A ‘powerful speaker, gracious teacher’

A ‘powerful speaker, gracious teacher’

Rabbi Herbert Weiner of Jerusalem, formerly of Maplewood, died on April 22, 2013, at the age of 93. An author whose writings on the Kabala and Jewish mysticism were for many the first introduction to the richness of the Jewish spiritual tradition, he was the founding rabbi of Temple Israel in South Orange and had a long career both in and out of the Greater MetroWest area as a writer and lecturer.

His son-in-law, Rabbi Tom Gutherz, wrote the following appreciation.

Born in Boston in 1919, Herbert Weiner attended the Boston Public Latin School and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1942. During World War II, he interrupted his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Institute of Religion — where he was later ordained a Reform rabbi and received an honorary doctorate of divinity — to serve in the U.S. Merchant Marines.

Soon after his ordination, Weiner became the founding rabbi of Temple Israel of South Orange in 1948. Beginning with a small group of families that met in a large home on Scotland Road, he served this community for 34 years as it expanded into a large congregation. (It reconnected with its congregation of origin in 1982 to become Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.) After retiring in 1982, he remained active studying, writing, and speaking about Jewish mysticism in the United States and Israel.

The author of numerous articles for such publications as Commentary, Time, and American Judaism, he wrote a chapter for National Geographic’s Book of World Religions and contributed numerous pieces to New Jersey Jewish News. His articles covered diverse topics in Jewish spirituality and contemporary religious thought; he was considered the first to draw attention to the revival of Hasidism in America following the war, and especially to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

His first book, The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi (1961), explored the “varieties of religious experience” in the new State of Israel, chronicling communities as diverse as Christian monasteries, hasidic sects, and the secular spirituality of the kibbutzim. It also contained penetrating interviews with Martin Buber and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. His engaging style blended the detailed observations of a journalist with his own thoughtful distillation of the spiritual wisdom of the movements he chronicled.

It was the publication of 9 1/2 Mystics: The Kabbala Today in 1969 that brought Weiner to the attention of a larger audience. Described as a “modern spiritual classic,” the book describes Weiner’s encounters with the living practitioners of the esoteric Jewish mystical tradition, together with his insights into the value of that tradition for contemporary seekers. It played no small role in the renewal of Jewish life in the ’60s and ’70s. For many, 9 1/2 Mystics was the point of entry into a deeper encounter with a more spiritual Judaism.

The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi and 9 1/2 Mystics were both recipients of the National Jewish Book Award.

Weiner maintained associations and friendships with groups as diverse as Chabad, the Bratzlaver community of Jerusalem, the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as a number of Christian theologians. He was a powerful speaker as well as a gracious teacher, who was generous sharing his time with the constant stream of spiritual seekers from all traditions who sought him out.

Weiner’s life and passion were bound up with the emerging State of Israel. He made his first visit there in 1946 as a volunteer, where he was involved in activities with the prestate Hagana. In 1949 he brought over a group of American students for the Summer Institute with The Hebrew University, one of the first international study programs for American students in Israel. He returned to Israel regularly, helping establish institutions of liberal Judaism, such as Har El, Jerusalem’s first Reform congregation. In 1962 he laid the groundwork for the opening of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College, serving as its first administrator when it opened in 1963.

In his later years he divided his time between New Jersey and Jerusalem. His wife of 30 years, Shirley Jacobs Weiner, predeceased him in 2009. He is survived by three children: Jonathan Weiner and his wife Miriam Rajner of Jerusalem and their daughter Talia; Carmi Weiner and her husband Tom Gutherz of Charlottesville, Va., and their children Ilan, David, and Tamar; and Alisa Summers and her husband Steve Summers of Easton, Pa., and their children Jesse and Lauren. His memory will be cherished by his family, friends, and colleagues and by his many students and readers.

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