Last week, we, the people of Israel, lost a true gadol (a great one): a tzaddik (a righteous person), a chacham (a sage) and a rav (a rabbi). I, a rabbi and student, lost a teacher and a mentor. Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz died on Friday morning January 22nd. My sadness is not for tragedy of a life cut short, as he lived to the blessed age of 91, nor is it for unfinished business, as Dr. Borowitz contributed far more to the Liberal Jewish world in his lifetime than most could hope to accomplish. My sadness is that students will no longer have the opportunity to be shaped and blessed by his mentoring, and that I will never again get to sit down with him in study, to benefit from his brilliant mind, his sharp wit, and his caring heart.
Who was Dr. Borowitz? Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi wrote in her eulogy for him that “scholars have called Borowitz: 1) ‘The premier liberal Jewish theologian at work today,’ 2) The ‘dean’ of contemporary American Jewish thinkers, 3) ‘Pastor to Jews in a postmodern world,’ and 4) But most of all, according to [Rabbi] Arnold Wolf, Borowitz was ‘the great teacher of our generation, the thinker who best exemplified our strength and who best probes our weaknesses’ and characterized Borowitz as a ‘bridge theologian, spanning modernism and postmodernism.’”
For me, Dr. Borowitz was someone much closer. I, along with hundreds of rabbinical and cantorial students over many decades, got to study with him in several classes, but I also got to better know him as his Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant. In doing so, he taught me not only subject matter, but also his methodology of teaching and shared with me his intellectual process. When working with him on a project looking for ethical sources in rabbinic law, after hitting block after block and wrong answer after wrong answer for two months, exacerbated, I finally asked, “what exactly are we looking for?” And he said, “yes, that’s the question we’re asking.” The first step in a serious project of study was to determine the right questions to ask.
The way he taught really stood out to me. As a young student starting out in his introduction to Modern Jewish Thought class, I was initially frustrated that it seemed that he barely taught at all. He assigned different thinkers to the students, who would prepare and present the thinker’s theory to the class. I thought I would much rather learn about Jewish philosophers from HUC’s philosopher king himself. But over time, I realized that more important than our knowing thinkers like Buber and Plaskow, was our ability to teach these thinkers. Borowitz didn’t transmit knowledge. He helped others find it for themselves, and in the process, he fostered teachers and scholars.
In 1974, Borowitz wrote “Tzimtzum: a mystic model for contemporary Leadership.” Tzimtzum means contraction, and refers to God’s act at the beginning of Creation, according to the Lurianic Kabbalists. The mystics believed that God brought the world into being by withdrawing, making room for development, growth, freedom and dignity. God did not just create human beings as objects of God’s power. God created human beings as dignified co-creators, who would be left with space to complete God’s universe (Tikkun Olam).
Borowitz developed this idea to applying tzimtzum to all areas of leadership. He suggests that power is best wielded as guidance and not action— that effective leading means not acting in place of others, but pulling back while guiding others. Rather than taking care of a project because we best know how to do the task, we make an extra effort to take a less experienced leader under our wing and guide them in taking on this responsibility. As parents, we give our children more responsibilities and freedoms so that in addition to particular tasks, they learn how to teach themselves. As teachers, we give our students more than just material— we guide them to learn for themselves and impart their lessons unto others.
Dr. Borowitz’s Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought was to me an Introduction to Teaching, and a lesson in tzimtzum. Dr. Borowitz was a professor with tremendous power. The accolades mentioned before most certainly make that point clear. He practiced tzimtzum and was most pleased when his students would rise up to teach him.
I’ve been blessed to receive Dr. Borowitz’s Torah in my lifetime, and I can only hope to do justice to his teachings.
Zecher Tzadik Livrakhah – May this righteous man be for a blessing.
 “Loving God, Loving Torah and Loving Others: Farewell Eulogy for Our Teacher: Rabbi Professor Eugene B. Borowitz (1924-2016). Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. Jan 24 2016.