In Memory of an Honored Teacher

We learned the news last week of the death of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a noted Conservative Rabbi and teacher. I hope that you will take a moment to read any of the obituaries that were written about this man who was such an influential teacher and leader of the Jewish community. He impacted his community in Los Angeles and the Jewish community throughout the world in critical ways. His synagogue and the organizations he founded and participated in are examples of visionary leadership and courageous teaching.

On the second day of Rosh Hashana 2000, I spoke about a book that Rabbi Schulweis had written called: “For Those Who Can’t Believe”. It was then and remains one of the most inspiring books I have ever read on Jewish thought and I urge you all to get a copy and to read it. I certainly agree with the basic premises of the book, but, agree or disagree, I think you will find it thought provoking and worth serious consideration.

I am about to begin a three month “partial Sabbatical” during which I hope to conclude a writing project which I have been working on for years and begin some others (in addition to doing some other work as well). The first step towards these other writing projects involved gathering all of the sermons and articles I have written over the years and organizing them. I have accomplished much of that task over the past two weeks and have found, to my great regret, that some of my sermons are still missing due to my failure to file them properly. Included in the list of the missing is the second half of the sermon I gave on Rabbi Schulweis’ book.

I will continue to look for it but for now, I will share with you the first part of that sermon and hopefully it will encourage you to take a look at the book in question:

I picked up a book a few months ago. It had been recommended to me by a colleague. It is called: “For Those Who Can’t Believe”. This is one phenomenal book.

In it, the author, Rabbi Harold Schulweis presents a convincing, straightforward case for religious faith in light of doubters who claim that it is archaic, irrational, anti-intellectual and interferes with the ability to make the most of our life. He makes a passionate claim for a faith which is not full of the old simple answers to difficult questions but one which challenges, uplifts, comforts and, most importantly, which insures that our role as human beings is not undermined by too great a dependence on God.

For Those Who Can’t Believe is the title. I read it because I am one of those. I am one of those who can not believe.

Strange spot for a Rabbi to be in, being one who can’t believe.

Before you get the wrong idea, let me be a bit more specific.

It’s not that I can’t believe in God. I can and I do.

It’s not that I can’t believe in Jewish tradition and Jewish law’s authority in our lives. I can and I do.

It’s not that I can’t believe that my life is improved, its meaning deepened, its foundation strengthened by a belief in God. I can and I do.

My faith in God has changed over the years as has, or at least should, everyone’s, but it has remained the foundation of who I am and how I approach the world.

So, why then did I read a book called: “For Those Who Can’t Believe” and consider myself one of those addressed in the title?

Because I needed a reminder of what it is I believe and while no one can speak for my beliefs except myself, Rabbi Schulweis does come very close. He reminded me what it is that I believe.

I still can believe and what Rabbi Schulweis’ book did was made me see once again the beauty, the consistency and the meaning in an approach to Judaism similar to that framed by so many of my teachers who believed in a God who creates, who teaches, who cares for us, believes in us and fashioned a world in which we, under Divine influence, can transform this world into paradise.

So, why was I having a crisis of faith? I was having a crisis of faith because I see so many popular approaches to Judaism today going in directions that I can not personally endorse. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It doesn’t mean they’re not authentic. It just means that as a Rabbi, I can’t lie to people and tell them I believe what I don’t. And I needed to read a book which reminded me that the “old time Judaism” of the 70’s and 80’s which I had bought into and invested my life in still made sense to me. The Judaism of Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, of Neil Gillman’s Sacred Fragments of a tradition inspired by people from all branches of Judaism: from those on the left to Yitz Greenberg and even Rabbi Soloveitchik, zichrono livracha, who saw Judaism as a rational, academically and intellectually defensible faith which sought to add an element of mystery and irrationality to our lives to help us deal with the world more meaningfully. That to me was spirituality.

Rabbi Schulweis wrote this book in 1993 to appeal to a generation which had strayed from God because they thought it was beneath them. But, I read the book seven years later in a different way. I read it as one who sees trends around the Jewish community which redefine spirituality and use different words and different goals to talk about what God is about in the Jewish faith. And, while I say kol hakavod to all who embrace them and hope deeply that nothing I say this morning will discourage them or make them feel excluded, I have to say in this public forum that I am not there.

While I don’t have the rest of the sermon in my file, I can tell you that it went on to express concern about certain approaches to Judaism. One of those approaches that I was concerned about is an approach which speaks of using prayer and observance of ritual to insure receiving a positive response from God to bring us a life of goodness and blessing. The other approach was that which concentrated on a personal, internal, spiritual relationship with God which distances oneself from responsibilities to community or to the world.

I find both of these approaches to be troubling and saw Schulweis’ book as a more meaningful and rational way of thinking about faith: a faith in God which encourages us to do Divine work on earth.It is a faith in God which emphasizes our responsibility as human beings and also emphasizes relationships as evidenced by this quote from the book: “Godliness, like love, is located not “in me” or “in you” but “between us”…In Judaism the importance of “betweeness” is expressed in the high value the tradition places on community…relationships serve as the spiritual material out of which the idea of God is formed.”

I will continue to search for the rest of the sermon and will share it with you if and when I find it. But, I wanted to post the incomplete version in tribute to my teacher, may his memory be for a blessing. I hope that you will be inspired to read this book and think about what it truly means to believe in God.

One thought on “In Memory of an Honored Teacher

  1. Laurel F.

    That’s a beautiful tribute that he would be honored to have written about him. And maybe it’s good that you didn’t print more of the sermon, because you printed just enough to arouse one’s curiosity about the book. I’d like to read it.

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