‘Rabbi of rabbis’ looks back
Goldin reflects on life, term as head of Orthodox group
|Rabbi Shmuel Goldin addressess the Rabbinical Council of America.|
To Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in the end everything comes down to balance.
How do you balance unswerving fealty to tradition and openness to the world around you?
How do you remain both a stranger and a permanent presence in your world?
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How do you live as a proud Jew and a proud American?
Until this week, when his term ended, Goldin, the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, was president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the organization that represents Orthodox rabbis, from modern through centrist to the edges of the black-hat world. He believes he has managed to walk the taut, high wire the position demands, and that both he and it are better for it.
He comes by his ability to balance naturally.
Goldin, 62, was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and grew up there and in West Hempstead on Long Island. Both of his grandfathers were staunchly Orthodox rabbis, but their lives are a study in stark contrasts, drawn, literally at times, in black and white.
His father, Isaac Goldin, was the son of Rabbi Hyman E. Goldin, a well-known and well-respected public Jewish intellectual. The author of more than 50 books, Shmuel Goldin said, his grandfather was curious, visionary, and daring, “a maverick, and very much a Renaissance man.”
Hyman Goldin grew up near Vilna in Lithuania. According to legend, which might be apocryphal, but given the rest of his life easily could have been true, he was thrown out of his yeshivah for studying the works of Charles Darwin. He came to America around the turn of the last century and taught himself English, eventually becoming fluent enough to graduate from NYU’s law school. His books included a widely used translation of the Shulchan Aruch and another called “HaMadrich,” the rabbis’ handbook that was used by many Orthodox and other spiritual leaders for decades, and still is used by some today.
All these works mattered a great deal, but his most important book, according to his grandson, was “The Case of the Nazarene Re-Opened.” “In that book, he put the Jews on trial for the killing of Christ,” Goldin said. “To write it, he studied the New Testament from cover to cover, and called the Gospels as witnesses.
“He said in the prologue that you” – the Christian world – “have prosecuted us for years, and we’ve never had a fair trial. It exposed tremendous contradictions in the testimonies of the Gospels.” The trial’s outcome was left to the reader.
Hyman Goldin sent copies of his book, which was printed in a limited edition, to Christian scholars, and challenged them to find any mistakes. “If you find a mistake in this book, I will withdraw it from print,” his grandson quotes his grandfather as saying. “Someone found one line in the book that had been printed twice.” No one ever found any other errors.
“These pivotal books were foundational in the American Jewish community,” Shmuel Goldin said.
Goldin has a collage hanging on his office wall that alludes to many events in his family’s life. That collage includes the copy of a letter Albert Einstein wrote in response to the book; the family also has responses from Supreme Court Justices Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter.
Hyman Goldin and a partner bought 360 acres of land in the Adirondacks, near Schroon Lake, and opened a camp for boys, called Nahar, and another for girls, called Naomi. He also opened a hotel called the Blue Sky Lodge.
“It was a place that many people in the Jewish community went to,” Shmuel Goldin said. “It was a very fertile place, very rustic.”
It was not for everyone – “either you loved it or you hated it” – but it was very much for him. He spent his boyhood summers up there, learning to love nature and how to roam freely in it.
The food at the lodge, of course, was kosher, and everything there encouraged a religiously observant life, but it was open to Jews outside the Orthodox world; in fact, one of the buildings was called the Kadushin House because the scholar Max Kadushin, who taught at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, stayed there so often.
Hyman Goldin also was the chaplain of the prison at Comstock, in upstate New York. Working with two inmates he met there, he edited “The Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo.”
That is the grandfather who later was to dress in natty white at his son’s wedding.
The other grandfather, Abraham Poplack – or “Grandfather Poplack,” as his grandson punctiliously refers to him – “was very different,” Goldin said. “He was rigidly Orthodox.”
Like Hyman Goldin, Poplack – whose daughter, Pearl Poplack Goldin, was to be Shmuel Goldin’s mother – was born near Vilna, but he came over 20 years later. He learned in the Slobodka yeshivah in Lithuania, a school known for its rigor. One of his classmates and close friends was Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, “who was considered one of the gedolei ha’dor” – one of the great rabbis of his generation.
And then the story takes an odd, perhaps symbolic twist.
The Goldins lived in Borough Park, where Hyman Goldin’s eccentricities flourished in what to outsiders might have looked like an unbroken sea of black hats.
When Poplack came to America with his parents, the family went to Bellingham, Washington – not a center of Jewish life – and then moved to the only marginally more Jewish community in Seattle.
“It was a very Orthodox home, but also a very open home,” Goldin said. It had to be. There were not enough Jews to close out the rest of the world. So his mother, whose upbringing was by far more rigid than his father’s, also had a “more cosmopolitan” life and was more at home in the outside world than his Brooklyn-born father ever was.
Poplack became “a pillar of the Orthodox community, the melamed” – teacher of Torah – “who taught the top shiur” – class, roughly translated – “in the talmud Torah there,” his grandson said.
Shortly before World War II, he was instrumental in saving the lives of the Kamenetsky family by getting them out of Europe. “He and other towering sages, huge names, were household names in my mother’s home,” Goldin said; she remembered having taught Kamenetsky how to play with a yo-yo.
His mother benefited from growing up with both those sages and other, more ordinary people, Jews and non-Jews, Goldin believes; “she was very worldly,” he said.
Isaac Goldin and Pearl Poplak met when she answered an ad for a governess for the Goldin grandchildren, up in the Blue Sky Lodge; he was the youngest, still-unmarried son. They fell in love, but he, like the rest of his siblings, had fallen away from observance – and she could not marry such a man. So she rejected him, but he did not give up.
“He was smitten,” his son said. He hunted for her and found her – family lore says that it was either on Yom Kippur or Simchat Torah – and “he says to her, ‘If you will marry me, I will be fully observant. And then he goes back to his father and learns to put on tefillin again.'”
How is it possible that Rabbi Hyman Goldin’s son didn’t remember something so basic? Goldin doesn’t know, but “if my grandfather were alive today, I would ask him. My father was a brilliant man, but he could hardly read Hebrew. Here was his father, yes, a maverick, but profoundly a scholar…. When I would ask my father about it, he’d say that his father was never home. He was a patriarch; he was sarcastic, cynical, sharp.”
About a year later, Goldin’s transformed father married his steadfast true love under a tree in the Adirondacks. “Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky traveled to the Blue Sky Lodge to perform the wedding,” Goldin said.
The wedding picture shows Poplack, well and formally dressed in black – Slobodka had a reputation for turning out brilliantly educated rabbis who also were elegant dressers – on one side of the startled-looking groom, and Goldin, dapper in a three-piece white suit on the other, as Kamenetsky walks just behind them. They are headed to the bedecken, the pre-wedding ceremony in which the veil is lowered over the bride’s face.
Isaac Goldin became New York State’s assistant tax supervisor, and Pearl Goldin, after earning a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College and a master’s in education at Hofstra, became a teacher.
Shmuel Goldin is the logical son of this west coast-east coast, black coat-white coat, insular-outward reaching union.
As a high school student, he commuted from West Hempstead to Brooklyn to go to BTA – the Brooklyn Talmudic Academy, a Yeshivah University adjunct – and then he went to YU itself, where he was ordained and earned a master’s degree in Jewish education. (“My mom always wanted me to get a Ph.D. but I never had the time,” he said.)
As a new rabbi, he headed west, to Beverley Hills, where he worked for Rabbi Maurice Lamm as assistant rabbi in charge of youth. “I really wanted to be a rabbi, and he really needed a youth director,” so this job, which was a glorified youth director, was created for him, Goldin said. It proved important to him, though, because it gave him the opportunity to watch the inner workings of a large shul from a safe distance.
Next, he spent six years in Potomac, Md., where the shul over which he presided grew; it began as the branch of a larger one, and ended up as the main shul when demographics changed.
“And then I came here, to Englewood, in 1984,” Goldin said.
Ahavath Torah dates back to the 1880s, and when Goldin came for his first job interview its rabbi, then about to retire, was the redoubtable Isaac Swift.
“They already had been looking for a rabbi for a long time,” Goldin said. “I was 30 years old, 10 years younger than I had heard they would consider. So when YU heard that I got an interview, they told me I would never get this job.”
Goldin thought that to be a fair assessment, but he wanted the experience of that job interview anyway. Faced with the interviewers’ “strong personalities, I was totally relaxed, because I knew I wasn’t getting the job,” he said.
“They were asking me all sorts of questions, which they said were theoretical, but I could tell that they weren’t. And then, about halfway though, I could tell they were starting to take me seriously.”
His nerves started to kick in at that point.
Invited to deliver a presentation – not a d’var Torah, he was told pointedly – on Shabbat, he researched for the paper he planned to give “on the state of the modern Orthodox community,” he recalled. “My wife is a very honest person. She is sitting on the bed of the room where we’re staying, and she goes, ‘Boring. This is so boring. You can’t give that talk!'”
In a panic, he rewrote the whole presentation in the short time left before Shabbat. “Apparently, I did pretty well,” he said. Somehow it worked. He was in.
“It had 350 families then,” he said. “It was a big job.”
Over the nearly three decades, Ahavath Torah grew; its huge, light-filled new building, with rooms for at least four minyanim, accommodates more than 700 families.
Being the shul’s rabbi “is a wonderful experience,” Goldin said. “This is a tremendously challenging congregation, and more diverse than almost any other Orthodox congregation I know of. We have worked very hard on keeping the community together under one roof. We have defied the pattern of shtiebelization,” where a large shul breaks into entirely separate, often warring smaller groups, then spinning off on their own.
“I am extremely proud of the community,” he said. “I find my rabbinate here in Englewood to be very fulfilling and challenging.
“I am very appreciative of the congregation for allowing me to function as their rabbi and play a role in the outside world. I could not accomplish it without the platform of this synagogue.
“It is one of the major Orthodox communities in the world.”
He is proud, as well, of the “inroads we are making, both in my congregational life and in the RCA, in terms of dialogue between different groups in the Jewish world.
“We have to be clear about our disagreements, but at the same time we should respect each other’s contributions to Jewish life.
“We have to learn to value without validating.”
Goldin teaches at YU, and he is at work on the fifth and last book of “Unlocking the Torah,” a parashah-by-parashah look at the weekly Torah readings.
His work at the RCA, as at Ahavath Torah, concentrates on allowing diversity, within limits, while making sure the center holds.
His path to his leadership role there was not without side trips.
He had been climbing up the leadership ranks in the proscribed way when, in the 1990s, he took public positions that seemed to some Orthodox leaders to be to the left of their comfort zones.
“My position was that America Jewry is a limited partner when it comes to Israeli politics, and issues of treaties and defense,” Goldin said. “If the Israeli government embarks on a process then we have to publicly support that process.”
That, of course, is an inherently apolitical position – but the Israeli treaty under discussion was the Oslo accords. “I hadn’t taken what many felt was the party line, so I sort of fell out of favor.”
For a number of years, Goldin concentrated on his shul. “Then Rabbi Kenneth Hain, who had been RCA president, called me a few years ago and said, ‘We need you back. We want you to be vice president.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy.’ He said, ‘We really need someone strong.’
“They meant they needed someone who could maintain the center.”
After some reflection – and some arguments with Hain, he said – Goldin agreed to return to the RCA’s leadership structure.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Goldin said. “I had to orchestrate a professional transition and bring in a new executive vice president.” That is always a politically difficult move in any organization.
Although Goldin acknowledges that some in the Orthodox world think that he is at that world’s left, he is clear about his position in the center. He doesn’t agree with the commonly held perception that the center is moving, but “I think that voices on both the left and the right are becoming more strident, and also more visible,” he said. “People say it’s more fragmented. I don’t think it is – I think that we had the same left and right positions 20 years ago, but they weren’t talking to each other.
“Now there is more ferment. Now everything is out.
“My attitude is that you deal with the issues. I don’t have an agenda, left wing or right wing. I look at the issue and make a decision based on that.”
Goldin said that as he looks back at his tenure, he sees some challenges satisfactorily surmounted. The internal transition “set the stage for the future development of the RCA,” he said. Beyond that, “we have become more vocal and have much more visibility as a spokesman for issues in the modern Orthodox community,” he said. “We established the rapid response committee. Its job is to not have to go through layers of approvals when issues come up quickly.”
He is proud that when some Satmar chasidim staged an anti-Israel rally in downtown Manhattan a few weeks ago, “We were the only major Orthodox organization to come out against it in any kind of official way.”
Other stances of which he is proud include the RCA’s position on sexual abuse; “withdrawing support for reparative therapy” – a kind of therapy, dismissed by most mental health professionals as useless at best and harmful far more often, meant to change gay men’s and lesbians’ sexual orientations; “supporting [Jewish Agency chair Natan] Sharansky with Women of the Wall” – the former refusnik, now a high-level Israeli official, is working on a plan to allow egalitarian prayer and women’s tefillah groups to have access to part of the Kotel in Jerusalem. “All those are positions that right-wingers might argue with.
“On the other hand, we took a position against maharats” – maharat, the new title so far given to three women who have gone on to take jobs in more liberal Orthodox institutions, is a rough equivalent of rabbi. “We are looking at each issue and trying to determine our position.
“As a result, the calls that come from the media have grown. We are becoming more visible.
“We have to balance that with being a service organization,” he said. “Being a voice is only one thing we do. We want to do more in-service programs, educational programs, continuing programs for rabbis. We want to help them with contractual issues, and provide pensions.
“We have established a new position – the RCA representative in Israel, who serves as a conduit, representing our views to the Israeli rabbanut and bringing back information about Israel.
“We have a GPS program, that started before my vice presidency,” Goldin continued. “That’s Gerus” – conversion – “Policies and Standards. It attempts to create a network of batei din [religious courts] under the aegis of the RCA that will do approved conversions. We have an agreement with the rabbanut in Israel that they will be approved.
“It is a new system, and so it has serious issues. During my presidency, I established a GPS review committee, which will study the whole system. I may well become a co-chairman of that committee.”
Looking back on his tenure, “I am proud because I believe that I am leaving the RCA in a much stronger position than it was when I came in,” he said.
“Engagement comes with controversy, and that is the strongest challenge we face now.
“How will we continue to live with our disagreements internally, and continue to move forward in ways that don’t satisfy everyone but at least has everyone believing that we [the RCA] have a voice they can be comfortable with?
“We cannot work off an agenda, left, right, or center. We must remain true to our traditional ideas, and to the Torah, and apply it to current challenges and issues.
“I believe that modern Orthodoxy is authentic. It is not a compromise. It’s about maintaining adherence without compromise, and at the same time living in the world, and allowing it to inform your Judaism.
“It’s not only living in the world, but understanding the world, and understanding it is wanting to learn from it. To me, that’s authentic.
“Our challenge is that we have to educate our own population to see the philosophical underpinnings of our position. Many modern Orthodox Jews define themselves by what they are not.
“The edge is a very difficult place to live. It’s easy to retreat to the ghetto, or to give up being different and just assimilate. That’s why modern Orthodoxy has a unique challenge, in terms of its own perpetuation. We’re asking our kids to live on the edge.
“Once you say that in a global sense, then you have to apply it to the particular challenges before us. How do you hold a community together when you are dealing with issues of a woman’s role in Judaism? How do you draw the line? How can I say that I am strongly in favor of a yoetzet halachah” – a woman who is specially trained to answer questions from other women, particularly about the laws of family purity – “but against maharat? You have to be clear.
“How do you deal with the challenges of the gay community, and be sensitive to the individuals who are dealing with it, while being true to the Torah.
“And the relationship to Israel and the Israeli rabbanut – what kinds of positions are we going to take there? We have to be able to talk to each other internally, and not suspect each other of agendas.”
He paused, and then asked the rhetorical question closest to his heart: “How do you become passionate about moderation?”
Shmuel and Barbara Goldin seem to have managed to pass the passion on to their five adult children.
“They each have found their place and their comfort zone within the Orthodox community,” their father said. “The community is broad.
“It is a challenge to parents to raise children, teach them what you think is important, and then let them become the people they need to become.”