Eulogy delivered by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman '69, Ph.D. '73, The Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Worship, Liturgy, and Ritual, HUC-JIR, at the funeral of Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., z"l on May 8, 2018.
I used to tell Aaron that he was born to be president of Hebrew Union College, that he was a president waiting to happen, because he had everything. He thought he had majored first in engineering and then in rabbinics, but he didn’t. He actually had another double major -- all his life: first, intellect, vision and competence; second, even more important, goodness and sweetness. And he was driven. Already as a student, he stood out as thoughtful, modest and independent: he dissected problems as if they were engineering challenges, with parts that he could reassemble better. He wrote a thesis on Hanukkah.
And for his doctorate -- he chose Talmud.
The clergy here will know how bold that was, given Aaron’s Reform Jewish pedigree and Talmud not being the usual fare of Reform Sunday schools. Talmudists start as kids; they are raised on it; it is the most daunting literature imaginable. But Aaron was never “daunted” about anything. So he became a Talmudist. And he never stopped studying. In his pre-presidential days as a faculty member, I would regularly drop by his office to have lunch together, and if we wasn’t talking to students, he was studying his page of Talmud.
Talmud appealed to Aaron’s engineering logic, but he saw more in it. He was, you see, on a lifelong pursuit of what I can only call “the real thing.” He sailed and piloted; he hiked New Zealand’s most treacherous trails to get deep into nature; and he “talmuded” to get deep into Judaism.
But Aaron studied Talmud for its wisdom, not its halachah, and citing that wisdom became his hallmark, As our president, he spoke in public all the time, but never, to the best of my knowledge, without citing a text. Professors are inherently critical, especially of administrators in authority, so the highest compliment to Aaron may be our faculty’s universal conviction that whenever we heard him, he would do us proud -- and not only because he spoke from the very heart of Jewish tradition, but because he spoke from the heart.
Aaron so loved his students -- look how many have flown in from all over the country to be here. He cherished board members who had become his friends. Were you sick or needing help? He would phone from half way round the world to offer it. Happy are you, O Israel, that God loves you, said Rabbi Akiba. But happier still are you, in that you know it. With Aaron, we knew it.
Aaron knew his own mind and sometimes made difficult presidential decisions with which we disagreed; and told him so. But he was unfailingly respectful; unfailingly honest with us. He was never self-seeking; he took the high ground; and even in private, I never heard him speak squalidly of anyone. He single-mindedly sought something higher: a grand vision of Reform Judaism transformed.
He himself wrote an essay on good leaders, describing them as “competent, confident, quiet and self-effacing guides who make demanding and inspirational achievement possible.”  That was Aaron. “They must also stand by their commitment,” he added -- that was Aaron too. And being Aaron, he had texts for it: from Psalm 15. “One who lives without blame, who does what is right, who acknowledges truth and whose tongue is not given to evil; such a one shall never be shaken.”
Aaron sought excellence. He cringed at mediocrity. Personally, to keep his thinking sharp, he began coming with me to annual meetings of the North American Academy of liturgy, not because he was a liturgist, but because he missed intellectual outlets, and a high-level interfaith study-group there specialized in cutting-edge intellectual currents of the day. I have notes from Christian scholars all over the country remembering Aaron for his generosity of spirit and his contribution to intellectual excellence.
Especially for the College, he sought excellence. His logic was impeccable: the world needs Reform Judaism; Reform Judaism needs a Movement; and a movement needs a College, the key to it all: the source for clergy and for leadership; the center for thinking and for re-engineering Jewish existence for our time. So he set his sights on doing it right: not succumbing to the self-satisfied bureaucratic sclerosis that institutions often settle for. The tragedy is that he was just hitting his stride, just putting the puzzle together, when he was taken from us.
In his abundant energy and cheerfulness, it was easy to miss how heavily the whole thing weighed upon him -- far more than he let on; and how hard he worked, morning, noon and night. If we lay him to rest today, it will be the first time that he has fully rested altogether. Lisa, you who were his silent partner in the College can testify better than anyone how much the College consumed him daily. It is not too much to say that you loaned him to us all these years but loaned a part of yourself as well. And we are grateful.
The day before he died, Aaron was planning his ordination talk, with, naturally, a Talmudic text -- in this case, the familiar one, a version of which appears above many synagogue arks, da lifnei mi atah omed. “Know before whom you stand.” Aaron was going to remind the ordinees that they would always be standing before God. But “standing,” he was going to add, implies actually “taking a stand”; so the new rabbis and cantors should take stands on what matters, commit themselves to a better world.
It was to be the last sermon he would plan, the one he never finished and the one he would never give. So Aaron, dear Aaron, on behalf of this college whom you adored, we will complete the sermon for you, and give it to ourselves, not just the ordinees. We’ll add a text, however, that you, in all your modesty, passed over, a text that will surely be echoed all afternoon here, Avot 1:12, “Be among the disciples of Aaron.” Aaron, O Aaron, we will remember lifnei mi anu omdim, “before whom we stand” but also, looking back at you, we will remembermi amad, “who it was who was dong the standing,” who it was who charged us to go deeply into Torah, to see the College as the center of the Reform Jewish project, and to reengineer that Project with integrity, wholeheartedness and vision. You were with us all too briefly, but you remain our rabbi, even in death, and we, your disciples, vow that you will not have worked and dreamed in vain.
 Aaron Panken, “Four Kiwis and the Jewish Future” in Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., More Than Managing (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing), 2016), p. 51.
Read the eulogy delivered by Rabbi Rick Jacobs '82, President, Union for Reform Judaism.
Read the eulogy delivered by Rabbi David Stern '89, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El, Dallas, TX.
Watch the recording of the funeral.