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Prof. Eugene Borowitz, 1924-2016

If there were anyone who, without being glib, without compromising his intellectual honesty, and without any polemical motive, tried to bridge the denominational and theological gaps in American Jewry, it was Prof. Eugene Borowitz, who died this week at 91. His JTA obituary reads, “an influential thinker in Reform Judaism,” which is certainly true, but Borowitz worked hard to transcend the denominational divide.

Some might recall his appearance at the old B’nai B’rith summer institutes in Estes Park in the  mid-1960s. He knew how to speak to a crowd of diverse Jews, not by generalizing or by sticking to such Jewishly universal topics as Israel. He respected theological positions unlike his own, and pushed his own beyond the typical boundaries. He tried to bring Jews together without asking them to surrender their most precious allegiances.

All one needed to do was to read the weekly, lively, journal that Borowitz founded, Sh’ma. He published and attracted contributors from every side of the Jewish theological and community debate. If there was one national place where Jews of very different commitments spoke to each other, it was on the pages of Sh’ma. It was Borowitz’ guiding hand that made it all work. For him, dialogue and debate were not shibboleths; they were a reality. On a different level, Borowitz made Jewish theology come alive through his quarterly columns in Judaism in a way that no one has duplicated since.

No doubt, Borowitz’s major impact was in the Reform Jewish world, especially at HUC-JIR, where he taught for decades. But it is emblematic of his reach that, in Judaism,  he penned perhaps the earliest — and still one of the best — analytical essays on the thought of Orthodox Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

The reorientation by Reform Judaism in recent decades  — its embrace of some traditional Jewish practices it once explicitly rejected — can be traced, in concept, to  Borowitz’s theological emphasis on covenant. To be sure, he remained firmly rooted in Reform Judaism’s rock-bottom affirmation of personal autonomy in religious choice. In matters of ritual and egalitarianism, his understanding of covenant left it up to the individual Jew, not to halachic authority, to ascertain its demands. He could no more become an Orthodox Jew, with his commitment to autonomy, than an Orthodox Jew could become a Reform Jew under his understanding of covenant and of the place of tradition in contemporary Jewish life.

Even so, as Judaism is ever more divided theologically, Eugene Borowitz’s unitive impulse, listening ear and traditional bent will be missed.

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News


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