Some religious migrations are fulfilled. Others are truncated before they start. I refer to the remarkable contrast in the spiritual itineraries of the influential theologian, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who died last month at 91, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who died in 1972, as they pertained to the Hebrew Union College (Reform) and Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative).
As a young man, Eugene Borowitz was not accepted as a rabbinical student at JTS and ended up instead as a student and professor at HUC. Rabbi Borowitz’s teaching and writings impacted generations of Reform rabbis and their congregations. We Conservative rabbis learned from him through his books. He advocated “covenant theology,” a concept he introduced in 1961 and developed in his path-breaking 1991 book, “Renewing The Covenant: A Theology for Postmodern Jews.” His theology, which combined individual autonomy with belief in a pact with God, was filtered through our own teachers to many Conservative rabbis who in turn transmitted it to serious Conservative Jews. How much more we would have benefited if we had been able to sit in dialogue with Rabbi Borowitz himself when we were students.
It could have worked differently. Borowitz was born in Columbus, Ohio. His parents were members of the Conservative Synagogue where my father, Rabbi Nathan Zelizer, was rabbi for more than 40 years.
The 1930s and 1940s were the pre-day school era in Columbus. A student who wanted to study Jewish texts seriously was restricted to rudimentary education, first in a citywide Hebrew school and later in synagogue spin-offs. My father, recognizing in Borowitz a young man of great intellect and eagerness to learn, volunteered to tutor him in Bible and Talmud for application as a rabbinical student to JTS. Shockingly, though, Borowitz’s application was turned down. My father told me that the then chancellor of JTS reported that young man’s knowledge was still lacking. In contrast to now, the Seminary did not have the vision or resources to place an “ilui” — a religious genius — into a preparatory tract for eventual admission to the regular rabbinical school.
Years later, after Rabbi Borowitz became a seminal Jewish theologian, my father told me that JTS officials acknowledged that his rejection as a student was a major loss that they regretted.
Indeed, 2009 JTS conferred an honorary doctorate on Rabbi Borowitz at commencement. I suspect that may have been as much an apology as the conferral of an honor on this important scholar.
Contrast Rabbi Borowitz’s aborted migration to JTS with the successful migration of another great theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was snatched away from his teaching position at HUC to start teaching at JTS in 1946.
Those of us who studied with Rabbi Heschel in the1960s were inspired by being in the presence of a transcendent Jewish personality. But, alas, Rabbi Heschel was not a skilled pedagogue. Surely, we were moved spiritually by his person and learned about his own theology as he read us the galleys of his latest books. But we did not learn systematically about Jewish theology.
If Rabbi Borowitz, who began teaching at HUC in 1962, had been in the Conservative camp, his teaching career would have overlapped with Rabbi Heschel and then succeeded it for decades. Rabbi Borowitz was skilled, systematic and thorough as a teacher; Conservative rabbis would have benefited from studying first with Rabbi Heschel, a modern prophet, and then Rabbi Borowitz, a master thinker and pedagogue.
But some spiritual migrations are not to be. Perhaps it is providential that Rabbis Heschel and Borowitz were split between the two Jewish denominations and their rabbis, who collectively influenced over 90 percent of those American Jews who affirm Judaism.
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J., which he has served since 1970.