Rabbi Leonard Beerman has been in my life since I was 12 years old, and his death this past week at 93 years represents a huge moment in the life of this community, the Jewish world, and the personal lives of many, including me.
One of our g’dolei dor (great ones of this generation), Leonard inspired me and so many in my generation to engage as young teens in the civil rights movement, to protest American military involvement in Vietnam, to apply for Conscientious Objector status during that war, to protest nuclear weapons proliferation, to engage in interfaith dialogue, to join coalitions of decency on behalf of just causes, and to support the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people for a state of their own alongside a secure Israel despite (as Leonard put it many years ago) Palestinian “cruelty and stupidity.”
He was, in my young eyes, larger than life. He was brave and smart, eloquent and passionate. We were not close when I was growing up – that would come much later – but he was a force that shaped my moral conscience and sensibility.
Leonard enlisted in the Marines during World War II and was a rabbinic student in 1948 studying in Jerusalem when the War of Independence began. He enlisted while there with the Haganah to fight in that war. Those two war experiences persuaded him to become a pacifist, an unpopular position in the Jewish community following the Shoah.
For the last 65 years since his ordination at the Hebrew Union College, Leonard has been a uniquely courageous voice in the American Rabbinate advocating for peace, justice, compassion, and human rights.
Leonard’s message of moral responsibility was as provocative a message as there was in American Judaism during all these years. I grew up hearing the gentle resonance of his voice and the prophetic power of his words. He believed that speaking his truth as a pacifist was more important than feeding his community what they wanted to hear. People loved him or they walked away. He once remarked that unless at least one person resigned from his congregation after the High Holidays he had failed. When I think of him, I am reminded of the 19th century Rabbi Israel Salanter’s words: “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no mensch.” He was a great rabbi because he was honest and fearless, and he spoke his truth without hesitation.
Over the past few years, Leonard and I began meeting for lunch every few months to talk, share stories and thoughts about issues great and small, personal, Jewish, and worldly. These were precious times for me. Leonard generously told me how much he treasured our time together as well, that I made him feel young again and gave him hope, that he was proud of me because I took the battle for justice, compassion and peace so seriously. I told him that he was my standard bearer of rabbinic leadership and that I was merely emulating him, that anything I may ever have said or done pales by comparison with his words and deeds over a lifetime.
Leonard’s humility, compassion, intelligence, wisdom, honesty, courage, and principled activism are, indeed, a beacon of light of rabbinic leadership for me and for so many of my colleagues.
In advance of the High Holidays this past August, Leonard and I met for lunch, and we commiserated about the terrorism, missiles, bombings, destruction, and loss of innocent life that occurred during this past summer’s Hamas-Israeli War, as well as the harm the war likely did to the future of a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which we both so deeply believed is the only way to assure Israel’s security, democracy and future.
In emphasizing the brutality of war, Leonard referred me to a passage in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brother’s Karamazov” in which two brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, discussed the death of a child:
“Tell me straight out…answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, … a child … and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? ….
No, I would not agree, ….
And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the … blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”
No I cannot admit it brother…”
As we parted, knowing that I would be speaking about the Gaza war on Rosh Hashanah to my congregation, as he would to his, Leonard said to me, “John, remember to be moral!” I assured him that I would, but I knew that my “morality” and his would look different concerning that war.
Leonard sent me a copy of that sermon, the last he would ever deliver to the Leo Baeck community on Yom Kippur morning. I was moved and provoked as I always was when I heard him, but I did not agree with his emphasis. I thought he did not take into consideration nearly enough the context in which Israel acted, and that he was overly harsh in his criticism of the IDF.
I sent him my sermon as well. He complemented me on the writing, though he wrote, “We do not agree about Gaza,” which, of course, I knew.
Leonard was a lover of great literature and poetry, and he gave me a gift one day of a poem called “My Promised Land” by Carl Dennis, which reflects our shared dream about the land and state of Israel:
“The land of Israel my mother loves
Gets by without the luxury of existence
And still wins followers,
Though it can’t be found on the map
West of Jordan or south of Lebanon,
Though what can be found
bears the same name,
Making for confusion.
Not the land I fought her about for years
But the one untarnished by the smoke of history,
Where no one informs the people of Hebron or Jericho
They’re squatting on property that isn’t theirs,
Where every settler can remember wandering.
The dinners I spoiled with shouting
Could have been saved,
Both of us lingering quietly in our chairs,
If I’d guessed the truth that now is obvious,
That she wasn’t lavishing all her love
On the country that doesn’t deserve so rich a gift
But on the one that does, the one not there,
That she hoped good news would reach its borders.
And cross into the land of the righteous and merciful
That the Prophets spoke of in their hopeful moods,
That was loved by the red-eyed rabbis of Galicia
Who studied every word of the book and prayed
To get one thread of the meaning right;
The promised Land where the great and small
Hurry to school and the wise are waiting.”
Were he here now, Leonard would remind us to keep fighting for justice and for the realization of the ideal. I promise that I will do so, in his memory, and I will hold his compassionate, just and prophetic voice close to my heart and soul now and always.
The words of Samuel have resonated in my mind and heart this past week: “Eich naflu hagiborim – How the mighty has fallen!”
Zicharon tzadik livracha – May the memory of this righteous and great man be a perpetual benediction.
[Note: An interview of Leonard was recorded a few years ago and can be found at this link – http://vimeo.com/17542880]