Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who died on Jan. 22 at his home in Stamford, Conn., a month before his 92nd birthday, is being recalled this week as a major force in Reform Jewish thought and American Jewish philosophy. He was a longtime faculty member of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, author of 19 books and founding editor of Sh’ma, the small but influential journal of Jewish ideas. And his influence on generations of rabbis is monumental.
I was fortunate to know him as his student, colleague, acolyte, rabbi and even teacher.
Let me offer some scenes in one of the most important relationships that I have ever had in my life.
Scene 1: I am 16 years old. Rabbi Borowitz was speaking at an adult education series somewhere on Long Island. My parents took me to hear him. The topic was over my head. But it inspired me.
Scene 2: I am a student in college, shaken by the leftist abandonment of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Rabbi Borowitz published my essay on the topic in Sh’ma, the journal he edited. With that small, generous act, he encouraged me to find my rabbinic avocation — becoming a writer. Years later, I would become his assistant at Sh’ma, and his lessons in editing are still with me today.
Scene 3: I became his student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Rabbi Borowitz was a leader in the field of modern Jewish theology.
He was a demanding teacher. He inspired both love and awe. The major rite of passage for rabbinical students was to give a sermon, with a communal critique to follow. Rabbi Borowitz always had the (awaited and often feared) last word. He encouraged our allergy to pap and sentimentalism. He warned us about the ultimate penalty for intellectual mediocrity: our future thoughtful congregants would simply stop listening to us.
Gene (for it was always “Gene”) Borowitz taught us how to think. He taught his students: when you present the work of a thinker, you begin by making the best possible case for what that thinker was saying — and then, and only then, can you critique his or her thinking. How sad to note that this attitude of intellectual generosity is so missing from American public discourse today.
No one started more Jewish conversations than Gene Borowitz. He was among the first modern Jewish thinkers to articulate the issues regarding sexual behavior, and among the first to offer a critique and reflection on contemporary Christian theology. He was perhaps the first Jewish thinker to speak of the deep, internal contradictions within American Jewish life, as he did in his classic book, “The Masks Jews Wear.”
He was the intellectual father of contemporary Reform Judaism. He believed in a life lived in covenant; a life lived in the balance between the claims of the self and the claims of the tradition. He taught that Reform Jewish duty begins with a careful examination of the Jewish tradition and then choosing from among Jewish alternatives, based in commitment and knowledge. In our final conversation, a year ago, I asked him whether he believed that Reform Jews had lived up to his high expectations. He was silent for a while, and then said: “I will have to get back to you about that.”
Scene 4: I became the rabbi at the congregation that he founded — The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I. It was a wonderful role reversal — I, as rabbi, he as student. He handled that transformation with grace, often attending our Torah classes, always gently participating and earning the love of his fellow students and neighbors.
Of the chasidic master, the Maggid of Mezrich, it was said:
“He pushed us and pulled us. He asked us questions and listened to us. He waited until each one of us told him his own story about what it was like to go out of Egypt and to cross the Red Sea. And he waited until each one of us told him his own story of what it was like to stand at Mt. Sinai and accept the Torah.”
That was Gene Borowitz.
Jeffrey K. Salkin is the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and a writer and teacher. His most recent book is “The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham” (Jewish Publication Society).