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Loving God, loving Torah, loving others: Rabbi Prof. Eugene B. Borowitz

Her dear teacher, Eugene B. Borowitz, crafted the theology that returned God to the religiosity of liberal Jews

In the mid-1940s, as the world began to emerge from World War II, and world-Jewry began to grasp the still unfathomable horrors of what later was called the Holocaust, three Hebrew Union College rabbinical students became lifelong friends and fierce intellectual study partners.

These three young men, just 20 years old when they met, became a hevruta in the deepest sense of the word. At every possible opportunity, for more than half a century, they debated philosophy and theology, politics, life and love: Rabbi Professor Steven Schwarzchild, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, and Rabbi Distinguished Professor Eugene B. Borowitz who peacefully passed away on January 22nd, as he was nearing his 92nd birthday. Upon their ordination in 1948, just as the State of Israel was born, each one knew that Judaism, especially liberal theology, must be re-thought. But how? What did it mean to lead and think and pray knowing what they now knew — that their predecessors did not — about humanity and modernity?

Prof. Schwarzchild died suddenly in 1989. With Dr. Borowitz, he had an ongoing hevruta on the possibilities and limitations of Neo-Kantian philosophy. Dr. Borowitz often told me that anything he said or wrote about philosophy, even after Schwarzchild’s death, continued to be part of his endless debate with him.

When Rabbi Wolf died in December 2008, Dr. Borowitz — as generations of his students called him — made his way alone in a storm to Rabbi Wolf’s funeral in Chicago to give one of the most painful eulogies of his life.

Dr. Borowitz began the eulogy for Rabbi Wolf with a story of being with him at a funeral of another close friend. “After the interment,” said Dr. Borowitz, “as we were standing there at [the] grave, Rabbi Wolf, or Arnold as he was known to his colleagues, tearfully threw his arms around me and said, “I want you to do my funeral…I can’t do yours…I can’t do another one like this at all.” Dr. Borowitz protested of course, “but you know what it meant to try to protest to Arnold. So I am here today to fulfill another command from my brother.”

To fulfill commandments, that sense of loving and absolute duty, was precisely how Dr. Borowitz understood relationships with others and with God. Whether Dr. Borowitz quoted Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, or Psalms or Prophets, he insisted that we respond to others not just out of ethical impulse, but out of a God-grounded sense of commanded-ness.

With Dr. Borowitz, like hundreds and thousands of his students, I studied Buber and Levinas, psalms and ethics, Baeck and Solovietchik. And he and I, like many others, had a very precious hevruta. For me, it took a startling turn the day he insisted that I argue with him more. He insisted that I must correct him when I thought he was wrong — it was a daunting request, but one that changed everything.

Dr. Borowitz and the author (courtesy)
Dr. Borowitz and the author (courtesy)

When we — the Hebrew Union College and the Reform Movement in Israel — worked to have his crowning theological work Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew (JPS 1991) translated into Hebrew, we spoke many times at great length, asking together the questions: which sections would be relevant for Israeli society? Would it be properly understood? And, of course, a deeper question: what did it mean to him to be translated?

Upon the publication of the volume, titled in Hebrew: Hidusha shel HaBrit חידושה של הברית, a couple years ago he said to me with a smile: “See, I am making aliyah….”

From near and from afar, Gene so inspired me that — with his encouragement and constant support — I devoted much of the last 20 years to the study of his thought, his writings and his life’s work. In 2005, I was asked to write the entry on Dr. Borowitz and his theology for the New Encyclopedia Judaica, and soon thereafter wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the development of Dr. Borowitz’s theology. In more recent years, I published articles in academic and non-academic journals about the importance of Dr. Borowitz’s thought for the autonomous Jewish self in our time.

Dr. Borowitz brought so much Torah and God into our world with such profound power and depth that it cannot but continue to live far beyond the limited lives of those he touched. Among Dr. Borowitz’s enormous contributions are the 19 books he wrote, along with more than 350 articles and book reviews, in a stunning range of fields including Jewish education, Jewish ethics, Jewish philosophy, halakhah, Jewish-Christian theological response, talmudic language, and, of course, theology.

His work, according to some scholars, has been so influential that it is impossible to imagine liberal theology, much less Reform Judaism, without his influence. Scholars have called Borowitz: 1) “the premier liberal Jewish theologian at work today”; 2) the “dean” of contemporary American Jewish thinkers; and 3) according to Arnold Wolf, “the great teacher of our generation, the thinker who best exemplified our strength and who best probes our weaknesses.” He characterized Borowitz as a “bridge theologian, spanning modernism and postmodernism.”.

But the central role Borowitz would play in setting the agenda for liberal Judaism was clear quite early on, when he published one of his first, but truly seminal articles in 1961 in Commentary magazine (it was some time before he knew he had to create the more open and pluralistic periodical, Sh’ma: a journal of Jewish responsibility, which came into being in 1970, and which he edited and published for 23 years). In this 1961 article he is the first to coin the term “Covenant Theology” to refer to a Jewish theology that transcended traditional notions of law or, alternatively, universal ethical monotheism. He explained that this new theology in the making — “Covenant Theology”– was a [postmodern] response to the real God encountered in history.

As part of his efforts to go beyond the work of Buber and Rosenzweig, Borowitz knew that he needed to be even more clear about what a truly commanding existentialist theology might mean. “I knew with gradually increasing clarity,” he wrote, “that the truth of Judaism inhered in its particularity and not merely in its universalism. Therefore, what our community now required was a theology of non-Orthodox Jewish duty, particular as well as universal.”

“Instead of becoming another confirmed mid-century agnostic,” wrote Gene, frustrated with the secularization of his generation, “I became convinced that only belief could now found, even mandate, our strong sense of personal and human values.” His life’s work was — as he often wrote — primarily about bringing the living God back to the religiosity of thinking Jews.” Everything else was about working out the possibilities and implications of that presence of God in our lives and in the world.

In Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, there are two sections that I believe have had the greatest impact on much of what will follow: The first is a culminating section entitled “The Five Premises of Jewish Duty,” which outlines how he understands a simultaneous covenant between the autonomous Jewish self, a commanding God and the Jewish people, past, present and future.

But the section that challenged his students and his wider readership the most was entitled: “Knowing What God Wants of Us.” This section — and the whole book — is filled with a spiritual clarity that God is still present and commanding. He maintains that a thoroughgoing understanding of post-modernity and God’s presence would cause us to see the complexities of leading serious liberal Jewish lives as the best possible way of ensuring that we become more ethical and thus more Godly, and less like the worst of humanity.

“….I find this Ultimate to be of such superlative quality as to lift me far above myself in aspiration and, often, in consequent action. I am surprised, grateful, honored, commissioned by this intimacy with the Other that I and our people call, let me say it, God.” (Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant, p. 266)

So now we must ask ourselves in his language: what does liberal theology still demand of us?

  1. More theological concern. More piety — which Borowitz believed can and should be arrived at through study and prayer, both of which should more deeply ground our commitment — even “mandate our strong sense of personal and human values.”
  2. More Ethics. Ours must be a very particular ethical commitment along with the universal, grounded not only by ethical sensibilities but by a commanding, present God;
  3. More love. He was a man of enormous love — love for his family, love for his students, love of ideas, love of Torah, love of Talmud, love of prayer, and love of God. But first and foremost, he strived to be a student of Buber, and always seek out a deeper sense of what he would call “a touch of the sacred” in all his relationships, a sense of the Buberian “Thou” when engaging every human being.

He was very conscious of the unfinished tasks of his theology and to his dying day was reevaluating the positions he took on the most challenging issues in earlier decades, including ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis and rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. He had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and sought to understand what God still wanted of us. He constantly wanted to think even more deeply about some idea or aspect of God, write one more book, one more article, create one more new course, and complete just one more project.

While he devoted his life to restoring God to a significant place in American Jewish religious life, he focused primarily on personal religious experience and the ethics and practices of this world.

“We who are alive in the here and now can hardly deal directly of what life might be there and then. But the certainties of classic Jewish tradition will not let us go. If God is eternal, and we are created in God’s image, should there not be a touch of eternity in us?” (Borowitz, eulogy for Wolf, Dec. 26, 2008)

“Of course,” Borwotiz continued in the eulogy at Wolf’s funeral, “we can let our fantasies roam: Arnold in heaven…looking for Franz Rosenzweig, who he hopes will explain to him what a couple of generations of scholars have not been able to figure out in his thought….

As he said of Wolf, we must say now about Borowitz: There was surely something about him “which went deeper into reality than an ordinary lifetime does. His exceptional life, one so much richer than most of us know, one so open to God and God’s service, that it intimates the possibility of eternity in all of us.”

So what does his theology mean for him now? Yes, he too now will be reunited with those he loved. Yes, he too will be able to seek out his precious friends including his hevrutas, Wolf, Schwarzchild, and Fackenheim, and yes, he too will get to push Buber and Rosenzweig toward the ideas he wanted them to articulate better…and Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakeish from the Talmud too.

All of them were awaiting his arrival, ready to study and debate with him anew, to hear his new questions and demands. They are all there to welcome him — with arms wide open — into the Great and Heavenly Study Hall of the next world, the Beit Midrash shel Ma’alah, where loving Torah, loving God and loving others eternally surely must be easier…more clear and more pure.

May he know a nearness to God that he craved so deeply in this imperfect Earthly House of Study, beit midrash shel ma’atah.

May he finally know all the triumphs of his life’s work, and how deeply he has inspired in all of us, the possibilities of eternity.

About the Author
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. For nearly two decades she has directed national and international leadership study programs for rabbis and lay leaders of all denominations at the Hartman Institute and previously at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Sabath Beit-Halachmi also earned a doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary and served (non-denominational) Congregation Shirat HaYam on Nantucket Island for thirteen years. She is the co-author of Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays, Striving Toward Virtue, and has published numerous articles on theology, Zionism, and gender.
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