Last week saw the death of one of the most pre-eminent theologians of our time. Dr. Eugene Borowitz taught theology and Jewish thought at Hebrew Union college in New York for over 50 years influencing at least three generations of Reform rabbis as well as the entire Reform Movement with his compelling and contemporary approaches to Jewish religiosity, God infused Jewish life and moral and spiritual concerns for post modern America. His theology of Covenantal responsibility has become a singular feature of the thinking person’s Judaism in the 21st century. But not many people know that Dr. Borowitz was a trained educator having received his Ed.D in Education at Columbia’s prestigious School of Education and had been the UAHC’s (URJ) Director of Education from 1957 to 1962. When I arrived at HUC New York in 1981, he was faculty in the School of Education and I was privileged that he agreed to become my advisor for my Master’s thesis; Teaching God to Adolescents. In addition, he had not only launched the intellectual journal ‘Sh’ma’ but also initiated an annual fellowship of students to act as assistant editors of which I was elected to be one. We met weekly at the College to review articles and books, initiate new themes for the journal and debate the issues with him. Being a British student in an American seminary, I often complained of the ignorance of Jewish Americans to contemporary Jewish life in the UK and throughout Europe. I was, of course, then volunteered to edit a complete issue of Sh’ma dedicated to Jewish life in the capitals of Europe (Sh’ma vol. 14, Feb. 1983).
His classes in Modern Jewish Thought at HUC were the pinnacle of the learning experience for many rabbinic and education students. His clarity of thought and reasoning made the classic Jewish theologians from Baeck to Buber very accessible and his teaching methodology changed with each form of thought. For the rationalists, he taught by Socratic dialogue, probing and pushing to make sure we all understood the implications of systematic thought; “What does it mean to believe in a Commanding God? What is the role of Judaism in a philosophy of universal ethics?” Sloppy thinking was not allowed or ambiguity of expression or language. “Don’t for a moment imagine that they hadn’t thought it all through” he would say. We just needed to try harder to really understand them. For the existentialists like Buber or Rosenzweig, he would sit next to one of us and demonstrate the meaning of the I-Thou and I-It through his mutuality, inter-relationship and caring. Now we had to add to our knowing, the concept of ‘being known’ by the other and by the Divine. His resonant voice, gentle touch, wry smile and loving curiousity made Borowitz a fascinating and compelling teacher.
He had in fact written an article entitled ‘Religious Education is not I-Thou’ (Religious Education, vol. 65, 1971) in which he proposed that the teacher student relationship is not mutual or an end in itself. He wrote, ‘At its inception, the teachers reaches out to the student to address him as a proper ‘thou’…but the teacher goes no further. He does not present himself (sic) as a thou. The relationship remains a-symetrical. The teacher limits the relationship by providing a service to the other in openness and love. This of course parallels the notion of God also limiting God’s self in order for humanity to reach its fullest potential. Dr Borowitz always remained our teacher through his high expectations for us and his challenge to understand and to be understood. In that very same article describes the ideal teacher, ‘Whenever we encounter a man (sic) whose knowledge, no matter how technical, has somehow become the medium of his self-expression, we are deeply moved…so that the challenge will become more and more inward and autonomous and that at last the law will be written on the heart of his pupils. But his real goal which will influence all his work is his great character.’
Dr. Borowitz inspired me to initiate a life-long study and love of the teaching of the spirituality of children in the precious time I spent with him. He demanded much and expected much and I didn’t always meet the challenge. But I knew that as a teacher, he had inscribed his passion for theological concern on my heart so much so I wanted to teach it to others. It was to my great pleasure and nervous surprise that he attended a Torah Godly Play story that I told at HUC just two years ago. It was a full circle, as I appreciated the presence of my great teacher in my work of bringing the teaching of thinking and experiencing God to another generation of Jewish educators.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire is the Chief Academic Officer and Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.