February 22, 2020

A Great Teacher Turns Ninety

As those who know me well, I have a thing about puns, both in English and in Hebrew as well. That was why I had to smile when my friend Dr. Aaron Panken, the new president of Hebrew Union college-Jewish Institute of Religion, paid public tribute to Professor Eugene B. Borowitz on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday.

Dr. Panken quoted from Pirke Avot, reminding us that ninety is the age la-shuach, to be a little bent over. He was right; Gene Borowitz is a little bent over. But he quickly jumped to a sweet pun. Perhaps, Dr. Panken said, it's not la-shuach, to be bent over, but la-suach, to have a conversation.

And so, a celebration of Eugene Borowitz's long and rich conversation about Judaism and its role in the world.

Professor Borowitz was my teacher in rabbinical school, as he has been the teacher of several generations of rabbinical students. Years before that, when I was a high school student, my parents took me to a lecture he was giving because, they wanted me to hear a great Jewish thinker.

When I was in college, Professor Borowitz gave me my start in the world of Jewish letters. He published several of my essays in Sh’ma, the Jewish intellectual journal that he founded. (My mother, of blessed memory, actually taped them to the refrigerator door). One essay was a lament on how anti-Israelism and even anti-Semitism was growing among radical leftists. It still reads well. Sadly, it's still relevant. I would become Gene's assistant at Sh'ma. Years after that, I would serve as the rabbi at the congregation that he founded. It was a wonderful reversal of roles — I as rabbi, he as student. He helped me manage that daunting transformation with grace. On one Shavuot, I asked people in the congregation to name their teachers, and Gene mentioned Samuel Cohon, who had been his predecessor as the great theologian of American Reform Judaism. At that moment, I felt that I was part of a chain — from Cohon to Borowitz to me. That is the genuine meaning of what it means to stand at Sinai. 

Let it be said: Eugene Borowitz is the foremost theologian in liberal Judaism today. More than that: Gene has been American Judaism's primary public intellectual for almost six decades, constantly demonstrating the intersection of thought, scholarship, and the inflamed conscience.

More than that: he invented the field of modern Jewish theology. We cannot imagine Reform Judaism without his intellectual and personal presence. He has constantly articulated the principles that should guide Reform Jews today – a life lived in covenant; a life lived in the balance between the claims of the self and the claims of the tradition. Never content to place himself within a self-defined intellectual and spiritual ghetto, he has reached out in conversation and dialogue to all Jews, and for this reason and many more his words live outside the boundaries of the Reform movement. Eugene Borowitz has always been a thoughtful critic of American Judaism. I recently re-read his now forty year old work, The Masks Jews Wear, and his words are as relevant today as they were back then, particularly in his critique of what often tries to pass for piety in our synagogues.

Most strikingly: Eugene Borowitz taught that Reform Jewish duty begins with a careful examination of the Jewish tradition and thereafter choosing from among Jewish alternatives, based in commitment and knowledge. Ultimately, he taught, we are all autonomous in our decisions. Gene was right in that, but the issue that is now pressing upon contemporary Jews is that we have seen that many Jews don't, in fact, choose all that much. We are autonomous, of course; our general culture tells us that constantly. But the sad truth is that there has been very little consistent pushback against those claims of the self. 

Eugene Borowitz taught me how to think as a Jew. He taught his students that in presenting the work of a great thinker, you had to begin by making the best possible case for what that thinker was saying — and then, and only then, could you start critiquing his or her thinking. That is why Gene has always had friends with whom he disagreed on fundamental principles of Jewish living and thought. I have always carried that lesson close to my heart. In fact, I have tried to make it an operating principle in having discussions with people whose opinions I do not necessarily share. It is a matter of asking the other person: “Teach me how you arrived at that position.” It is, sadly, a stance that is very rare in an ever-polarized America today.

A sacred memory, one out of many: A number of years ago, I heard Gene speak to a group of Jews in our local community. Someone started to press him on the following question: “How do you pronounce God's Name?” Gene hesitated, saying that there were various theories about the pronunciation, and tried to leave it at that. The questioner persisted: “But it's spelled yud hay vav hay. Why can't we just pronounce it if we know how to pronounce it?” To which Gene responded: “Because we don't have to say everything that we think we know.”  From a theological discussion, to an insight into the ethics of speech — that was Gene's trajectory, his journey of thought. Sure, you might think that you know God's NBame. But you don't have to say it — which is true about so many other things in life as well.  And the lesson hit home. 

The greatest thing about Eugene Borowitz?

There were many times that he re-examined his old positions, and he re-considered them, and he changed his mind on them. Quitely, without fanfare — just thoughtfully.

That was a model for me as well. It could be a model for all of us in the Jewish community. 

I pray that it will always be so.