Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Friday, December 26, 2014
The LA Times two days ago had a picture of a fairly non-descript gentleman in a blue shirt and blue pants, balding with glasses, glasses very much like mine. Seated next to him at a table was a man the world once knew, bearded, military uniform and a keffiyeh on his head in the shape of the land of Israel, the map of Palestine for him. That man at the table was of course, Yasser Arafat. The article in the paper was about that man in blue pictured there, with the enemy of Israel, in Jordan in 1983.
This soft-spoken man was born in 1921 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the son of a homemaker mother and a Lithuanian-born father, who worked as a traveling salesman after the Great Depression.
He joined the marines at the start of World War II. A proponent of non-violence, he needed to test whether his views were really covering a lack of courage. His Judaism took him to Jerusalem; he joined the Haganah, the Jewish militia, carrying grenades through the streets of the city. His group never had to use them. He was spared. He once said that he became a pacifist because of what he had seen, “People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live.”
In the 60’s and 70’s he brought the likes of Daniel Ellsberg to speak to his people. Cesar Chavez came too. Throughout his life he was committed to transformational thinking to bring about racial equality, nuclear disarmament, and for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians.
I believe it was just before I left for college, I was attending services at my family’s congregation, the one my grandfather help found. We were told that there was a group of gay and lesbian Jews in the same synagogue with us that evening because this man had assured them after fanatics damaged their synagogue that they had a place to pray for as long as they needed.
It did not matter to him that there were those who felt it inappropriate for him to urge his people to move in a direction few wanted to go. He knew it was the right direction and he never faltered, He advocated for African Civil Rights after the Watts riots (August 11-17, 1965). He called for an end to our presence in Vietnam, and later in life, in his seventies and beyond he was a key player in interfaith dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
After his first wife died, Marcia and I asked to see him in his home. I knew that I should not have been surprised but so I was as I looked admiringly at his library of books from floor to ceiling of authors and ideas I only knew through his sermons.
I once sent him a sermon I gave on the High Holy Days a few years ago about Israel. “Nice,” he said, “but not enough.” This from the man who did lash out at Hamas for its violence against Israel but also at the Israel Defense Forces for its “callous disregard” for the lives of Gazans. He believed it important to support Israel and in a two-state solution, but he said, “But that does not mean we have to support them in the style of life they have chosen for themselves.”
On Yom Kippur (Sat, Sept 23), he delivered his last sermon. Amongst his thoughts were these, “Our world needs troubled people, 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.” He also told his congregation that morning that we had not done enough.
65 years ago, my family brought this man to Los Angeles. This Ex-marine, this ex-member of the Haganah, this vigorous advocate against violence and for equal respect, for equal treatment and for equal regard for everyone on this earth. Two days ago, that man dressed in blue in the picture next to Yasser Arafat died at the age of 93. He was my rabbi Leonard Beerman.
His presence as the rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple helped me make the decision to become a rabbi, it led me to work for Campus Ministries at Georgetown, to work at the Religious Action Center in D.C. with Rabbi David Saperstein, to counsel conscientious objectors, to care for the impoverished, the imprisoned, and those who have been disenfranchised.
The Talmud teaches that when we meet our maker, we are told that we will not be asked, “Why were you not like Moses, our great teacher?” We will be asked instead, “Why you did not live up to your personal aspirations?” Only you are the measure of that with no comparison to others.
Many think the rabbis two thousand years ago wanted us to set our own personal standards in which to live. I think that for us to view it this way is letting us off too easy. I think the rabbis, with this midrash, in fact wanted us, in our moments of despair and turmoil; those moments when faced with our Pharoah’s and life’s many injustices to ask, why indeed am I not acting like Moses? There are standard bearers in our tradition. There are standard bearers in our lives. Why should we not be inspired to live our lives along the same paths they paved for us?
Or perhaps these rabbis two thousand years ago did not have such high expectations for us. They did not want their congregants, who were unable or unwilling to see that they should be troubled by poverty in their midst, they should be angry that all their neighbors are not getting an equal shake, that very few can stand up and yell against injustice when it is staring them in the face to feel such obligations to do something about it, so they let us off easy. “Sure, you don’t have to be Moses.”
However, in my heart, when I meet my maker, I know that I will be asked, after all the sermons I have heard from this man, after all the people he brought to his synagogue to raise the consciousness of his members, and having stood beside him protesting against one American’s money being used to move Israeli Arabs out of certain neighborhoods, I now know that I will be asked, “Why I was not more like Leonard Beerman?”