I’ve been a member of the modern Orthodox community for all of my 68-plus years.
I come from a modern Orthodox family and married into one; I raised my children in that tradition, was educated in modern Orthodox schools through college, lived in prominent modern Orthodox communities (Far Rockaway, the Upper West Side and now Teaneck), davened in modern Orthodox shuls, have mainly modern Orthodox friends, and have written articles for many Jewish publications on modern Orthodox themes.
So, if asked which rabbis made a strong and lasting impact on me and the way I think about Jewish issues, my list would include the usual suspects: Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz (in whose shul I grew up), Rabbi Emanuel Rackman (whose influence began when I attended his Shabbat youth groups as a teenager and continued until his death many decades later), Rabbi Murry Penkower (my father-in-law), Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Saul Berman of Lincoln Square Synagogue, where I belonged when I lived in Manhattan, and Rabbi Yosef Adler, now my family rabbi. But it would also include an unusual suspect: Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, a towering Reform theologian who died last week at 91.
I first met Rabbi Borowitz in the late 1970s, when I was invited to be a one-year fellow at Sh’ma Magazine, which he founded, edited and ran, paradoxically, with a gentle and loving iron fist. That one-year term (during which he insisted I call him Gene) extended to three intermittent years, during which time I had the opportunity to learn two significant life lessons from him. Although I, and not he, was the litigator, he taught these lessons following the litigator’s maxim in making a closing argument — don’t tell, show!
The first lesson was that someone can be religious without being Orthodox, a relatively simple-sounding idea that to my Orthodox sensibilities was somewhat startling. Being religious, what I learned from watching and talking to Gene was not exclusively knowing the 39 forbidden types of work prohibited on Shabbat or following the intricate kashrut rules, as important as they were to me. Even without Orthodox halachic observance, being religious also could mean looking at and grappling with moral and ethical dilemmas through a Jewish lens (and heart); taking Shabbat and prayer seriously as you understood them; studying, valuing and teaching Jewish texts, and, yes, editing a magazine of Jewish responsibility and ideas.
The second lesson modified an Orthodox trope I had heard many times in my community: if Jews of different denominations and levels of observance want to do anything together, the less halachically observant always had to bow to those more stringent. It’s assur — forbidden — for us to eat non-kosher food or daven without a mechitzah, the argument goes. But although you don’t feel obligated to eat kosher or daven separately, it’s not assur for you to do so. So meet our standards when we’re together — or we can’t do business with one another.
What I learned from Gene was that this was true only sometimes. Our meetings at Sh’ma included a (very) light dinner — sandwiches and a drink. Before our first meeting, Gene, knowing I was Orthodox, called me and said that there were three possible places from which to order the sandwiches. Which one, he asked, had a rabbinical supervision that was acceptable to me? I told him, and that’s where the sandwiches came from. He realized that I couldn’t eat food that did not have what I considered to be proper supervision. Although he would have been able to eat food from any of the three, it wasn’t assur for him to accommodate me. And so he did.
But not always. Sometimes, I learned, others had principles rooted as deeply as halachic rules, which they could no more give up than Orthodox Jews could give up halachic ones. This point was driven home at a trialogue sponsored by an Orthodox shul in Teaneck many years ago. It was a discussion among three rabbis of different denominations. Using my personal connection to Gene, I invited him as the Reform representative, and he kindly accepted. He was, as always, thoughtful, wise, and eloquent. But it was an answer that he gave during the Q&A period that sticks in my mind. A member of the audience asked him, respectfully, about a get — a Jewish divorce. Although the Reform movement doesn’t require a get to end a Jewish marriage if the couple has a civil divorce, its leaders also know that a Jewish man could not marry a divorced Jewish women who does not have a get. Thus, as a matter of denominational comity and not halachah, and in order to ensure that Jews could marry one another, the questioner asked: Shouldn’t the Reform movement also require a get?
Gene answered (and I paraphrase): You’re right; I and my movement don’t think a get is necessary to end a Jewish marriage. But you’re also right that there is a serious non-halachic reason to require a get. And therefore I’ve thought for some time that the issue you raise is a significant enough reason to require a get. So I am prepared to recommend to the Reform leadership to institute using a get — and here he paused — as soon as my Orthodox colleagues present me with a get procedure that treats men and women equally.
The last time I met Gene was at a convocation held at HUC-JIR in celebration of his 85th birthday. I was covering the event for the New York Jewish Week, and as you would expect, in addition to the cake there was an intellectual part to the celebration, where three of Gene’s students challenged, as he put it, “some murky aspect of my teaching.” He responded to them earnestly and with warmth. When I went over to say hello, I wasn’t sure if he remembered me. It had been years since our Sh’ma days. But before I could (re)introduce myself, he greeted me by name, with a broad smile, and we had a lovely chat.
Shortly thereafter I sent him a copy of my Jewish Week article. Always gracious, he thanked me for it. That was final communication between us. From the day I met him he was always a true gentleman, in addition to being a scholar, intellectual, leader, teacher, and friend.
I will miss him deeply.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a Teaneck resident for more than 31 years, is a frequent contributor of essays to Jewish publications when not he is not practicing law in Manhattan.