If you want to follow the thread of religious innovation and ethical behavior in modern Jewish life, you won't need to stray far from the career and philosophies of Rabbi Harold Schulweis. In fact, you probably can't confront those topics without confronting the work of Schulweis.
Since he was ordained in 1950, Schulweis has challenged the status quo with an intellectualism and a fearlessness born of the confidence that moral rightness is on his side.
He broke ground with his interfaith dialogues and by achieving ritual equality for women. And he insisted on a Jewish responsibility to respond to any suffering anywhere. More recently, his acceptance of gays and lesbians as Jews with full and equal standing, as well as his outreach to non-Jews as potential converts, made national headlines, as had many of his earlier efforts.
Through his powerful speaking style and many books and articles, Schulweis has forced the Jewish community — and particularly his own Conservative movement — to confront inconsistencies and to rectify traditions or notions that no longer made sense, whether in liturgy or on issues of social justice.
This week, his congregation of 35 years, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, is paying tribute to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday with a dinner and a series of dialogues over several days. These conversations are featuring Schulweis' selections of the top Jewish intellectuals of our day, including Rabbi David Hartman, founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; author Rabbi Harold Kushner; Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation; and David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (see their tributes below).
Born in the Bronx in 1925, Schulweis grew up with a father who was a socialist Zionist. His father's object of worship was not God or Judaism, but the Yiddish language and culture.
His zayde — his mother's father, Reb Avraham Rezak — was a displaced shtetl Jew who chose not to work so that he could sit and study the sacred texts every day. Schulweis spent long hours learning Talmud with zayde.
His formal schooling began at a Yiddish school, but the young Schulweis soon transferred to a yeshiva day school. He went on to high school at the Talmudical Academy in Manhattan, and then to Yeshiva University (YU), also in Manhattan, where he majored in philosophy.
Soon before he graduated YU in June 1945, Orthodox Jews began burning the prayer books of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, then at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, and later a founder of the Reconstructionist movement.
Curious as to what kind of writing could merit such a strong reaction, Schulweis began to read Kaplan. What he found was a traditionally observant Jew with a willingness to question what had been done in the past, and to think about what ought to be done now. Kaplan's prayer book was burned because in it, he challenged the references to sacrifices saying that no one actually wanted to engage in animal sacrifice in the future. Kaplan made room for women in religious services, contending that if no one really believed women to be inferior, why should ritual treat them so?
Schulweis, accustomed to what he calls “quotational Judaism,” where the past was paramount, became inspired by the idea that he could have an active place in the tradition.
“It changed the way in which you looked at life, because it suddenly makes the present tense as important as the other tenses in Jewish life,” Schulweis said.
Soon after, he entered the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he became a student of Kaplan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, another leading thinker and activist of the generation.
While he was in the seminary and simultaneously earning a graduate degree in philosophy at New York University, he met Malkah. She agreed to marry him on their fourth date. (She had refused on the third.) Fifty-eight years later, the couple have three children and nine grandchildren in Israel and California.
After publishing his first book on the philosophy of religion, Schulweis taught for a short time at City College in New York, a stint that he enjoyed but that convinced him he needed the interpersonal relationships of congregational life.
In 1952, he took a pulpit at Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative congregation in Oakland.
“I enjoyed the West, and I felt it would be more open to experimentation ritually and in other ways,” he said.
It was there that he introduced the notion of counting women in a minyan and of allowing girls to participate in coming-of-age rituals through bat mitzvahs. He took his philosophical cue from Kaplan, but these practices had not yet been implemented in a congregation. He also replaced the traditional sermon with a question-and-answer dialogue that is still a hallmark of his services.
In Oakland, where he stayed until 1970, he also began his lifelong work in interfaith dialogue and in forging a relationship with the black community. Also, while in Oakland, he established a foundation to recognize and reward Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazis.
Soon after Schulweis arrived at the Conservative VBS in 1970, he noticed that people were leaving the synagogue for more intimate prayer and study gatherings in people's homes. He co-opted that idea and brought it into the synagogue community, breaking his large congregation into smaller havurahs or social circles. That idea has become a mainstay of synagogue life around the country.
The psychic health of his congregation also motivated him to found a paracounseling center. Today, trained volunteers counsel 100 people a week in group and individual sessions.
His outreach to unaffiliated non-Jews over the past decade has earned him both condemnation and accolades, but in the years since he began reaching out to potential Jews-by-choice, the Jewish community has become more open toward converts and to non-Jews who are part of Jewish families.
His 1994 Rosh Hashanah sermon advocating the acceptance of gays and lesbians as equal and beloved members of the Jewish community earned him a standing ovation.
His reaching out has included opening doors to physically and mentally disabled children and adults by setting up support and educational groups in his congregation.
Recently, with the help of active lay leaders at VBS, he founded Jewish World Watch. The organization's goal is to make sure Jews follow the example of righteous gentiles by helping to alleviate and stop global suffering. Jewish World Watch, based at his temple, has already raised more than $100,000 to build medical clinics and wells in Sudan, and has helped Jewish high school students raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur.
In accomplishing these ventures, Schulweis credits the suportiveness and alacrity of his congregants, whom he says move quickly when he issues a call to action.
He also treasures the mutually respectful relationship he shares with Rabbi Ed Feinstein and the other rabbis at VBS.
Last fall, Schulweis stepped aside so that Feinstein could assume the role of senior rabbi. Feinstein will now set the vision and the agenda for the congregation, but Schulweis has no plans to give up any current roles, including teaching, speaking and attending to the personal and life-cycle needs of his congregants.
“The word retire in French means withdraw, and that's terrible,” Schulweis said. “It's not in my nature. I love being a rabbi; I love this congregation, and I'm not the kind of person who goes on cruises. You spend all your life trying to do certain things and perfect and hone your abilities and insights, and now is not the time to leave.”
Q & A
Jewish Journal: You have a history of anticipating — or more accurately, creating — the next big thing in Jewish life. You envision something, and you go after it. How do you arrive at what the next big thing is?
Harold Schulweis: I'm a rabbi. All my life is dedicated to Jews and Judaism, so I listen and I hear. One of the advantages you have as rabbi is you are told things.
Let's take the example of havurah. I know that people are lonely. I can see that they don't have friends in the congregation. We have 1,700 families in the congregation — how do you humanize it?
[Rabbi Mordecai] Kaplan said something I remember so clearly: In order to have religion in common, you have to have other things in common besides religion. Religion is way of life — it is way of dancing, singing, laughing and celebrating together. And that motivated me to create havurot.
It's not just being creative — it's responsiveness…. I introduced the [dialogue during Torah reading], because I watched people leave the shul in droves whenever the Torah was read, and I said, “That's wrong — this is the most important part.” Now people come davka [specifically] for the commentary.
JJ: Has this willingness to challenge the status quo, to demand consistency and honesty from the Jewish community, gotten you in trouble?
HS: It really has not gotten me in trouble. In fact, it's the other way around. I have 18 years and 35 years at my congregations. I find that people will accept contrary things if two conditions are met: They believe that the man is serious and sincere, and they also have to hear him give the argument.
When I changed the notion of a minyan in Oakland [so that women could be counted in the quorum of 10], it took me about a year. I had Sunday morning coffee and conversation and addressed all the concerns. And when we moved bat mitzvah from Friday night to Shabbat morning, Hebrew school enrollment doubled. Doubled.
Without seeming to be immodest, Mordecai Kaplan said that a people lives or dies from the top. And I think it's true.
JJ: When our chapter of Jewish history is written, how do you think this era will be depicted?
HS: I am sanguine about the future, because I think there are more people who take Judaism seriously — I am talking about in the intellectual world — and who are being read and are convincing people.
And I am very impressed with California, which since I have been here has been transformed; in terms of the Skirball Cultural Center, which is a great contribution; in terms of the University of Judaism, [which is Conservative] now ordaining rabbis; in that Hebrew Union College [-Jewish Institute of Religion which is Reform] ordains rabbis, and in terms of the huge success of the camping movement.
I think what is not happening, what I would love to see, is the Conservative and the center Orthodox explaining more. What kills me is that complexity and daring is not expressed anymore. I didn't learn it in yeshiva, and I didn't learn it in the seminary.
In that sense, I'm pessimistic. I think the laity is ready for it, but I don't think the leadership is developed that way. What I'm doing shouldn't be exceptional, and the fact that it is [is] the sign that something is wrong.
JJ: What do you think the biggest challenge is for today's Jews?
HS: I don't think that they are getting the best of Judaism, neither in the seminary world, nor in the synagogue. I don't think the variety and the heroic aspect of Jewish thinking is portrayed or evoked or transmitted in the Hebrew schools, the day schools, the seminaries, the yeshivas or the synagogue, and that is a pity.
What if zayde's grandchildren came to shul and opened a prayer book and said, “From this I'm going to deduce what are the most important values to the Jews?” What do you think they are going to get out of this? And if they come on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah? They will go away with the position that there is a decree of life and death. No one is telling them, “You are partners with God. You are the feet and hands and mouth of God.”
What scares me most is what we do to our children. We have [denominationally] segregated our children — whom we allegedly want to marry each other, and now we're not even so sure about that. We send our kids to separate day schools and Hebrew schools and camps, and they do nothing together; they don't even play together. And then you say clal Yisrael [the entirety of the people Israel], ahavat Yisrael [the love of Israel]? Baloney.
When I went to yeshiva college, I was impressed with Plato and Aristotle and Hume and Kant and Hegel, and now they are telling me in these Orthodox yeshivas that this secular wisdom ought not to have the same attention paid as the Talmud. [Rabbi Joseph Baer] Soloveitchik [of Yeshiva University] wasn't afraid to keep citing Heidegger.
JJ: You seem very focused on issues that are particular to the Orthodox community.
HS: That is a very perceptive notion. It is because I have great respect for the Orthodox community, for their sincerity. And that is why I want to see them prosper.
I had a very good experience in the yeshiva world, but I would not have had that experience today. I really would not. I think today they would throw me out. In my day, I was not less liberal, but they embraced me, because they believed in the Yiddische neshama [the Jewish soul].
Secondly, I do notice my best intellectual friends are Orthodox. This is the point I want to make: The new age is going to be trans-sectarian. You can't categorize. Labeling is finished. You can't tell who's a Conservative Jew — you don't know what it means, which kind. I think if we are not going to break through this denominational divisiveness and smallness, we'll lose them all.
JJ: I am sure that in your 35 years here you have received offers from other synagogues, from academic institutions or from organizations for national leadership positions. Why did you stay at the pulpit?
HS: Because I found that grassroots are very important. The truth of the matter is my inspiration for my sermons are my people. In my book, “For Those Who Can't Believe,” look at who I dedicate it to, and that is your answer. “To the men, women and children of Valley Beth Shalom, who possess the wisdom to question and the courage to hear.”
I understand why they can't believe, because what they can't believe, I can't believe either. But at least I know I have options.
JJ: What is the wisdom of 80 years?
HS: One of the wisdoms is to struggle against idolatry. Idolatry means the worship of a part as if it's the whole. For example, intelligence is important and books are important, but if you worship intellect and books alone, that is idolatry, because there is more to life and the human experience than just simply how smart we are.
David Ellenson will be the guest speaker Friday, April 1 at 8:15 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information call (818) 530-4088.