Last week witnessed the passing of two towering giants, each of whom left a profound mark on Los Angeles and also served as proud citizens of the world: Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l and Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l. Schulweis transformed Valley Beth Shalom in Encino into a unique center of learning and action and then founded Jewish World Watch. Beerman was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, one of the great centers of Jewish social justice work in this country. Both possessed a rare combination of qualities — brilliance, sagacity, eloquence, compassion and unstinting courage. Their deaths mark the passing of a generation of great rabbinic leaders that we may not see again — a generation that has defined the way we imagine and speak of ourselves as Jews. Rabbis Schulweis and Beerman not only lent us a language, but also modeled in their daily lives the prophetic imperative to uproot injustice wherever it may be found. It is hard to imagine a world without them.
While I knew and admired Rabbi Schulweis from afar, I was privileged to call Leonard Beerman a close friend and a cherished mentor, a man I loved and respected greatly. His impact extended far and wide. He was one of the most important figures on the social justice landscape in Los Angeles over the last half-century, as well as one of the most influential rabbis in this country over that period. What he represented was the most uncommon of Jewish community leaders, a man for whom conformism was the enemy of conscience. He taught us, in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, that it was necessary at times to deliver a bracing critique of our own actions but that this did not require abandoning our strong bond to and love for fellow Jews and Judaism. “To experience the awareness of our moral failure,” he once wrote, “is, paradoxically, to experience the dignity of our own humanity.” He taught us that love of our neighbor and love of our own were not mutually exclusive, that we could and must embrace the cause of Palestinian rights as we embraced the State of Israel, that we could and must fight for the rights of our Black and brown neighbors just as we built our own Jewish communal institutions. He believed tout court that the Jewish and the human were inextricable, part of the same DNA with which we are imprinted.
Leonard was one of the very few people before whose name I almost always added the words “the great.” I would not call him that in his presence, because Leonard would be embarrassed. Part of his greatness lay in his modesty. I came to see this quality often over the last dozen years or so when we both participated in a small group of Jews that met periodically in living rooms across West L.A. — usually in response to crisis — to formulate a progressive voice on Israeli politics. For the most part, it was a loud and unruly bunch in whose midst Leonard would initially remain silent. One wondered whether the great sage had been rendered mute in his advanced years. But then, just as the meeting was about to break up, typically without any consensus, Leonard would begin to speak. In perfectly formed, paragraph-length sentences, he would clarify, summarize and propel forward the discussion, insisting that we never escape our obligation to speak truth to power. Those in attendance were simply stunned by the clarity of mind and of moral vision. It was the distilled essence of inspiration.
A good part of that inspiration was Leonard’s way with words. From his early years in Pennsylvania and Michigan, he was a voracious lover of literature. Over time, he developed into a world-class orator whose sermons were bejeweled with gorgeous language and dazzling literary allusions. He particularly came to appreciate and rely on poetry; it was his favored form of spiritual communion, more so than prayer. On most occasions when we were together, he would bring out and declaim a poem, yet another teaching of his that we would do well to emulate. It is no surprise that in his famous final Yom Kippur sermon at Leo Baeck Temple on Oct. 4, 2014, memorialized by Kurt Streeter in his Nov. 26, 2014, Los Angeles Times article, Leonard began by quoting the poet W. H. Auden: “It is getting late. Is there no one to ask for us? Are we simply not wanted at all?” Leonard used these haunting words to ask on behalf of those not wanted or insufficiently valued — unforgettably, in the case of his final sermon, the innocent children of Gaza.
If Leonard had simply inspired through his bold words, it would have been enough. But he gave and taught more, inspiring us through his deeds. He was actively involved for decades in fighting for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, with a courage and creativity that few dared to demonstrate. In the 1960s and 1970s, he fought vigorously against the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. In fact, it was in the service of those causes that he met, 47 years ago, a man destined to become one of his closest friends, the Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Church in Pasadena. The two men united on an array of struggles, joined at the hip by a shared ethical charge that eroded theological differences between them. And before meeting Regas, he agitated and marched on behalf of civil rights for African-Americans, working together with major figures such as the Rev. James Lawson. His activity in this regard did not begin in the 1960s. Already as a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in the 1940s in Cincinnati, where he served as student body president, Leonard joined with fellow students to attempt to break down segregation in that city’s restaurants. It was his own experience with anti-Semitism as a young man that inculcated in him an absolute intolerance for discrimination, whether against Jews in the 1930s or Muslims in the 2010s.
He was an indefatigable fighter for the downtrodden and stigmatized. It was, he once said, “the only war worth fighting.” And yet, it is a measure of the texture and complexity of his personality that, while a fighter, he defined himself as a pacifist, following in the wake of his father, Paul, and one of his great rabbinic heroes, the American Judah L. Magnes, who became the first president of the Hebrew University. Leonard met Magnes in 1947 while on an extended visit to Jerusalem. During that trip, he joined the Jewish self-defense group, the Haganah, believing that at that crucial juncture, it was imperative to defend the Jewish population from attacks by the Arab side. By the time he returned to the United States in 1948, however, he had become more and more convinced of pacifism, a position to which he has adhered ever since.
But the fight for justice never ceased. As someone who inspired through word and deed, Leonard was appropriately named. “Ki-shmo ken hu” (2 Samuel 25:25): As is his name, so is he. Leonard was as his name — lion-hearted in combatting injustice. He was a man of extraordinary courage, who used his intellectual and rhetorical gifts to show us all how to resist self-satisfaction in order to better the world.
Consistent to the last, he maintained his modesty. After living a life of greatness, he wondered at the end whether he had accumulated a body of work to leave behind. Of course, he did. He has left us a huge legacy — as much a challenge as a bequest. It is to live a life of commitment and meaning. Leonard insisted on a commitment to the wider world, one that began with a Jewish prophetic call but culminated in work on behalf of humanity at large.
Perhaps his last and greatest gift was to remind us that while thinking globally, we must act locally. The core of our humanity was built from the bottom up, from our very daily relationships. Here too, Leonard was a master teacher. He was an extraordinary husband to his beloved wife, Joan. He was a loving and devoted father and grandfather. And he was a deeply caring and giving friend. Like so may others, I mourn his loss with a heavy heart but celebrate the extraordinary example he set.
Only once in a generation are we privileged to have a figure like Leonard Beerman among us. He was a “lamed-vavnik,” one of the 36 hidden righteous ones who, according to Jewish tradition, preserve the moral balance of the universe. May Leonard Beerman’s memory be a blessing to all who were privileged to know him — and may we continue to learn from and build on his remarkable legacy.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and was a close friend of Leonard Beerman. He plans to edit a volume of Rabbi Beerman’s teachings.