 
Rabbi Schulweis was the teacher I followed during most of my adulthood, while Rabbi Beerman was my rabbi in my angsty teens.  
 
This was my post-bar mitzvah Jewish life, when I was dragged twice a year to Leo Baeck Temple, where Rabbi Beerman was the senior rabbi. I was unclear then what the words in the prayer book had to do with me, certain that nothing moral or true could be found in a wealthy shul that my friends and I dismissed as “Our Lady of the 405.” I only agreed to sit through Yom Kippur services because I knew that afterward, on the way home, I could get Welsh rarebit at Du-par’s.
 
But my parents must have known that Rabbi Beerman could get through to their snide son. Already famous for being the “anti-Vietnam” rabbi, his High Holy Days sermons were calm, firm calls for Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, indictments of whatever political folly was taking place in Washington, demands that his congregation act quicker, speak louder, give deeper. Sitting in the back pew, I learned from Leonard Beerman that religion in general, and Judaism in particular, did not exist to shelter us from the world, but to spur us to engage in it.
 
A few years later, in college on the East Coast, I decided to protest what I thought was President Jimmy Carter’s foolhardy call for mandatory draft registration. The penalty for refusing to register was severe — young men were going to prison for it. Unsure, scared, I wrote a letter to Rabbi Beerman, asking for advice. He didn’t tell me what to do. But he told me that the best path, always, was to follow my conscience and my convictions.  
 
Rabbi Schulweis came into my life later, after I starting working at the Jewish Journal. When a major crisis afflicted the community or the world, I would very often turn to him for commentary, or, as the years went by, he would call me. “Bob, I have something I’d like to say on this.” (I was suitably awed by Rabbi Schulweis, and I never, ever thought to tell him that in my whole life, only one person ever called me “Bob”— him.)
 
I printed his writings, I quoted him, I spoke with him, I followed him. He was ahead of me — ahead of the Jewish world — on so many issues.
 
We didn’t speak often. Many people were much closer to him — some of them have shared their recollections in these pages. But in the conversations we did have, I always came away with that sense that the more I understood the particular — my Jewishness — the better I could serve humanity — the universal.  
 
“We need a believable Jewish theology,” Rabbi Schulweis once wrote in the Journal, “not a set of dogmas. We call not for a monolithic set of doctrines, but for the adventure of the ethical and spiritual wrestling with our angels of conscience.”
 
Death creates a strange neighborhood. I never would have thought to compare these two great rabbis, both so important to my life, had they not by chance left us around the same time.  
 
But it strikes me that, as different as they were, they had in common two attributes that are a bit hard to come by these days in our leaders: courage and decency. 
 
These men served wealthy, powerful congregations. But never did they shy away from challenging them, presenting tough ideas from the pulpit, even at the risk of alienating the very people who paid their salaries and built their edifices. Even as Jews became more surburban and settled, these rabbis were lightning rods for controversy. They were pulpit-pounders and activists — and they saw it as their duty not just to comfort, but to confront. 
 
They did so, though, with a great deal of humanity. I found them both approachable, engaging and beloved. Long after both had stepped down as senior rabbis, thousands of people attended their memorial services. They were praised from the very pulpits where they used to scold and push their congregations. 
 
That means, I think, that in the honors being heaped upon them both, some praise is due their congregations. Part of what made these men great leaders was that they led people who were willing to be great followers. This is not something to be taken for granted in Jewish life, riven by factionalism and people who think they know better. 
 
It is ultimately a small thing, a local Jewish community. It is a minority within a minority, 600,000 Jews among 13 million worldwide, among  5 billion people.  But it is filled with gripping stories, big ideas, grand dreams, supreme accomplishments, loving souls and, sprinkled among us, giants.