Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l, one of America’s greatest rabbis, died yesterday at the age of 93 after a long battle with congestive heart failure. Though Leonard’s physical heart may’ve failed, his true heart never failed. He was a man who was all heart. It also seems fitting he died on the last night of Hanukah. It is the “festival of light,” meant to help us survive the coldest, darkest season of the year. Leonard was a beacon of light to the world.
Don’t get me wrong. He was a complicated man. There were shadows with the light. You knew the burdens of the world weighed heavily on him. When you were with him you knew there was a deep interior to him. I never knew him well enough personally to say this, but I’d imagine feelings of depression crossed his path. He also faced personal tragedies that weighed heavily on him.
I knew Leonard for almost a decade in the 1980s and worked for him as the executive director of his Los Angeles synagogue, Leo Baeck Temple, for a year. He was one of the most powerful sermon-givers in the entire U.S. rabbinate. He was eloquent, his prose was supremely elegant. But he wasn’t afraid to trouble his audience. He wasn’t, like many rabbis, telling you what you wanted to hear. He was telling you what HE wanted you to hear. If you didn’t want to hear it, that wasn’t going to detract him. But even if you disagreed with him, he spoke so movingly it was hard to hold it against him.
Leonard was a true progressive. He wasn’t PEP (progressive except Palestine). His values were consistent whatever the issue might be. He opposed every war this country waged. He supported a nuclear weapons freeze when it was an important progressive issue during the Reagan administration. He was a rock on social justice issues and made common cause with the civil rights movement. He also made allies in the American-Muslim community and was also willing to reach out to communities to which the mainstream Jewish community did not or could not. He was fearless and principled.
I first met Leonard when I worked for New Jewish Agenda in the early 1980s. This group of radical Jewish activists sought out leaders of local Jewish communities and Leonard was one right from the beginning. There were few other leaders willing to make common cause with us (Rabbi Marshall Meyer was another). He didn’t care that we were radicals (for that time, because we advocated negotiations with the PLO, a two-state solution, and gay rights). He didn’t care that we didn’t live in Bel Air as many of his congregants did. He didn’t care about any of that. He cared about what we believed, about our values. They were true and so he was to us.
I organized Agenda’s first national conference in Ann Arbor in 1986. We had three keynote speakers. I knew and invited two of them: Ed Asner and Leonard Beerman. They both gave extraordinary speeches attesting to their political values as deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. I was immensely proud of both them and my work in organizing that conference. It was a highlight of my life as was knowing Leonard.
After I left Agenda, I worked for the then University of Judaism as a fundraiser for six months. Leonard called and asked if I’d consider becoming executive director of Leo Baeck. I was honored to be asked and be able to work together with him. I knew little about being the executive director of a synagogue. But to Leonard it was as important he hire someone he trusted who shared his values, as hiring someone who could ensure the air conditioning worked and Sunday school rooms were arranged properly. There was also a significant raise involved!
It was during that year that Leonard retired from the rabbinate. There was an immense and moving celebration at the shul. But you have to understand something about Leo Baeck. It wasn’t just any congregation. Its members included some of the most important members of the Hollywood elite: agents, actors, producers, directors. No commemoration of Leonard Beerman was going to anything less than a stellar occasion. Members combed their files and archives for memorabilia, pictures. Friends, celebrities, and allies were interviewed. They produced an immensely moving multi-media documentary which had amazing production values.
During the event major figures in his life and the life of the Temple spoke about him. At one point, one of them noted that Leonard’s vanity license plate bore the obscure word: “Fardels” (burdens). It was a term few of us knew, but of course Leonard knew. And it gave him pleasure to find playful meaning in the obscure. The word came from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. But in true Leonard fashion, it was from a portion of it that receives little notice from most:
…There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
In the context of his long, painful battle with illness towards the end of his life, this passage, in which Hamlet wonders why he should bear the outrages and injustices of life, allows us to understand how he soldiered on to the end, one of the bravest souls I know.
Here is another passage from an L.A. Times profile of Leonard’s last High Holiday sermon at Leo Baeck before his death which includes a passage from what he said that day. Oh how I wish I could have been blessed to hear it:
“Our world needs troubled people,” he’d told the congregants that Saturday morning. “Jews even. Men and women who care. Who are not ashamed to be sensitive and tender…. Who can resist all those, friends and enemies, who seek to prevent us from seeing the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls.”
When he finished, he looked out at the crowd and saw that some were sitting silently, lips pursed in anger, focused on what he’d said about Israel.
But he also saw that others weren’t angry at all. They were beginning to stand — first one by one, then row upon row — their applause washing loudly over the temple.
It startled him. In 65 years there, he would recall, a gentle smile on his face, he’d never received a standing ovation inside the temple before.
“If this was in fact my last sermon, well, I spoke my truth,” he said. “I spoke from a place of integrity.”
It was also during that year that his first wife, Martha died and he remarried. Then in 1993, his granddaughter, Kate, died as well. It was in this context he exhibited the tremendous bravery I mentioned above, when he told his interviewer:
“The questions surrounding this time — like God, like life and death. I have sometimes been thinking of this in the middle of the night, mulling them through my mind.”
He fixed his wire-rim glasses. Twenty seconds passed. His eyes closed and for a moment it looked as if would not be able to go on.
Then he was back. “All of this pain, this diminishment,” he said. “I am surviving now on the basis of other people’s care. I am amazed at the care I am receiving, from my family and so many others. The care and love, the care and love. I hold on to that. In the end that is what matters, care and love.”
I remember Leonard’s last High Holiday sermon before retirement. I especially remember this typically Leonard statement during it. In his talk, he explored what motivates us as Jews and human beings to be altruists, to fight for the greater good of society. That’s when he said this:
Guilt is good. And Jewish guilt is the best guilt of all.
It was vintage Leonard. Seeking to wrest meaning from a cliche. And seeking to vindicate the great values of Judaism and make them relevant to his congregants and the world.
Leonard’s funeral will be extraordinary. I know this because I attended his first wife, Martha’s memorial service and the speakers joked that she’d produced it down to the last jot and tittle. She wrote down all the music she wanted, who she wanted to play it, who she wanted to eulogize her. Everything. She was that way–meticulous. Knowing Leonard, he probably did the same. In doing so, you would feel the power of his mind and thought-processes even after death. It would be a glowing testament to his legacy–and will.
These are days in which Jews have abandoned any mission to bear witness to the world. We no longer feel any obligation to represent universalist prophetic values. We watch out for our own: “I me mine,” as George Harrison wrote. Israel as devolved into a racist settler-dominated state. The Diaspora cannot free itself from its addiction to a Zionism that debases those prophetic values.
Leonard Beerman was a truly great figure in American Jewish life. He projected the best of us. We will not see his like again. May his memory be for a blessing.
Mary Hughes Thompson says
Oh dear, Richard. What terribly sad news. Rabbi Beerman was a remarkable man in so many ways, and he will be sorely missed in so many ways and by so many people. When I saw him last, within the past couple of months, he was clearly experiencing difficulty with mobility. I never imagined it would be last time we would speak.