Every year, come simchat Torah, we read, “Never again did there arise in Israel another like Moses.” When word came that Eugene Borowitz had died, however, I suspected the Torah was wrong. If ever there were another Moshe rabbeinu, Gene was it: eved Adonai, a servant of the God, to the end, a prophet in his zeal for what is right and his belief that Israel must champion it. And he brought us his own Torah, instructing the generations after him.
I speak, as best I can, for my entire generation whose formation Gene oversaw -- so formidably. What a commanding presence he was in his early years at the College. Every year, he and Estelle invited the first year class to a memorable dinner at his Reid Avenue Port Washington home, replete with wine and food and three little daughters sneaking down the staircase to observe the proceedings. And then there was that introductory course on Jewish thought, delivered in sparkling lectures, as if directly from the greatest Jewish minds themselves, but distilled by another master mind, our teacher. Gene made us read the originals, of course, and think, and think, and then to think again. We then wrote long papers that attracted his signature symbol: marginal notes in heavy green ink that announced (like “Kilroy was here”) “Borowitz was here.” They cut to the heart of whatever we were arguing, questioning us, prodding us, commending or reproaching us (Gene had no trouble telling us truths we ought to hear) -- but loving us for daring just to think.
He was always ahead of his time, inventing new courses regularly: reel theology, for instance. Academically, he mastered pretty much everything: twentieth-century analytic philosophy? He had read it; the social sciences? He knew them. Name the thinker, writer, advocate or opponent of anything thoughtful, and Gene was there before the rest of us. He championed feminist theology before most of us knew what it was, and eventually announced with that great finality of his, that our faculty would be derelict without a feminist in our ranks – that is how Wendy Zierler was hired. And then how he mentored her, moving her, she says, from faculty to family.
Recognition of Gene’s genius did not come automatically, however. Way back then, Jewish Studies was still in its infancy, and modern theology was not part of it. Gene had to persevere his way into recognition. In my final year of rabbinic school, one of the senior professors once took me aside and asked, “Hoffman, tell me: what exactly does Borowitz do? He must be onto something, but what is it?”
In retrospect, I should have said, “Dr. Borowitz is inventing a new field, combining modernity with piety, wedding criticism to affirmation, and explaining theologically why and how we should be Jewish in the first place.” Lots of people push a field forward, say new things, but Gene was saying new things about something altogether new. He brought God into the curriculum, indeed, into the classroom, and at the time, we did not fully get what he was doing. I see now that we were beginning a lifetime game of playing perennial catchup with him. His mind moved too quickly for us. He was ever breaking new ground. He would later be honored again and again for it, but in the beginning, he once recalled, his admirers were often Christian seminarians, not Jewish ones.
Gene was blessed, and cursed, with the insistence that his colleagues, students, and Jewish leaders everywhere think clearly, act ethically, behave credibly – just as God would want, indeed, as God does want. There was not a say, not a meeting, not a moment, when being with him did not remind us of the heights to which we might strive to be better people. There he was, after all, not just trying to talk about God, but trying actually to be Godly. He didn’t just study blessings, he said them – started every class with one, in fact. Both loving and living Martin Buber, he would pass through the basement room where we used to hang out in the old building on West 68th Street (it was on the way to his office), and then lean over to greet a student, and ask, “How’s your Thou?”
When he rose to speak at our Thursday morning sermon discussions, he commanded the room as no one else I know. He would rise, more shrunken and bent over at the end, but still, the 6 foot some-odd height of him from his youth would return, and he looked to us to be the giant that he really was -- he spoke such truths, with such intensity, such humor, such insistence. “What about God?” he would ask, as if he had never asked it before. “If God is God, then...” well, then, everything else followed.
He became the conscience of our community, regularly changing the tenor of faculty meetings, for example, by inserting a reminder that not once, not ever, could we flirt with expedience at the cost of what is right and just and good. And this critique could be quite humorous. In a much earlier era, someone decided to balance our multi-million dollar budget by taking away the free coffee that students and faculty enjoy. Upon arriving at an evening faculty meeting after a very long day, and seeing only water, Gene observed in something louder than a stage whisper, “Oh how lovely; someone has donated some ice!” Shortly after, we had our coffee back.
But even in his humor, Gene was ever serious. Understand: Gene had as sophisticated an understanding of the world as anyone – he was far beyond voicing mere pious platitudes -- but he wed his convictions to the higher cause of being a seminary, rather than letting political aspiration drag us down to the depths of moral mediocrity. How Gene abhorred mediocrity of any sort, especially the moral variety! Gene was our Rabbi.
David Ellenson called him “moreh derekh, [our guide].” For Norman Cohen, “Gene was a true Tzaddik.” It was Gene’s “sense of Torah and covenantal obligation,” David recalls, “that motivated me to become the College president”; and Norman says, “I would never have come to teach Midrash at HUC-JIR, had it not been for Gene.” I too owe what I am to Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz, who mentored and instructed me at every stage of my calling, and taught me it was a calling in the first place. He knew me better than I know myself.
Gene should have been, could have been, elevated to president of something or other in our movement, whether the College or the Union or both, and I used to wonder how he felt remaining just a professor, not the occupier of a position of authority, even of power. As anyone with his superior capacities would, Gene had struggled with this tension, stepping outside the College at one point to found Sh’ma, but in the end, settling for professorship. “How does it feel,” I asked him once, “to have stayed here and not become a president of something big and important?” I’ll never forget his answer: he smiled and said, as only he could say it, “God knew better.”
And God did; God knew that Gene belonged in the sacred mission of training the educators, cantors and rabbis – for whom Gene had the most intense respect. When I insisted on editing a collection of scholarly articles in his honor, he peremptorily rejected the idea and instructed me instead to gather contributions from former students, largely in congregations, who had continued studied with him or through him, even after graduating HUC.
On another occasion, when I myself was fretting over some personal ambition that had gone awry, leaving me, I thought, less able to accomplish change, Gene insisted, “The only thing you have and what no one can take away are your ideas: it is your ideas that will outlive you; institutional positions come and go; great ideas remain forever.”
Well, dear Gene, how right you were. Your ideas have outlived you. They are forever. See us now, committing ourselves to live them, teach them, pass them along. But Gene, let me argue with you too, if I may – just one more machloket l‘shem shamayim, one more argument for the sake of heaven. If I could, I’d resurrect your old green pen and write a marginal critique of your advice that day.
Ika d’amrei, “there are those who say” – yes, I’d use Talmudic logic in this final argument, because I know how much you loved even the rhetoric of our tradition. So ika d’amrei, “There are those who say,” that eternity derives not just from ideas but from love. And Gene, I am going to win this argument, because my case in point is you. Love permeated all you were. First and foremost, love for your dear Estelle – you were never quite the same after she died. Then, your love for your family -- Lisa, Nan and Drucy no longer sneaking down the stairway, but grown now with families of their own, all of them reciprocating love in ways that ought to be enshrined as the model for us all. But also, the love you showed to us, your students. You were never just a distant instructor. Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu -- You showed us abiding love, singling us out, choosing us, as God chose Israel, and charging us to live the covenant. None of us can hold a candle to you, but we carry, at least, great sparks of your light, with which you lit our souls in confidence of what we might become -- so here we are, extensions of you, sworn to uphold your faith in us.
I hope I have not embarrassed you, my dear teacher, by calling you another Moshe rabbeinu, but you are our rabbi, and always will be. I suspect that you now reside in the cleft of some rock, not seeing God’s face of course (for who can do that) but observing the wake of God’s presence in the world – and we hope you see that within that divine wake are the commitment, love and ideas that yourself have left behind. Gene, dear Gene, dear Rabbi, our Rabbi, we were so blessed to have you with us; there will arise no other like you.