Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, the “dean” of American Jewish philosophers, was a prolific writer, devoted teacher and beloved rabbi who mentored generations of students at the Hebrew Union College over five decades of service.
Across the world, we Jews are now reading the Book of Leviticus. This book of laws is named for my Levitical family, ancestors dedicated to the pursuit of holiness. What does seeking holiness mean in a world awash in misery and meanness? The Torah reminds us that there are ways of seeing and responding to our world beyond what we read in the daily paper. We can see the world through eyes that see holiness.
Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi teaches, “In Leviticus, a person’s body, the sanctuary and the community each constitute a microcosm of the universe in its sacred aspect.” Last month, I was reminded of the power and the rewards of seeking the sacred in our lives when I attended a gathering in memory of Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, who died in January just before his 92nd birthday.
Borowitz, the “dean” of American Jewish philosophers, was a prolific writer, devoted teacher and beloved rabbi who mentored generations of students at the Hebrew Union College over five decades of service.
I first encountered Gene Borowitz in 1970. After graduation from a small Baptist college in the Midwest, I arrived in Boston to dive into the welcoming waters of graduate study in Judaica. That year, Borowitz launched Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, inviting Jewish voices across the spectrum of affiliation, philosophy and age to engage one another in dialogue and debate.
I wrote a letter to Sh’ma, and Dr. Borowitz answered me; a decade later when we met, he remembered my letter. I told him that I had become his student; in response to his challenges to my mind and my heart, I had begun rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College.
As I sat with colleagues, teachers and friends last month remembering Dr. Borowitz, I realized the depth of my debt to this scholar and thinker. He challenged each of us to become God wrestlers, to determine how, as individuals living in a secular, profoundly materialistic world, we can name, and claim, the sacred.
His teaching was not only about the individual and the individual’s search for God, or goodness, or truth. He challenged himself — and others — to face the challenge of becoming and maintaining an ethical, holy community. His life and work invited each of us to renew our covenant with God and the Jewish people.
I spent my years at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, so Dr. Borowitz, who taught at our New York school, was my teacher through his books and articles.
I was deeply distressed to learn, in the 1980s, that he was unwilling to sign the ordination certificates of individuals who identified ourselves as LGBT clergy. His reason, according to his daughter Lisa, was that he believed that congregations were not “ready” to embrace these rabbis as leaders. Additionally, he thought that these rabbis would not have families of their own, so how could they model the ideal of the Jewish family to their congregants and communities?
Several years ago, one of his former students challenged him to reconsider a decision that had been a source of excruciating pain for an entire generation of graduates, both LGBT rabbis and their allies, who had withheld their own semicha documents in solidarity with their gay classmates.
Rabbi Borowitz realized that he had been wrong. He also knew that he needed to address his error in public. In the presence of students, colleagues and members of his own family, he shared his regret for his error and signed the rabbi’s diploma. In the past couple of years, many former students traveled to New York to have their documents signed by their beloved teacher.
As we make our way through the Book of Leviticus, we ask again and again, what does it mean to seek holiness? The Book of Micah provides a succinct answer: To do justly, to seek mercy and to walk humbly with God.
Through his life’s work of seeking truth, his willingness to admit wrong and to ask forgiveness, his devotion to rigorous scholarship and to the spiritual and religious growth of his students, our teacher Eugene Borowitz modeled a life of walking with and towards God. May his words and deeds continue to guide all who seek a holy path to renewal.
A senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves on the executive committee of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.