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The Rabbi for the Radical Middle

COVER STORY

Harold Schulweis Takes a Swing at the Jewish Left, Right and Center in His Quest for Unity. Is He a Prophetic Voice for Our Contentious Times?

September 20, 1998|MARLENE ADLER MARKS | Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Her new book, "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life," will be published this fall by On the Way Press

For a man who has not slept more than a few hours at a time in some 50 years, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis appears incredibly wide awake. Here it is 8 p.m. on a Wednesday and this famous insomniac, fresh from the 15-minute catnap he allows himself most afternoons, can't wait to go on.

A crowd nearing 500 fills the wide, bright corridor outside the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom, the Encino synagogue Schulweis has led for 28 years. They come to hear this voice with the fire of Isaiah wrapped in the salami-and-egg compassion of your Uncle Benji, and to see this 73-year-old figure, trimmed by the religion of cardiac rehab at Tarzana Medical Center, jabbing from the pulpit at fraudulent ideas, arms punching upward. It brings to mind Rodin's statue of Balzac, the intellectual man of might. It also fits a rabbi whose sport of choice is boxing.

You never know which of the four Jewish movements he'll be swinging at--the falsely pious among the Jewish Religious Right; the hard-hearted legalists in his own Conservative movement; the mystical know-nothings among the former Jewish Left, who confuse God with David Copperfield, or the fervently Orthodox in Israel who are fomenting religious division in the name of "Who is a Jew?" But of this you can be sure: One or more of the movements will be his target, as will many conventions that his congregants hold comfortably abreast.

Take Moses, his subject tonight. By Schulweis' lights, Moses was more than just a commander who led former slaves across the Red Sea; he was a man much like Schulweis himself--a family man, a man of the people, filled with questions and doubt. Moses, as described by Schulweis, argues with God time and again, notably for a stay of execution after the Jews built the Golden Calf. If not for Moses' plea, God would have killed them all.

"God says to Moses: 'I look to you to pour cool water upon the fire of my anger,' " Schulweis tells his audience, quoting an ancient rabbinical source. God relied upon Moses to tell him the right thing to do. It's a thrilling oration, a reversal of the natural order--not man's search for God but God's search for man. Not coincidentally, that theme--carried from his teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel--sums up Schulweis' life work.

Wrestle with God.

Question God.

Think for yourself.

Harold Schulweis sees almost nothing as everyone else sees it. He seeks a revitalized Judaism--compassionate, open, conscience-driven. He has become one of America's leading rabbis not by isolating himself within any of the four main Jewish movements but by challenging elements of each--and working, always working, to build bridges. Deep schisms beset Jewry today: Some Orthodox rabbis won't sit on panels with their liberal brethren, and some liberal rabbis, ridiculed and insulted by the fervently Orthodox in Israel who won't recognize their authority, have urged their congregants to boycott Israeli charities.

In this overheated climate, Schulweis battles to keep Judaism together, aided by his extraordinary credentials: He is a Conservative rabbi who was raised as an Orthodox Jew but who taught for years at the Reform Hebrew Union College. He also was an early advocate of the Reconstructionist movement, a small but influential offshoot of Conservatism, whose founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, argued that American Judaism will inevitably evolve in line with the principles of democracy and tolerance in the United States, adapting and updating traditional strictures.

"He represents the best part of American liberal Judaism," says Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Landes, now head of the Pardes Institute in Israel. "Decency, pragmatism and intellectuality, plus--and this is no small thing--he speaks from the ethnic authenticity of a traditional Jewish background."

"He is not an organizational man but a shaper of human life," says Rabbi David Hartman, who many regard as the conscience of Israeli Judaism. "He has a true impulse to change things and an awareness of the moral pathos of our times."

If Judaism is finally coming out of post-Holocaust despair; if it comes back from the meek, sentimentalized and enfeebled "Seinfeld-style" Jewish culture of pastrami-on-rye and becomes a vital, muscular player within the American religious mainstream, and if thousands more, including many non-Jews, come to have a better understanding of their relationship to God, then Schulweis deserves a measure of the credit.

Among his contributions:

--He created the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers 30 years before such heroism was popularized by the movie "Schindler's List." The organization honors Christians who, at great personal risk and for no perceived reward, saved Jews from Nazi death camps.

--He's put in place at Valley Beth Shalom innovations that have been duplicated nationwide, including the "pararabbinic" program that trains lay congregants to mentor others, and popularized the havurah program, which breaks large synagogues into small groups of like-minded members.

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