By David Ellenson, Hebrew Union College
Eugene B. Borowitz was the Sigmund L. Falk Distinguished Professor of Education and Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Born in Columbus, Ohio, on February 20, 1924, to immigrant Yiddish-speaking parents, Borowitz was educated as an undergraduate at the Ohio State University. In 1948, he was ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and in 1952 received the degree of Doctor of Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College for a dissertation in the field of Rabbinic Thought. In the 1950s he served as founding rabbi of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, Long Island, New York, and was enrolled in the Columbia-Union joint Ph.D. program in Religion, where he completed all work for his doctorate except for the dissertation. When Borowitz assumed the position as Director of Religious Education for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, he agreed to switch to Columbia’s doctoral program in Education and ultimately received an Ed.D from Columbia in 1962. In that same year Borowitz joined the faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where he continued to serve as Sigmund L. Falk Distinguished Professor of Jewish Education and Religious Thought until his death on January 22, 2016. His seventeen books, countless articles, and thousands of lectures in both scholarly and popular venues were instrumental in encouraging the American Jewish community to take theology and issues of religious faith seriously. He served as a Visiting Professor at universities such as Columbia, CCNY, Harvard Divinity School, Temple, and Princeton, and this only consolidated his academic reputation. His editorship of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility from 1970 to 1993 reinforced his preeminent position as a contemporary Jewish religious thinker and public intellectual and cultural critic.
Borowitz was also was an activist. In 1964, in response to an appeal by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Borowitz and a group of rabbinic colleagues traveled to St. Augustine, Fla., for a civil rights demonstration and were arrested for praying in an integrated group and for sitting down with young black people in a restaurant. The episode was the subject of a front page article in The New York Times. In a letter Borowitz and Albert Vorspan co-authored on behalf of the group from a St. Augustine jail, Borowitz wrote, “We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”
His impact on the religious thought of the American Jewish community was intensified by his publication of three books in 1968 and 1969. A New Jewish Theology in the Making systematically presented and evaluated the particularistic reality of a twentieth-century tradition of Jewish religious thought. In his two other works—How Can a Jew Speak of Faith Today and Choosing a Sex Ethic—Borowitz argued that the religious rationalism that dominated an earlier generation of Jewish thinkers had come to an end. Instead of his liberal predecessors’ assertion that there was a conceptual core to Jewish religiosity that had to serve as the foundation for Jewish theological reflection, Borowitz incorporated into his thought what he termed “a recognized truth in the general culture… a root belief that personal dignity means having substantial self-determination.”
Borowitz thus turned to religious existentialism—particularly as expressed in Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue and relation––as the most compelling and attractive methodological approach Jewish thinkers could employ in addressing issues of contemporary religious and communal concern. The Jewish theology he was struggling to express was not intended to be reserved only for members of the Reform community. Instead, he was attempting to address a broad swath of American Jewry who made their Jewish decisions in large measure on the basis of personal freedom.
Borowitz’s sociological-religious frame of analysis in that book blossomed five years later in 1978 into Reform Judaism Today, his three-volume commentary on the 1976 Reform Movement’s San Francisco Centenary Perspective. Borowitz had served as Chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Committee that wrote this successor statement to the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform and the 1937 Columbus Platform, and it was fitting that he offer the exegesis upon it. The most striking feature of his commentary is the degree to which Borowitz located the Reform Movement at the center of American Jewish life. Borowitz not only demonstrated how the contemporary Reform Movement’s position on the doctrines of God, Torah, and Israel had abandoned the sectarian postures of a classical American Reform Judaism. He also argued that Reform Judaism and its liberal attitudes towards an observance of the tradition had come to inform almost all precincts of American Jewish life, inasmuch as most American Jews were now self-consciously self-determining. The problem of that still had to be addressed was how to link this commitment to self-assertion to a ground for Jewish action.
In order to provide some answers for these problems, Borowitz turned with characteristic openness to the writings of Jewish and Christian theologians for guidance. In 1980 he wrote Contemporary Christologies: A Jewish Response. In it he asserted that Jews could recognize and learn from these modern Christian writings directed to the service of God, even though a Jew might detect in them tonal elements distinct from the commanding-forgiving rhythms of a Jewish view of the Divine.
Borowitz’s theological projects, and his concern for their practical applications, reached their crescendo in two works published in 1990 and 1991. After publishing a collection of forty-one papers entitled Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility in 1990. Borowitz published, in the following year his most comprehensive, mature, and systematic theological statement, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. Borowitz observed, “For all its reach, this book deals with but one aspect of my theology. To my surprise and consternation, the theological task I early set for myself refused to remain unified, but ramified into three independent, if correlated, foci of interest: (1) the response to our culture, (2) the dialogue with Jewish tradition, and (3) the testing of these ideas in Jewish action.” Exploring Jewish Ethics, in Borowitz’s own view, was the fulfillment of the third item on his agenda, while Renewing the Covenant represented his attempt to mediate the relationship between Judaism and contemporary culture. Nevertheless, Borowitz remained a liberal Jew. He was not prepared to retreat totally from the insights and affirmations of an Enlightenment world. He believed that autonomy was so firmly rooted in the contemporary Jewish condition that its surrender would be unthinkable. Borowitz asserted that the ongoing affirmation of this concept remained crucial for present-day liberal Jews and he rejected religious fundamentalism even as he turned with great respect to examine the wisdom and power of Jewish religious tradition.
Renewing the Covenant represents the statement of a mature theologian. In it one can identify the dialectical themes of Covenant and self, God and community, that Borowitz has emphasized throughout his theological writings. Here those themes found their ultimate definition and his notion of the “autonomous Jewish self” received mature expression.
How this “autonomous Jewish self” achieved normative expression is addressed in Exploring Jewish Ethics. Borowitz affirmed there that Judaism provided a powerful communitarian ethos and sense of morality that can inform the life of the postmodern Jew. He showed how the integrity and wisdom of the Jewish ethical tradition could contribute much to a modern society that all too frequently floundered in its quest for values and direction.
Borowitz remained a commanding intellectual-religious voice in his final decades as well and his writing and teaching continued unabated. His influence upon generations of Reform rabbis and the academic and theological worlds was profound and will continue to be felt for years and years to come.
Eugene B. Borowitz was predeceased by his beloved wife Estelle Covel Borowitz, a psychologist, whom he married during his senior year at HUC-JIR. He is survived by his children Lisa Borowitz, Drucy Borowitz and Philip Glick, and Nan Borowitz and Andrew Langowitz; grandchildren Zoey Glick and Matthew Swerdlin, Zachary Glick, Noah Langowitz and Monikah Schuschu, Emily Langowitz, and Joshua Langowitz; and great-grandson Lewis Swerdlin.