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Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis: What do we owe the stranger?

by Susan Freudenheim

April 9, 2014 | 11:42 am

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. Photos courtesy of Jewish World Watch

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. Photos courtesy of Jewish World Watch

Thirty-six times the Torah talks about caring for the stranger,” Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis said. 

“That is so unusual. It doesn’t talk about the love of God 36 times!” 

A student of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century — Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber — Schulweis’ own influence on modern Jewish thought and synagogue life is widely considered to measure up to that of his mentors. He inspired the creation of synagogue chavurot and “para-rabbinics” — a new model of lay-clergy leadership. He broke down many barriers through his progressive views. He was the first rabbi to advocate the acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews into Conservative congregations, and among the first to promote active Jewish outreach to spiritual seekers. Schulweis’ theology is deeply rooted in the biblical idea that the human being bears the image of God. We are, he teaches, the hands of God committed to redeeming the world. 

Last week, Schulweis, now 89, spent a morning with a reporter talking about Passover, sharing his views of what defines a “stranger” and explaining how the commandment “to love a stranger” has defined his own life.

And as he spoke on this day, he pointed repeatedly to a single passage from Deuteronomy (26:13) quoted in a haggadah he helped create for Valley Beth Shalom, the Conservative synagogue in Encino where he has served as spiritual leader since 1970: 

“You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.”

As Schulweis read those lines aloud, he looked up and smiled. “For a Jew to have a slave, according to the law, is to have a master,” he said. 

“Because you cannot allow the slave to sleep on a bed that’s not as good as the one he used to sleep on.” 

The rabbi paused, then lightly pounded the table in front of him with his index finger as he continued: “And I think the Jews don’t know it. So help me, they don’t know it. And if the Jews don’t know it, the Christians don’t know it. People don’t know it.”

The lesson of Passover is compassion, he said. “You have to have concern for the other. And the result of it is self-realization. And, I must say, a great deal of happiness.”

If, at nearly 90, Schulweis is slowing down, it’s only in the mechanisms of his body — his voice no longer bellows and occasionally drops to a whisper; he walks deliberately, stiffly. He admits he is plied full of medications to stave off the heart disease that has troubled him for decades, and, in recent weeks, his name could be found on misheberach lists in synagogues far and wide. 

But as the rabbi sat for 90 minutes for an interview, he never lost steam, and he spoke with eloquence — his ideas tumbling over one another because, as always, he had so much to say — so much in his very full brain that he often got ahead of himself. Dressed in a blue argyle sweater and blue striped shirt, he retained the formality of the rabbi, and, as well, an elegant touch of the informality of a thinking man on a day off.

And there’s nothing age-bound about his thinking. Over decades of reflection, Schulweis has methodically fleshed out an enlightened philosophy based on kindness and social justice that continues to motivate others, young and old. Perhaps most notably today, he is the inspiration for and co-founder, with Janice Kamenir-Reznik, of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit aiding and advocating for victims of genocide worldwide, especially in Darfur, Sudan and Congo. Since Schulweis introduced his idea for JWW in a Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2004, the organization has grown to become a coalition of some 70 synagogues, churches, schools and other groups, with many hundreds of additional contributing organizations and individuals, according to Kamenir-Reznik. To date, JWW has raised about $12.5 million to support its efforts to end genocide.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Sidney Orel from Valley Beth Shalom at a Jewish World Watch march.

The organization is run by a staff led by Kamenir-Reznik, full-time volunteer president, and Michael Lieb Jeser as executive director, yet Schulweis remains fully engaged with its mission and said with absolute certainty that on April 27 he will attend JWW’s annual Los Angeles march in Pan Pacific Park, where, he said with considerable pride, he will be joined by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

Should anyone question this rabbi’s stamina, Schulweis also said he is already writing his 5775 High Holy Days sermons.

A pulpit rabbi for 65 years, 45 of them at Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis is the author of innumerable articles and seven books, notably, “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights Publishing), which won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award: Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.  His many sermons and articles are archived by the Schulweis Institute created in his honor, and can be found at schulweisinstitute.org.

His vision, he said, is centered on the ethical obligation to take care of “the widow, the oppressed, the pariah, the very vulnerable — because we were once slaves” — the message of Passover.

Schulweis’ focus on man’s obligation to the “other” and, concurrently, the psychology of the altruistic impulse, began in earnest in the early 1960s, while he was serving as a young rabbi in Oakland. He was moved, in particular, by a single Holocaust story very different from the era’s predominant focus on how horribly Jews had been treated.

A man named Jacob Gilat, an accomplished Israeli scientist, came to visit the rabbi and told him of how, as a boy, Gilat and his two brothers had been hidden for three years from the Nazis by a Polish Christian family, the Roslans. When the brothers contracted scarlet fever, the Roslans divided up their own medications and shared them, and they even smuggled one of the boys into a Warsaw hospital that had “no place for a Jewish kid.” Schulweis learned of how the Roslans hid young Jacob inside the stuffing of a sofa, and when the Nazis came looking for Jews, the Roslans got the soldiers so drunk they forgot why they’d come.

Hearing these stories, Schulweis began to wonder whether other non-Jews had risked their own lives on behalf of Jews. “Were there any good gentiles?” he remembers thinking. In 1962, he traveled to Germany to meet Christian clergy members who had disobeyed both the church and their government to aid Jews. There, he met Pastor Henrich Gruber of Berlin-Klausendorf. 

In a conversation Schulweis describes in “Conscience,” Gruber shared his belief that if German priests and pastors had protested en masse, “The fate of your people would be altogether different …”

Nevertheless, Schulweis did not focus on the regrets, but rather on those who did help. He found that the “good” ones even included some overt anti-Semites, who, faced one-on-one with vulnerable Jews, protected those strangers from the Nazi death camps at great risk to themselves. “That really drove me nuts,” Schulweis remarked.

To acknowledge such altruism, Schulweis, in 1986, created The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to support non-Jews who had rescued Jews. He did so, as well, so Jews would see and recognize role models outside the Jewish community. He felt Jews needed to move beyond seeing themselves as victims. And he noted that he was not alone in this: Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, after witnessing so much horrific testimony during the trial in Israel of Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann, worried that such stories of the world’s abandonment would leave all Jews in despair. As a result, in 1961, Ben-Gurion instructed the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem to find 24 non-Jews who had rescued Jews during the Shoah, and to create the garden in their memory that would become the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations.

“Who is the hero?” Schulweis asked last week, quoting the talmudic source Pirke D’rabbi Natan. “He who can make out of an enemy a friend.” 

“Blacks need white heroes,” Schulweis continued. “And Arabs need Israeli heroes. The heroes -— my heroes — are from the other side.”  

Decades later, this same fundamental desire to love the stranger led Schulweis to create Jewish World Watch, to fulfill a pledge to prevent all future genocides after World War II. “Never again,” words so profoundly spoken after the release of the Jews from the Buchenwald concentration camp, had become an unmet promise, Schulweis said, citing Barbara Harff, a historian of modern genocide, who has found that nearly 50 cases of genocide/politicide have occurred since the end of the Holocaust. 

“Never again,” Schulweis repeated, “it’s a lie.” 

He said he wanted to transform Jews from feeling like victims into “rescuers.” He wanted to reverse the lie through prevention. And he did not know, as he gave his Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2004, whether others would join him. His wife, Malkah, warned him that many would not. He certainly did not expect the outpouring of support that would follow. “I thought it would be a failure,” he said.

But he went ahead with it for a motive that is both personal and simple: “When my people ask me, ‘Why are you Jewish?’ I want an answer I can be proud of,” he said. 

And while he and his organizations have not succeeded in fully preventing world genocide, he can say that he has helped the world to take notice and not “stand idly by.”

“I’ve been a rabbi for a very long time,” Schulweis said as the meeting ended. “I’ve written a number of books, and that’s very satisfying. It really is.” 

But, he said, nothing has been as satisfying as the realization of Jewish World Watch and his work with the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

“It’s made my life.”

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