How Eugene Borowitz reached my heart with inspiring imperatives of Jewish thought – The Forward
(JTA) – In The Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis teach that we should give respect and honor to an individual who teaches us the slightest knowledge.
For those of us who were students of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who passed away last week at the age of 91, the obligation is multiplied by a thousand due to wisdom and insight, guidance and judgment, for the inspiration and direction he gave us. He was, for generations of his students and for so many more, âmoreinu v’rabeinuâ – our rabbi and our teacher. My soul is linked in so many ways to his.
I first met Eugene Borowitz as many people did – through the words of his voluminous writings. In 1969, when I was 21, I came across his book âA Layman’s Guide to Religious Existentialismâ. I had just finished a course in Christian religious existentialism at the CollÃ¨ge Guillaume et Marie and I was avidly devouring its content.
His words about Kierkegaard, Tillich and other thinkers excited me and ignited a passion for the spirit life and the spirit life that I had never felt before. I hoped that one day I could be his student.
Almost five years later, that aspiration has come true. In 1974, I enrolled in his Modern Jewish Thought course at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. It was in this class as a second year rabbinical student that I discovered a vocabulary that helped me define and understand the religious struggle I was going through then.
In his first lecture of the course, Rabbi Borowitz said plainly and simply: âThe problem with modern Jewish thought is how we assert the best of what the modern world has taught us while maintaining our commitment to the tradition of covenant which is the basis of authentic Jewish belief and practice. How can we be both modern and genuinely Jewish?
His unadorned statement of the dialectical dilemma facing the modern Jew attempting to navigate between the poles of tradition and the contemporary world resonated deep in my being. His words struck me as clear and deep, as true. It gave me an intellectual and theological framework to analyze the “intellectual arrangements” that Jewish thinkers and movements have advanced over the past 200 years in their attempts to assert Jewish meaning in a world where it is no longer. necessary to be Jewish.
His teachings for me were more than an intellectual exercise. They have touched the recesses of my heart.
I believe Rabbi Borowitz had this impact because he always stood out as a rabbi. He has always subordinated his academic role as a teacher to his vocation as “moreh derekh” – a spiritual guide. He told me that even though he taught at Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, he stayed at HUC-JIR because he could offer daily Jewish prayer in a Jewish community there. I found this deeply moving and revealing of its deepest commitments and values.
The passion and love that Rabbi Borowitz had for God and the Jewish people, for the imperatives of the covenant tradition, made him my most powerful religious mentor.
Rabbi Borowitz taught Torah. He challenged myself and my fellow students to conceptualize and act on what it means to live in covenant with the Saint, and to transform the duties that flow from that covenant into real life.
We knew he had heeded the call of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of the civil rights struggle and that he was jailed in 1964 with other fellow rabbinics in St. Augustine, Florida. We read the words that he and Al Vorspan wrote in this St. Augustine jail.
We took Rabbi Borowitz all the more into account because of such acts when he instructed us as future rabbis with the following words: “We must guide the Jews in the difficult art of maintaining an intense loyalty to Jewish tradition, a deeply Jewish faith, while freely evaluating the virtues of different modern ways of interpreting it – and in this continuous dialectical process of finding the personal and conceptual integrity of what it means to be a modern Jew.
I and a number of my colleagues carry his voice and this burden in our heads and in our hearts. I hear him ask myself and others over and over again, “What do you think is your duty of alliance?” When Rabbi Borowitz asked this question, it was not an academic exercise. It was an existential requirement.
I know that when I did not know if I should be president of the HUC, it was his voice and this question that led me to assume this sacred position.
Rabbi Borowitz also taught that you should always be open to growth and change, and recognize when you are wrong and ask for forgiveness. When he and I co-taught a seminary two years ago, Rabbi Borowitz invited an alumnus to attend the class with his ordination diploma. This student – now a rabbi – was a gay male, and during the years he had been enrolled in HUC, Rabbi Borowitz had refused to sign a gay or lesbian student’s ordination certificate.
Rabbi Borowitz, before me and all the students, and in the presence of his own family members, “confessed” that he was wrong in taking this position. He told us all that he regretted his past stance on rabbinical ordination for gays and lesbians, and he signed the diploma before all of us.
His humanity, his piety, his struggle with God, his fragility and his greatness were all on display at that time, and the love I felt for him was limitless. He taught me and everyone in attendance that we always stand before God and that God is calling us to respond at all times.
My heart is torn by the death of my teacher, Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz. Still, I’m more grateful than I could ever express that he was my teacher. He will be remembered by all he taught. Rabbi Borowitz will continue to speak to us as his lips move through his writings from the place of his eternal rest.
Rabbi David Ellenson is Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He was president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.
How Eugene Borowitz reached my heart with inspiring imperatives of Jewish thought