Both Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Rabbi Leonard Beerman came to their rabbinate having grown up in the era of the Great Depression, the imprint of the Second World War and the birth of the State of Israel. Each of them would be part of a generation of clergy who would draw their inspiration not only from Jewish sources but from the writings of poets, philosophers, and novelists.
Beerman’s rabbinate would be shaped in part by his HUC teachers, Abraham Cronbach on pacifism and Sheldon Blank’s social justice imperative. He would write:
I had left rabbinical school…with a conviction that a humane society was just around the corner; that the wrongs and injustices of history would be corrected, or could be corrected, and, drawing inspiration from the great ethical ideals of the Jewish tradition, that we Jews could be instruments in the creation of such a world.
In turn, Schulweis’ social passion and theology would be influenced by his exposure at JTS to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan and many other Jewish thinkers. But his own thinking would be framed by his lifelong connection with the words of his beloved Zayde, his grandfather.
Beerman, who fought for the Haganah in the 1948 War of Independence, would come away from that experience a life long pacifist. His fierce opposition to America’s involvement in various wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan would affirm his opposition to armed conflict.
Both of these figures of faith would translate their Jewish passions into concrete actions. For Beerman, as an example, this would be reflected by his embracing the cause of economic justice for farm and hotel workers; for Schulweis it would be about transforming the Jewish story into a universal one by envisioning new ways to engage Jews in the task of healing the world.
These towering figures would play central roles in shaping interfaith dialogue and moving the words of faith into a framework for action. Beerman would engage Muslims and Christians in a shared search for Middle East peace. In 1999 in announcing a new Catholic-Jewish conversation that he would launch jointly with Cardinal Mahoney, Rabbi Schulweis would state:
We are entering a new era, new times and we are confronting different situations, different events and different persons. My fear is that in anger of the past we cast such a deep shadow over the future, so that we see only the tunnel beyond the light.
Both of these rabbinic figures would have their critics, as controversy would define their boldness. While Beerman had a distinctive distaste for mixing religion and state fearing the fervor of such nationalistic zealotry, Schulweis embraced Zionism and the Jewish experiment in state building. As lovers of Zion, over the course of their rabbinic careers, both men would be critical of particular Israeli policies and actions. Yet, Schulweis’ passion for peace was couched with caution as he would note “We must dream of peace. Not to dream of peace is to betray our faith in the future. But we must dream cautiously for to dream is to be asleep.” For Beerman it would be his critical words and his connections with controversial figures, including Yasser Arafat , all in the cause of finding an avenue of peace between Jew and Arab.
Schulweis would challenge his congregation and the Jewish world with his call for inclusion that would encompass gays and lesbians, intermarried families, and those with special needs. He would create as well new venues for congregants to be partners with their clergy team.
As institution-builders each would leave their imprint. Beerman’s was more narrowly limited in serving as the founding rabbi (1949) of Leo Baeck Temple. In addition to creatively revitalizing Valley Beth Shalom beginning in1970, Schulweis would be the architect of an array of new initiatives including Mazon (1985), the “Jewish response to hunger”; the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (1986), an international effort to assist some 1750 righteous gentiles in 21 countries who had saved Jews during the Holocaust; and Jewish World Watch (2004), the world’s largest grassroots anti-genocide organization. In creating these organizations, the rabbi would actualize his ideological and religious sentiments.
Through their lives and more dramatically by their actions and their writings, each would leave a legacy that transcended particular institutions but more appropriately encompassed great ideas and thoughtful actions. They would challenge us to renew our own journeys of learning and our own sense of what Judaism as a living faith tradition can mean and can become.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Albert Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles.