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Rabbi Bruce Goldman, 84: Covid-19 Claims a Holy Troublemaker

Rabbi Bruce Goldman, 84: Covid-19 Claims a Holy Troublemaker

The former Jewish chaplain at Columbia University consistently defied convention.

Rabbi A. Bruce Goldman (Courtesy Arthur Waskow)
Rabbi A. Bruce Goldman (Courtesy Arthur Waskow)

Rabbi Bruce Goldman died last week at the age of 84, having been sick for much of a year but finally killed by the coronavirus. He was a Reform rabbi, on the most progressive edge of the Reform movement. He broke many rules, secular and Jewish, for the sake of justice, and I think it appropriate to mourn him especially at Passover.

Perhaps his most well-known action came in 1968, when he was the Jewish chaplain at Columbia University. Students occupied some university buildings in protest of the war in Vietnam. When police prepared to attack the student sit-ins, Rabbi Goldman placed himself as a nonviolent intervenor between the police and the students. The police beat him semi-conscious.

When he recovered, the “Advisory Board to the Office of the Jewish Chaplain,” made up mostly of wealthy donors, fired him, instead of honoring him in the tradition of Passover itself and many Jewish justice-seekers. They include the Prophet Amos; the abolitionist Rabbi David Einhorn, who was forced to flee for his life from Baltimore in 1861 by pro-slavery congregants; and Reform leaders Al Vorspan and Rabbis Balfour Brickner, Gene Lipman, and Richard Levy, among others, who were attacked and arrested in St. Augustine, Fla., for a pro-integration demonstration in 1964.

For years Rabbi Bruce ran a radio program on the progressive New York radio station WBAI. The program was called “Up Against the Wailing Wall,” echoing a more ribald slogan of some ‘60s leftists.

One lesser-known episode in Rabbi Goldman’s life: It began when “Jews for Urban Justice” met in Washington, DC, to protest the treatment of the Chicago Eight by Judge Julius Hoffman, who was himself Jewish.

(The Eight included Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, and Abby Hoffman, who were accused of organizing a violent riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The charge was totally false, but Judge Hoffman was so hell-bent on convicting them that he ordered Bobby Seale, the only black defendant, to be gagged and bound for protesting his rulings. He also tried to force me to take off my yarmulke when I testified for the defense. All eight were convicted, and all the convictions were reversed on appeal because dozens of his rulings had been so prejudicial.)

We Washington Jews had the idea of traveling to Chicago to “exorcise” Judge Hoffman’s dybbuk and free him to be a serious Jew. But we thought we needed permission from a similar radical Jewish group in Chicago to do it there. They were unwilling. So we didn’t go.

But Rabbi Bruce thought this was a powerful idea and organized the exorcism in New York City. He also arranged for it to be filmed, and the ceremony came through in an utterly awesome way. Brilliant, but it didn’t exorcise the evil inclination from Judge Hoffman. We surmised it was too far away from the trial.

But it was pure Bruce at his best. Drawing on Judaism to transform it, and to try to transform the world in the process.

In later years, Rabbi Bruce made his living performing marriages, often of interfaith couples, and providing pastoral counseling for children of Holocaust survivors and others. When asked by The New York Times in 1998 why he was willing to perform weddings for people of all faiths, he said, “People have a right to consecrate their love and friendship without being asked to surrender their values, heritage, tradition or children.”

I will miss him. Many Jews may not consciously realize they miss him, but they will — because Judaism will be poorer. The world will miss him. May memories of him serve as a blessing of bravery and perseverance to us all.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder and director of The Shalom Center, and the author of 27 books including the original Freedom Seder, Seasons of Our Joy, and Godwrestling – Round 2.

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