Rabbi Joseph S. Weizenbaum Memorial Service

Rabbi Joseph S. Weizenbaum Memorial Service

Jewish Community Center, 2:00 p.m.

Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim

Congregation Or Chadash

Do you not know that there is a great prince fallen this day in Israel? (II Samuel 3:38).

            King David spoke these words of grief at the death of his great general, Abner. I repeat them in this hour and in the same spirit of grief and appreciation. Our hearts are bowed down, but our spirits are uplifted and joyful that for over forty years in our midst, here in Tucson, grew into usefulness, service and vision the figure of Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum.

            For years Joe spoke on the High Holy Days at Or Chadash. Seven years ago he spoke on Yom Kippur and he began, as he always began every sermon, “Friends….”

            I had not really thought about it before, but the family reminded me that he began every sermon with “Friends.”…. As I reflected on the twenty-five years of his sermons which I have heard, yes indeed he began everyone with that word. It was not simply his opening word. It was his invitation to you. He was not preaching from above and demanding your attention. Rather, he was embracing his listeners, his “friends” with ideas and values which he wished to share with you.

            And so he began on Yom Kippur morning 2006, “Friends, we all love a mystery.” And then he went on to tell us, “In matters of religion, mysteries are solved by faith.”

That morning he taught us about the pintle yid, the “little Jewish person” in all of us that reminds us of our history and our faith and our desire for a better outcome. That little person reminds us of the biblical teaching “to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” He reminded us that we are one humanity on earth. And then he taught us the lesson that embodied his life’s work as a rabbi. “I will give you things to witness,” he said that morning:

“War equals failure. You cannot win a war. No one has ever won a war. You can win a football game. You can win a horse race. You cannot win a war. You can only lose war. Might does not equal right. It only equals power. Never confuse right with power. Power is a word that came from the physical sciences. Very specific term in science, but in the realm of people’s lives, it is very vague. …Victory is no substitute for peace. Never confuse the two. I’ll prove it.

If you are a member of a symphony orchestra you don’t get an award if you finish your part before everyone else does. That gets you a new job elsewhere very fast. The object of making music is to make harmony, and harmony is the correct translation of Shalom. Not ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. It’s not even ‘peace.’ It is ‘harmony.’ “

He wrote of this as the introduction to Shalom Rav (“Great Shalom”) in his Ner Tamid prayer book as well: “If others are in turmoil and disharmony rules their lives, there can be no peace for us. When the noise of our lives drowns out the music for which we yearn, others likewise can find no peace. Peace for all Israel! Peace for all mankind!” (p. 13).

That Yom Kippur sermon was about ‘oneness’ and the Shema. That verse, his life, was to help us not only understand the oneness of God but the oneness of humanity. “All people are related to all people. All ideas are related to all other ideas. There is nothing in our world that is unrelated to anything else.” The key is to harmonize, like a great symphony.

It is us who create separateness. I t is us who want to label others so that we can make distinctions. “Just because you are standing in a garage does not make you a car,” he said at a 2010 Clergy retreat on Immigration. If you are in a particular place, then we have to label you as associated with that place. If you are near people we do not like, then you must be a person whom we will not like. If you associate with “those” people, then we will not associate with you. Joe found this logic tragic, disturbing and a contradiction to our religious faith and teachings. Let us be in dialogue with one another. Let us try and gain a sense of understanding. Let us find common ground. The command to love the stranger means that person is no longer a stranger, someone whom you have to be afraid of or defend against. He may not become your friend, but he is a neighbor with whom you may have a relationship.

Joe did not preach at us. He spoke to us. His reasoned responses to the issues of the day were hard to argue with, yet we did. His passion for those in need, those society rebuked, those who were different, he stood up for them and defended them and embraced them; while many of us remained seated in our place.

He saw the lessons of the past, the challenges of our present, and he walked the talk to make our community and our world a better place. Joe Weizenbaum was a man of great faith, who believed in prayer and the wisdom of the prophets reminding us of the absurdity of violence and war, not just on the battlefields; but in how we are at war with each other at home and in the board room, on the streets and in our legislatures.

Joe Weizenbaum gave us a path based on his faith and his convictions. His rabbinate was never about him. He was never seeking attention or recognition. If you joined him, wonderful. If not, then perhaps there would be an opportunity for you the next time. Despite all he did in his life to help bear the burdens of those who could not do it themselves, he too missed an opportunity that he regretted. He wished he had been in Selma with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wished he had been on the march. And yet, he told me on two occasions of a moment when he felt appreciated for what he was doing for others.

When Joe was arrested and in jail for harboring Central American refugees. He had a vision: His revered teacher from Hebrew Union College appeared in his cell and whispered, “Joe, I am proud of you.” Then he knew that his faith, his religion, his hands and his feet have placed him where he was called to be.

Joe Weizenbaum had one of the greatest minds of our generation. There is no one in our midst to replace his intellect, his insight, and his grasp of the issues of our day. He used that mind not to make a point; but to make a difference in people’s lives; to make a difference in your life. In the Ner Tamid prayer book was a Purim song entitled, You Can Change the World. The chorus reads like this, “You can change the world. You can make the world complete. Take pride you feel inside and never accept defeat” (page 35).

His leadership was never about him. That I equate him with the great military general Abner of the bible would be an embarrassment to him. For that I do not apologize. And yet, like a great Jewish general, he reminded us of the pride we can take in our Judaism and how our faith will lead not to victory, but to a more complete world.

Adonai natan, “The Lord has given,” and we thank you O God for this gift that has enriched our lives, bear life’s burdens and given us hope for our future. Adnonai m’kabel, “The Lord has received.” We resign ourselves unto God’s wisdom, for from this there is no exception, either for the rich or the poor, the old or the young, the master or the servant. Praised be the name of God. Thank you God for giving us for a short while Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum. Know that there is a great prince fallen this day in Israel.

Zichrono l’veracha, may the memory of our great teacher be for a blessing. Amen.