My rabbinical role model passed away
Thirty-five years ago, singer-songwriter Paul Simon sang these words: “Who will be my role model, now that my role model is gone?
This is the question I ask myself today. This past Shabbat, one of the most important and influential Reform rabbis of our time, Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, died at the age of 91.
Listing your titles, browsing your CV, is an exercise in nobility. He was the chief rabbi emeritus of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the sixth oldest Reform synagogue in the United States. He had previously served congregations in Chicago and Curacao (the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas) and Monroe, New York.
Shim was blessed to serve the Reform movement during its richest and most productive decades. He served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, as well as numerous other community, national and local positions.
He was a persuasive speaker; a cunning thinker; a fearless campaigner; a great writer, not only of books on God, the Bible and Jewish practice, but also of fiction.
Let the resume stop there. I can see Shim blushing in the grave.
The greater truth is simply this: he was my colleague, my friend, my mentor, my adviser, my confidant – and, in the words of Paul Simon, he was also my role model.
It was the summer of 1979. I was a young rabbinical student, two years from ordination. I worked at Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, one of the Reform movement’s summer camps.
Shim came to camp that summer and worked with the kids in my unit. He was already nearly fifty years old, and they ignored his already “advanced” age, and they loved him. (Decades later, after retiring from KI, he spent more time in his beloved Maine, where he fished and sailed and devoted himself to Jewish students at Bowdoin College. It was as if he restarted his career. How he loved these students – and vice versa).
We spent long hours discussing in depth American Judaism, Reform Judaism, Israel, God, and the Rabbinate. We have become good friends.
Shim encouraged me throughout my final years of rabbinical training. In 1983, I accepted a position in the Philadelphia area. Shim became my closest colleague – if not geographically, emotionally and Jewishly. When our eldest son, Samuel, was born, he dedicated his Shabbat morning sermon to him (as well as an ornate Elijah chair in the KI Museum). He was standing next to me at Samuel’s brit.
Through it all, there was his beloved Judy by his side, who shared his life for seventy years; her children, Naomi, David and Eve, who sparked the ever-present twinkle in her eyes; his grandchildren and finally his great-grandchildren. I remember how tender he was with his already elderly father, who had been a famous Orthodox chazan, about whom he once quoted to me the psalmist: “Do not reject me when I am old.
We had Shabbat and Thanksgiving dinners with the Maslins. Shim invited my late father to help him with photographs of places of worship on Old York Road in Elkins Park and Jenkintown; this project eventually became a book, One God Sixteen Houses. Thanks to this project, my “two fathers” got to know each other. Shim has often served as a father figure to me – a surrogate rabbinical father, if you will.
We traveled together – including Israel and St. Thomas and the Berkshires. On this last trip, Shim and I visited the local market in Stockbridge. He couldn’t help staring at another customer. Finally, he asked me: “Is this one of our colleagues?”
I replied, “Not unless Philip Roth is now a Reform rabbi.”
We approached the noted author. We introduced ourselves and started chatting with stars.
Then Mr. Roth asked us, “So what do you guys do?” To which Shim replied, “We are rabbis…” No sooner had the last syllable of that word left his lips than Roth ran out of the market! The very last thing Philip Roth wanted to do was talk to two rabbis.
It was the man.
And it was the Jew.
Shim centered his Judaism on the Jewish people – on clal Yisrael, although he was always a fierce defender of Reform Judaism and often a not-so-kind critic of Orthodoxy. He was a liberal Zionist. Above all, his Judaism summed up the words of the haftarah blessing; she-kol divarav emet v’tzedek, “all his words were truth and justice”.
There was this word that he practically introduced into Reform Judaism: mitzvah.
Nowadays, the word comes easily to us. This was not the case in the 1970s. At that time, for many Reform Jews, the word mitzvah usually only followed the word bar or bat. For many Reform Jews, and others, the word mitzvah came in its Yiddish pronunciation – mitzveh, a good thing to do.
For Shim, and for many of us, the word was not Yiddish and folkloric mitzveh – a good thing to do.
Rather, it was the Hebrew mitzvah – the Jewish thing to do.
In 1979 the Central Conference of American Rabbis published Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide To The Jewish Life Cycle, which Shim edited. It was the first official publication of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to elucidate the idea of mitzvah.
In each paragraph, he wrote about sacred opportunities for Jewish engagement – with history, tradition, the Jewish people and God – and he did so with his refrain: It is a mitzvah of…
Shim wanted to teach Jews how to bring Jewish answers to life. He wanted to give their lives Jewish meaning, depth and character. It was the mitzvot – and nothing else, he says – that guaranteed the creative survival of the Jewish people.
Because of this, he had little patience for ethnic Judaism, for nostalgia, and for what we might rightly call Jewish kitsch.
Here are his words:
We Jews did not survive 4000 years to leave the world a legacy of lox and bagels, or to leave a legacy of ethnic comedy and blockbuster fiction, or even to leave a legacy of Nobel Prize winners . We didn’t survive 4,000 years to produce a generation that proudly wears chai around their necks, plays golf in the 80s, reads the New York Times, and donates over a billion dollars a year to the philanthropy. While not condemning any of it and participating in some of it, I see none of it as providing a clue to the survival of the Jewish people.
What would keep the Jewish people alive – not as a museum piece, but as living actors in the ongoing religious drama unfolding in the world?
Nothing less than that — that we would be a goy kadosh, a holy people.
More than anything else, Shim Maslin wanted the Jews to have a mature faith. It was the subject of his latest book, God For Grownups.
This is how he concluded his introduction to this book, which serves as his last word:
I love God, and I don’t care whether God returns my love or not.
I pray to God, and I don’t care if God is moved or even aware of my prayers.
I reverently study “the word of God,” and I don’t care whether God spoke those words or not.
I listen to God’s voice even when God is silent.
I do these things in the belief that by doing them I can come even one iota closer to an understanding of God. To approach God, we must first get rid of those naïve notions of God that were taught to us in childhood and are still taught in houses of worship today. What I seek, and hope to share with the reader, is a God for adults.
It was Shim Maslin’s God – a God for adults. This is the God that I pray that Shim will meet and embrace – and that I pray will live up to all of Shim’s expectations and hopes.