Eulogy for Michael Signer by Rabbi David Ellenson - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Eulogy for Michael Signer by Rabbi David Ellenson

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

In the Shulchan Aruch, the task assigned the maspid, the individual who delivers the euology, is simple – l’shaber et lev hakahal, to break the heart of the congregation.  As I speak now about the life of my friend, it does not seem difficult to achieve this aim.  As his student Rabbi Harry Manhoff, speaking for all of us, wrote, “His death leaves a hole in my heart that can never be filled.”  Yet, Betty has instructed me to do more.  She has told me that these words of farewell to Michael should be celebratory, ones that express the joy and wonder that was his life and the gratitude all of us feel to have been touched and embraced, influenced and educated by him.  I only pray I do my friend whom I loved so very much the justice he and his life deserve as I share these thoughts.

Michael was for me the best of friends.  From the time I first met him at a conference in New York over thirty years ago, when I was a candidate for a position in Jewish Thought at HUC-LA and he came up to me and said in his characteristically warm and enthusiastic way, “I read your article on Rivkin, and I want you,” my bond with him was instantaneously formed.  For more than a decade, from 1979 through 1991, I was privileged to be his faculty colleague at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and not a single day passed during those years that Michael and I did not speak – often for hours – with one another about intellectual, spiritual, and personal matters.  Our families spent countless holiday and Sabbath meals together as well, and I felt a profound loss when he and Betty departed Los Angeles and moved to South Bend, where Michael assumed the post of Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought at Culture at the University of Notre Dame.  Two years after his departure to South Bend, I published a book, Between Tradition and Culture, and I dedicated it to him and wrote that he was both rabi, my teacher, and haveri, my friend.  I added that Notre Dame was blessed to have his presence on their campus, though even I could not fully have imagined all he would accomplish in his position as Abrams Professor or how much it would mean to both the Catholic Church and the Jewish community that such a learned, passionate, and committed scholar-rabbi was now present in the highest international and national circles of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue and academic discourse.  I took and take such pride in all he accomplished while occupying that Chair and was ultimately grateful that he made that move as well as for the unbreakable chord that continued to link us together.

I think the most amazing thing about Michael, as Betty has observed, is that he did not know how amazing – how very special -- he really was.  There is a telling picture of Michael on the Notre Dame website where a smiling Michael looks like an enthusiastic boy who cannot believe his good fortune in being where he is.  It is this trope that informed him his entire life, and when he and Betty traveled throughout Europe and the United States savoring vintage wines and gourmet cheeses and sausages, when he lectured and taught at leading universities throughout the entire world, when he inspired and challenged his students at HUC and Notre Dame, in Berlin and at the Vatican, when he led academic and religious conferences at Notre Dame and elsewhere, when he came to Israel and dialogued at Tantur with Jews, Christians, and Muslims or at Hartman or at Hebrew University, he seized and affirmed life and I think part of him could never fully believe that his spiritual and academic quests, his intellectual brilliance and warm and open manner, had brought him to these settings and allowed him to achieve such a prominent, even paramount, role in all these places.   
Michael modeled so many things for me.  However, foremost among them was that profound scholarship is linked to the deepest existential commitments that a person possesses.  It is in this spirit that I would celebrate his life as we bid his physical being farewell today.

As many of you know, Michael lost his father at a very young age and he would speak to me often of the men who served a paternal role from him throughout his life.  Precocious and eager, Michael felt embraced by his rabbi, Isaiah Zeldin, at Emanuel of Beverly Hills and he was active in youth group activities, serving as Temple youth group president and participating in camping and other youth programs.  He was even a song leader, and in later years, on a few occasions, he and Lew Barth could even be persuaded to pick up their guitars and lead us in song on informal occasions at the College-Institute!

Even as a teen-ager, Michael was attracted to the life of the mind, and he told me often of the influence Alfred Gottschalk and later Bill Cutter had upon him as he began his first forays into Jewish texts and Jewish learning through their instruction in programs that HUC-JIR sponsored.  However, it was at UCLA that Michael encountered the man who was to be his lifelong mentor, and the person who was to remain in many ways, his rav muvhak, throughout his life – Arnold Band.  Arnie was a demanding and stern teacher, and he compelled a willing Michael to master Hebrew language and literature.  Young Michael would become a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in Hebrew from UCLA, and Arnie instilled in Michael a love of language and text, a passion for the life of the mind, that would inform Michael throughout his entire lifetime.  Michael would often drive to the Westwood campus with Arnie, and the love and respect he possessed for Arnie, and the adult friendship Michael would ultimately enjoy with him, remained of central importance for Michael.  It is profoundly meaningful that Arnie will be among those who lift his bier to the place of his eternal rest.
While Michael studied at UCLA, he simultaneously enrolled at HUC-JIR.  However, upon graduation from UCLA, Michael thought about leaving the rabbinical program of the College-Institute, and considered going directly to Columbia University where he would have studied Jewish History with Professor Gerson Cohen.  Michael told me of how impressed he was with Dr. Cohen after a trip to New York where he spoke with Professor Cohen at length about his passions and hopes.  Nevertheless, after speaking with Dr. Cohen, he decided that he would not attend Columbia and that textual exegesis, not history alone, was his true passion and he elected to continue his study at HUC-JIR and become a rabbi and fulfill his academic ambitions in a field other than history alone. 

Michael and I often discussed this moment – this crossroads -- in his life and I have thought a great deal about why he loved the text and its interpretations so very much, and why this decision – so fateful in determining the direction of his life – was such a natural expression of who Michael was.  Franklin Harkins, his beloved student who prepared and edited a Festschrift that will now become a Memorial volume in tribute to Michael, has provided me with a clue in his introduction as to why Michael made this decision and why it was a love affair with texts – particularly Holy Scriptures and the commentaries upon them – that were to become the passion and touchstone of his life.  Franklin observes that Michael always emphasized pashuto shel mikra or sensus litteralis in the reading of the text.  However, for Michael, uncovering or discovering “the plain sense or simple meaning” of the text was never an objective task.  Rather, determining the “simple meaning” was a creative and original act.  Michael was drawn to the reading of text and the act of interpretation that accompanies such reading precisely because Michael believed so fervently and completely in dialogue and conversation.  Michael, in the deeply insightful and moving words of John Cavidini, who chairs the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, had a special gift for “creating opportunities for spiritual exchange of great depth.  He allowed [and even encouraged] people to engage with their own starting point and with their own temperament and never expected people to enter into dialogue or scholarship from a point of view that was not their own.  He therefore gave people space to think and to feel, and that is a great spiritual gift.”  Indeed, the very supportive and welcoming nature of his being, meant that Michael had to become a rabbi, a reader and teacher of texts, and that he had to bring himself and others, both within and beyond his religious tradition, to a reading of those texts.  This is why Michael loved Andrew of St. Victor and the Victorines, this is why he was attracted to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and this is why he both challenged and welcomed his students as he did.  Michael understood that the logos, the word, possessed ethical import and power and that it was the dignity associated with words – the ability of the individual to not only speak, but to listen to the words and speech of others – that constituted the foundation upon which community could be built.  Conversation had for Michael a religious and ethical meaning.  Hence, for Michael, the study of texts and the voices that resonated from such study and encounter, the hermeneutical task, was a passion that drove him – aesthetically and intellectually as well as ethically and religiously.  This is the essence of who he was, even as a young man, and it is why, instinctively, he knew that he had to continue his rabbinical studies and pursue his academic ambitions elsewhere and not at Columbia.    

At HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Michael came under the tutelage of Ben Zion Wacholder, the great Talmudist and scholar of Hellenistic Literature.  Dr. Wacholder was a survivor of the Shoah and Michael was fascinated by his erudition and brilliance.  Michael served as his reader, and ultimately completed his rabbinical thesis under his direction. 
However, what was most significant for Michael about his years in Cincinnati were not his studies.  It was that fate stepped in and brought him as the student rabbi to Jackson City, Tennessee.  There, in that tiny Jewish community, he met a young woman, Betty Roseman, who was to become the love of his life and with whom he was to share the next forty years of his being.  Betty, I know you know this, but I want to say to you now, at this moment, how deeply he loved you.  You were with his partner in every way.  You made a beautiful home for Michael, and he felt blessed and amazed every day that you loved him.  Your devotion to Michael was incomparable.  As his b’shert, you supported him in every endeavor and he told me over and over again – especially during these last five months – how deeply he loved and appreciated you.  No one can feel the pain and loss that you do at this moment, but the memory of your love and life together will surely always be a great blessing and even grant you some comfort at this time of almost unbearable sorrow.

And Alisa and Hannah, I must tell you how much your father loved you.  Indeed, his love for each of you was absolutely unconditional and his concern for your welfare knew no bounds.  I know how full and heavy your hearts are right now.  I hope that you will feel more and more as time goes on the love that your Dad carried for you.
After HUC, Michael moved on with Betty to Toronto where he attended the Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.  There he worked with Father Leonard Boyle.  Father Boyle had been the Chief Librarian at the Vatican and he, like Professors Band and Wacholder, embraced and challenged Michael.  Once, after Michael passed his examinations in Latin, he said to Michael that while Michael had in fact passed, he (Father Boyle) was still not satisfied with his level of competency in Latin, and he demanded that Michael achieve even a higher passing mark – which Michael did.  Of Father Boyle, Michael was able to say, “He respected me in the fullness of what I was and I respected him for who he was.  I learned so much from him.”

All of this prepared Michael for what was to be his vocation and mission in life.  After returning to Los Angeles to teach at HUC-JIR, Michael engaged with Monsignor Royale Vadakin, the Ecumenical officer of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, in numerous projects and a Rabbi-Priest dialogue emerged here as well as an exchange program between HUC-JIR and St. John’s Seminary.  Michael played a central role in both.  In time, Michael was ready to move on to Notre Dame.  There he not only educated undergraduate and graduate students and brought an unprecedented religious diversity and dialogue to that Catholic campus, but he also attained a position of international prominence and leadership in Jewish-Catholic interfaith dialogue.  He, along with David Novak of Toronto, Peter Ochs of Virginia, Tikva Frymer Kinsky of Chicago, and Rabbi David Sandmel authored Dabru Emet, a Jewish statement on relations with the Church in the current day that catapulted Michael to international fame and attention.         

The American Jewish Committee and his student, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, recognized and rightly honored Michael for these achievements.  This year he had been invited because of these accomplishments to receive the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, and deliver the graduation address at the College-Institute in Los Angeles.  To my bitter sorrow, this is not to be, though I pray, Betty, that you will be there to receive this degree posthumously for Michael.

There is so much more to say, but I will conclude with one anecdote Michael was fond of telling me.  When he completed his studies at HUC, Michael asked Professor Wacholder to write a letter of recommendation for him to Toronto, which Wacholder did.  Year later, as he was completing his doctoral work, Father Boyle told Michael that Dr. Wacholder’s letter almost caused Toronto not to admit him to their program.  He told Michael that Dr. Wacholder had ended his letter about Michael with the following words, “Michael Signer is a wonderful boy.  He will every where be a blessing.”  Some on the departmental admissions committee thought this meant that Waacholder believed that while Michael would be a wonderful rabbinic pastor, it also signified that he had limited intellectual talents.  Thankfully, they were outvoted as others, looking at his record and viewing the rest of Dr. Wacholder’s letter, felt otherwise.  However, Dr. Wacholder was correct.  Of course, Michael was a man, but he remained, in his openness and enthusiasm, his wonder at life, “a wonderful boy,” and he was – for all of us – a blessing in so many ways in so many places. 
Michael, I will miss your physical presence, our conversations, your being, more than I can possibly say.  And yet, I know, in the paraphrase of a commentator on Song of Songs, “shesiftotekha dovevot min hakever ailie l’olam,” your words will speak to me from beyond the grave forever.  I love you. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.