Rabbi Leonard Beerman has been in my life since I was 12 years old. He inspired so many in my generation and me to engage as young teens in the civil rights movement, to protest American military involvement in Vietnam, to apply for Conscientious Objector status during that war, to fight nuclear weapons proliferation, to engage in interfaith dialogue and create coalitions of decency on behalf of just causes, and to support the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people for a state of their own alongside a secure Israel despite (as Leonard put it many years ago) Palestinian “cruelty and stupidity.”
Leonard was a rabbinic student in 1948 learning Hebrew in Jerusalem when the War of Independence broke out, and he aided in the effort to help establish the Jewish state.
For the last 65 years Leonard has been a uniquely courageous and consistent voice in the American Rabbinate advocating for human rights here, in Israel and around the world despite personal ostracism and political blow-back at the hands of many fellow Jews. Leonard spoke as he did because he believes that the principles of justice, compassion and peace as articulated by the Biblical Prophets are primary Jewish ethical concerns.
Leonard is as eloquent and provocative a speaker as there is in American Judaism today. I grew up hearing the gentle resonance of his voice and the prophetic power of his words. His message at once inspires me, comforts me and forces me to think critically even if I do not agree with him. Even so, Leonard is always worth hearing because like the Biblical Prophet he understands that speaking truth is more important than feeding his community what he knows they want to hear.
Today, April 9, is Leonard’s 93rd birthday, and I send him birthday wishes with hopes that he will enjoy many more years of productive activism and good health with his dear wife Joan, his adoring children and grandchildren, and his many cherished colleagues, friends and admirers.
Leonard and I meet for lunch every few months to talk, share stories and thoughts about issues great and small, personal, Jewish and worldly. Last week when we met he brought me a poem that evokes the Jerusalem I love of Jewish messianic dreams and the real Jerusalem that I also love that inspires so much passion by so many and is one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The poem, called “My Promised Land” by Carl Dennis, is at once wistful, melancholic and hopeful. It is worth reading at our Passover Seders because it reminds us of our messianic dreams and of the work that is yet to be done for the sake of peace:
"The land of Israel my mother loves
Gets by without the luxury of existence
And still wins followers,
Though it can’t be found on the map
West of Jordan or south of Lebanon,
Though what can be found bears the same name,
Making for confusion.
Not the land I fought her about for years
But the one untarnished by the smoke of history,
Where no one informs the people of Hebron or Jericho
They’re squatting on property that isn’t theirs,
Where every settler can remember wandering.
The dinners I spoiled with shouting
Could have been saved,
Both of us lingering quietly in our chairs,
If I’d guessed the truth that now is obvious,
That she wasn’t lavishing all her love
On the country that doesn’t deserve so rich a gift
But on the one that does, the one not there,
That she hoped good news would reach its borders.
And cross into the land of the righteous and merciful
That the Prophets spoke of in their hopeful moods,
That was loved by the red-eyed rabbis of Galicia
Who studied every word of the book and prayed
To get one thread of the meaning right;
The promised Land where the great and small
Hurry to school and the wise are waiting."