Local colleagues and former students are mourning Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the influential author, thinker, and Reform Jewish theologian who died Friday at age 91 at his home in Stamford, Conn.
A longtime faculty member at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York campus, Borowitz was most recently its Sigmund L. Falk Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education and Jewish Religious Thought.
Borowitz published hundreds of articles and 19 books, including Renewing the Covenant: A Theologian’s Informal Guide to Jewish Belief (2007) and Choices in Modern Jewish Thought (1983, 1995).
He was also founding editor of Sh’ma, a small but influential “journal of Jewish ideas” that served as an incubator for new thought in liberal synagogue and Jewish communal life.
Some local Reform rabbis had lifelong relationships with Borowitz; others have memories of him from their days in rabbinical school at HUC, as his research assistant, or as doctoral candidates whom he advised. They spoke of his brilliance, his humility, his high standards in — and his kindness outside — the classroom.
“Without Gene Borowitz, I would not be the rabbi or person I am today,” said Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. “He frankly scared most of us rabbinic students. He expected our participation in class, our written word, and our manner of being to be articulate, mature, poised, on point, and utterly ethical. He made us write and re-write until we drilled down to the kernel of the message.”
Borowitz, said Gewirtz, “believed that Judaism would die if we rabbis came out of school with some sort of pediatric message as it related to our theology. He urged us to speak about God regularly and deeply. He was hard on us, only because he wanted the best from us as rabbis and as human beings.”
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange remembers Borowitz as “such a brilliant man and amazing teacher that I took every class I could with him.” He added, “One of the most amazing things about his teaching style is that he would put ideas out and then let us, as his students, struggle to find our own answers.”
Calling him “a hero of mine,” Rabbi Andy Dubin of the Jewish Center of Northwest NJ in Washington said Borowitz had “the humility to learn from others — and even on occasion to change course when he found a competing idea to be more convincing than his own.”
Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield offered a “vivid” recollection from the 2008 funeral of a life-long friend and colleague, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf.
“Dr. Borowitz spoke movingly of his hope for tehiyat hameitim, resurrection of the dead, so that the essence of Rabbi Wolf would always remain,” said Sagal. Although the concept of resurrection is controversial in Reform theology, it was typical of Borowitz that he would relate theological challenges to personal, human emotions, said Sagal.
Remembering him as “an incredible mensch” outside the classroom, Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains recalled an incident during his student days when complications with how the Torah scroll was rolled caused a long delay in services.
“Before anyone could criticize” the service organizers, said Abraham, Borowitz told a story from his own seminary days about his having accidentally left a Torah scroll in a home where he had been leading a service. From that, Abraham said, he learned “how to defuse an issue and bring rahmones (mercy) into the room.”
Rabbi Renee Edelman of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield called Borowitz both “challenging” and “inspiring.” She said, “Inside his tough, strong exterior was a loving soul who took pride in his students’ achievements.
“His brilliant mind…will serve as his written legacy,” she said. “His personal legacy — a part of all who learned with him and from him — will last as long as his students teach in his name.”
In an e-mail sent Jan. 25 — on Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees — Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield wrote, “One of the great trees in the forest of Torah has fallen, but…it will continue to bear fruit for generations to come.”
Borowitz was included in the Jewish Publication Society’s “Scholars of Distinction” series and Brill Publishing’s “Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers” book series.
According to his HUC bio, Borowitz was the only Jew to have served as president of the American Theological Society.
His 1974 work, The Mask Jews Wear: The Self-Deceptions of American Jewry, won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Jewish thought. He served as visiting professor of religion at numerous major universities, including Columbia and Princeton.
In a 2013 interview with Sh’ma, Borowitz articulated his view of covenant and how as a liberal Jew he reconciled Jewish tradition with the modern concept of autonomy. “I wrote that Jews today should take into account the modern condition and how our inherited tradition fared in this context,” he said.
“As a liberal Jew, I emphasized the Reform notion of the self as a Jewish self and spoke about the dialectic of living as a covenantal Jew, oscillating between the claims of the group and the consciousness of the self, between the ethical mandates of the universal and the necessary demands of the particular. The Jewish concept of covenant permits the Jew to engage these dialectics in an authentic manner.”
With reporting by JTA.