The great theologian Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz died Jan. 22 at age 91. The author of a dozen and a half books on contemporary Jewish theology, Rabbi Borowitz taught hundreds of rabbinic students during a long and distinguished career as professor at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in New York.
I was one of those students, and one day in the fall of 1981, Rabbi Borowitz forcefully – but fairly – rearranged my thinking, even if I didn’t understand this at the time.
The practice at HUC was for final year rabbinic students to preach their “senior sermon” before the entire community of students and faculty – and, afterwards, to receive feedback in a public forum. When it came my turn, I delivered a good sermon, I thought, maybe even a very good one. During the feedback session that followed, it became clear that others thought so, too. (At the end of that year, mine was awarded best senior sermon.)
But as things were wrapping up that day, the one person I’d kept a wary eye on all the while finally piped up. Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz rose and cleared his throat. “I hate to crash your party, John,” he said.
The room grew quiet.
He continued: “All the nice things said just now are wrong. This was not a good piece of work. In fact, it can’t properly said to be a ‘sermon.’ When you spoke about the relationship between Abraham and Sarah as you did this morning, in effect, you taught through the lens of therapy. Rabbis choose the prism of the Torah as the primary way to understand the world. Yours was not a sermon – it was a message to us to go into therapy. I’m not adverse to therapy, but in shul, I prefer Torah, not Freud. Shouldn’t you?”
I told Rabbi Borowitz that he had not heard what I’d said correctly: I was teaching Torah, I asserted, as respectfully as I could. We went back and forth for a few minutes, and I wondered to myself, had I gotten it all wrong? The leading Jewish thinker seemed to be saying so. I took the subway home to the Upper West Side that afternoon feeling jostled intellectually, a little uncertain and a lot curious.
I thought often about Rabbi Borowitz as the years went by. We’d speak here and there. I always brought up my student sermon, and he’d always remember with a kind of curious twinkle – almost as if saying, “You’re coming along, aren’t you?”
It all remained vague for me until a decade or so later when, while listening to Rabbi Borowitz speak at a conference in Montreal, I understood not only how right he’d been, but more importantly, that I’d been changing all along. I had, in fact, become accustomed to teaching and thinking less in a therapeutic vein, and I was becoming far more animated by the remarkable intellectual tradition of the Jews. Specifically, the minds of the great rabbis, of whom Rabbi Eugene Borowitz was surely one.
I approached Rabbi Borowitz after his speech that day and confessed my full realization that he’d gotten me right years earlier. I thanked him for setting me straight that day in an unvarnished and, actually, loving way.
I don’t quite remember his words in response, but I do remember that he was hardly surprised by my change. More than that, his twinkle, his look of pleasure, was brighter than ever. After all, the student had finally learned the Torah of the teacher.
Rabbi John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and the author of Evolution of An Unorthodox Rabbi (Dundurn Press, 2015).