A big part of my adult life has involved trying to live up to what Dr. David Leo Lieber expected of me. Trying to emulate his wisdom, his learning, his kindness, knowing all the while that it would be impossible.
It is told in the Book of Kings that the prophet Elijah announced to his disciples that his life would soon be at an end. His principal disciple, Elisha, asked his mentor to bequeath to him a double portion of prophecy. According to Jewish law, a first-born son inherits double the portion of the other sons, so Elisha asked his teacher, Elijah, to grant him double the spiritual portion of the other disciples.
In so many ways, I feel that I was given that double portion by David Lieber. I don’t say this as a matter of hubris but rather as a matter of my good fortune. For 30 years, I worked side by side with him. What a remarkable privilege that was. To be in his presence each day, to listen to him, to learn from him, to love him.
David Lieber was part of a generation of rabbis who were raised in Orthodox homes in which observance was taken for granted but rarely explained. In some ways, his was a religiously rebellious generation. They tended to appreciate Judaism more for its wisdom and values than for its ritual requirements.
Having said this, however, I cannot imagine anyone who was more profoundly spiritual than David Lieber. His spirituality did not have any of the external manifestations that are more common today. Rather, it was apparent in his quiet acceptance of God’s plan for him and for the world.
There are so many things I will remember about David Lieber that I could never hope to recount them all. I quote him often, and I smile whenever I use what I consider to be a “Lieberism.”
One of his favorite sayings was, “You can always tell someone to go to hell later.” Any of us who are prone to occasional flashes of anger can benefit from that bit of wisdom. Lieber used to claim that he borrowed this one from Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple.
Another phrase he used often actually comes from the Talmud: “Sof ha-kavod lavo.” It’s a little difficult to translate into English. It is similar to “All good things come to those who wait.” But it really says that good things come to those who work hard and don’t try to force things before their proper time.
His most insightful saying is pure, original David Lieber. He often observed to me that human beings can “foresee” things but they cannot “fore-feel” them. In other words, we can often use our intellect to figure out what the future will bring, but we really don’t know how we are going to feel about something until it actually happens to us.
Whatever words of wisdom Lieber had for others, he certainly applied them to himself. He accepted whatever life had to offer, and he was one of those rare individuals who followed the rabbinic dictate: “We are required to bless God’s name when bad things happen, just as we so willingly bless His name when we enjoy the good.”
For years, David Lieber struggled with serious illness. It was not easy for him, but he did so without complaint and with true gratitude for the many productive years that were granted to him.
We all admired Dr. Lieber for his achievements, but that’s not why we loved him. We loved him for who he was as a person and the special position he occupied in each of our lives.
Even the most cynical among us yearns to believe that there is real goodness in this world, but often it’s a challenge to accept. We read about such terrible things, and we regularly encounter people who shake our faith in humanity.
But every so often, if we are very fortunate, we find a person who reminds us that human beings are truly formed in the image of God. We find someone of such extraordinary goodness that we say to ourselves, “This must be what God had in mind when He created the world.”
To know David Lieber was to know kindness. To know David Lieber was to know wisdom. To know David Lieber was to experience a quiet, steadfast faith in God and in the divine potential of all human beings.
And so we loved him. We loved him for who he was. And we loved him for seeing the good in us.
Dr. Robert Wexler is president of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) in Los Angeles.
Dr. David Leo Lieber, rabbi, scholar and president emeritus of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) died Dec. 15 at 83 after a lengthy battle with a lung ailment.
“Rabbi David Lieber was a dear friend,” said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. “In every one of his conversations, there was a compassionate and caring soul. He leaves a remarkable legacy, not only in the public arena, in his scholarship and leadership, but in the personal relationship that he had with everyone — colleagues, congregants, students and contributors.”
Born in Poland, Lieber came to the United States at the age of 2. In 1944, he graduated magna cum laude from the College of the City of New York and earned a degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).
In 1948, he was ordained at JTS. He earned his doctorate in Hebrew literature from JTS in 1951. In addition, he completed a master’s and all but dissertation from Columbia University. He pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Washington and at UCLA.
At JTS, Lieber studied under Talmudist Saul Lieberman, Jewish Bible scholar H.L. Ginsberg and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan, whose groundbreaking vision led to the creation of the University of Judaism, which was renamed American Jewish University last year after a merger with Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.
Following retirement in 1993, after 29 years as AJU president, Lieber continued to teach. He also began focusing on a project he had first proposed in 1969, a new commentary on the Torah. The resulting “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” sought to provide laity with a contemporary interpretation of the text and a commentary that embraced both tradition and change, ancient teachings and modern scholarship.
As a young man, Lieber was a leader of Shomer Hadati, the religious Zionist movement that is now B’nai Akiva. An early pioneer in the establishment of the Ramah camps, he was also the founding head counselor in the first of the camps in Wisconsin, a director in Maine and the founding director in California. Furthermore, Lieber was the founding director of Mador, the national training camp for Ramah counselors.
A former spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (1950-1954), Lieber served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, and as university chaplain for the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at both the University of Washington (1954-1955) and Harvard University (1955-1956).
In 1956, when Lieber was appointed dean of students of the nine-year-old University of Judaism, the college was a Hebrew teachers institute, which also offered adult education classes, art exhibits and drama programs. The institution, today replete with an undergraduate college, graduate programs, seminary, think tanks and a large library on a 25-acre campus in Bel Air, was developed with Lieber’s help.
In recognition of his work, Lieber was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, by the Hebrew Union College in 1982 and the Torch of Learning award by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1984. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the first West Coast president of the International Rabbinical Assembly.
Over the years, Lieber has authored some 50 articles, which appeared in a variety of journals.
Lieber is survived by his wife, Esther; sons, Michael and Danny; daughters, Susie and Debbie; and 11 grandchildren.
A service was held Dec. 18 at American Jewish University. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the university’s Ostrow Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, CA 90077.