On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Archive for March, 2017

Remembering Gershon Kekst (z”l)


Below are the eulogies delivered for Gershon Kekst by former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch and me at the funeral on March 19, 2017. Together, Dr. Schorsch and I had the privilege of working with Gershon during his remarkable 18 years of service as chair of the JTS Board of Trustees.

A Eulogy for Gershon Kekst

by Arnold M. Eisen

When I got the news of Gershon’s passing, the image and emotion that came to my mind were what I had seen and felt flying across the country last Sunday afternoon. I had a window seat, and the sky was remarkably clear. We flew for a long time over frozen plains, which eventually gave way to black-brown foothills and then to higher peaks, many of them snow-capped. The scene was so magnificent that I could not take it in. I had no words for it, just stared and stared, not knowing what to do with the grandeur except to praise the Creator who had made it, feel humbled in its presence, and be thankful that I was here to witness it, all the more from that vantage point of 35,000 feet.

It does not much strain the metaphor to say that Gershon Kekst was a mountain of a man: solid, larger than life, certainly larger than almost everyone I have ever known. He was a force to be reckoned with and counted on. You could trust him to be there no matter what else changed or who failed you. Unlike the mountains, Gershon, thank goodness, was approachable. He was at once intimidating and caring, formidable and loving. It was humbling to be around him. He elicited gratitude for the advice he gave and the jams he helped get you out of, but you were grateful to him as well for the fact that you were fortunate enough to know him, and be on earth at the same time, not far away but across a desk. He too made you want to praise the Creator, “who has shared God’s wisdom with a person of flesh and blood,” and has shared as well the kind of kavod that was Gershon’s:  dignity, glory, gravitas.

It’s not easy to find words to describe Gershon because he himself used so few words. He gave hundreds of prepared speeches, at JTS and elsewhere, but in the privacy of his office or yours, he’d let you do most of the talking, guide you in the right path with a few pointed questions or gentle prods, and utter the sentence or two that made it crystal clear what you had to do, without him actually telling you in so many words.  Sometimes the advice you got was to say nothing, or do nothing. Many times he told me not to brag about things I intended to do but rather to do them and then report on what had been accomplished. One day I complained about the way my time was being frittered away on trivia. His response was to ask, “Who controls your calendar, Mr. Chancellor?”  Enough said.

Gershon could accomplish so much and convey so much without relying on verbiage because the power of the man lay in who he was. Some people are considered great because of the things they do in the world. Others are able to do great things because they ARE great. Their achievements are a function of character, and everyone knows it. You would never say of Gershon Kekst that he was clever or facile, or that something he did well was just a lucky break. I’m sure he had faults, and I suspect he knew them well, but you turned to him, you utterly relied on him, because you knew he was capital G good. You knew his judgment was not distorted by ego, and you knew he truly valued you, was listening to you with full attention, and cared about your success.   He could do all that because he deeply cared about causes larger than himself: his community, his country, the Jewish people, Israel, Torah, Conservative Judaism, God.

I first met Gershon when he and Bob Rifkind persuaded me to consider becoming chancellor of JTS. They accomplished that not so much with argument as with the example of who they were and how much they cared about JTS. Gershon was intimidating, until I realized, even at that first meeting, how tender a soul he was, and how devoted he was to JTS and other Jewish causes. I knew that he made his living by knowing exactly what to say to a given person in a given situation, but still:  it was a bit like the stories of Hasidic rebbes who looked into your eyes and read the secret fears and longings of your heart, when Gershon looked me in the eye and said,  “You’ve been a scholar your entire career, Professor, you’ve been giving the Jewish community advice for a long time now, but we really don’t need kibitzers,  you know, we need leaders. Come to New York and be a leader.” It worked. He had me—because I could see that Gershon Kekst was the very opposite of a kibitzer, and the very epitome of a leader. He told me then and many times thereafter what a privilege it was for him to serve as chair of the JTS Board, and to support it so generously. I knew that JTS was a team worth joining because I’d be serving alongside him.

In an interview conducted by the Weizmann Institute in 1994, Gershon said that he believed the Jewish people exists to be a holy people. “This means that we have a responsibility to be in partnership with our God in completing the process of creation, in seeing to it that ours is a world of justice, a habitable world in which civilization can achieve its highest potential in every respect.” Gershon believed that, humbly and with all his heart, and he lived that way. So does Carol. That’s why they supported so many Jewish causes, large and small, received so many supplicants from so many organizations, sent few people away empty-handed, and did so much good work.

Gershon had a special fondness for institutions devoted to Jewish education, and to higher education in particular.  I always assumed one reason for that was his reverence for his mother, Chana, who had been a Hebrew teacher. I think another reason was his entire approach to life. His respect for learning was built into his character. Jewish books were proof of what our people had accomplished, silent witness to a long history of achievement. The learning, if solid,  as it always has been at JTS, was something that could never be taken away from you—the kind of doing that speaks for itself, provides a firm basis for future achievement, and guarantees continuity when Judaism changes, as it must,  because the world changes.

It seemed utterly right to name The Graduate School at JTS for Gershon Kekst because we had all seen his respect for faculty and students on so many occasions and knew his real humility before the Torah and those who studied Torah. Everything JTS accomplishes in the world, the leaders we train, the individuals and communities we touch, is thanks to the learning stored up in the books and the faculty, transmitted first to our students and then by them to others. Gershon and Carol’s devotion and generosity have made this learning possible for many years. He was not a man who ever wanted his name attached to things. But the same way that a pillar in the JTS courtyard testifies to his status as pillar of JTS, his name on the Graduate School now witnesses to his love of Torah and his faith that Jews,  guided by Torah, really can make ours a “world of justice.”

I want to close by mentioning one final lesson that Gershon taught me, the one that he and Carol, and the next Kekst generation, and the one after that, taught us all together, by loving each other and the entire Kekst family as they did. Carol’s devotion to Gershon was evident from the moment I first met them, but it became overwhelmingly and movingly apparent during the years of his illness. Torah is taught not only in words but in example; leadership is usually partnership, and Carol, you and the family have been partners in chief. Gershon’s love of his family, and the family’s for him, was part and parcel of the love he lavished on the rest of us, and we felt in return. I for one loved him very much.

“I will look to the mountains, from where my help will come”—even in memory. I pray we will all be worthy of Gershon’s help and his example.

A Eulogy for Gershon Kekst

by Ismar Schorsch

Gershon passed away on erev Shabbos. On Shabbos I was in the synagogue lost in sadness, when I came across a passage in the haftarah that suddenly brought Gershon to mind. The haftarah for the day came from the prophet Ezekiel and dealt with the darkest era in the history of ancient Israel. Nebuchadnezar had destroyed the Temple and forcibly resettled many inhabitants of the Davidic kingdom of Judah in Babylonia. In their midst Ezekiel strove to offer comfort. The special haftarah for Shabbat Parah is a bold vision of national restoration, but not without an unexpected mid-course correction.

God promised to return Israel to its homeland, but only once God had refashioned its inner state of being. To break the recurring pattern of human obedience and disobedience to God’s will, God was ready to upgrade human nature, to redesign our natural endowment that it would no longer revert and succumb to acts of evil. Here is the passage in Ezekiel’s prophecy that arrested my attention:

And I will give you a new heart and implant in you a new spirit. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit into you, enabling you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My statutes. (Ezek. 36: 26–27)

The prophecy in truth is a remarkable admission of divine misjudgment. To end the interminable history of human bloodshed would require the inscription of the Torah in our hearts. Free will alone could not be relied on to internalize it. Alas, we are reminded daily that Ezekiel’s prophecy still awaits fulfillment.

But then the thought struck me that in our impatient waiting we are not wholly abandoned. On rare occasions God sends us a solitary herald who embodies the nobility of a Jew whose heart is the bearer of Torah from birth. Gershon was such an exceptional Jew. His uncompromising love of Judaism was not acquired in long years of Torah study, but welled up from within and animated every fiber of his being. To be sure, Gershon had living links to Judaism. He was proud of being the great-great-grandson of Reb Josef Salanter, the teacher of the founder of the Musar movement in Eastern Europe. And he revered the memory of his mother, born in Palestine, who, widowed early, raised her two boys on the meager salary of a Hebrew school teacher.

Gershon’s Judaism was a natural wonder. He became chairman of the Seminary’s board in 1991, five years after I was selected to be its sixth chancellor. Two years later he also assumed the chairmanship of the Weizmann Institute. In Gershon’s world religion and science, Israel and America complemented each other. He was a staunch advocate of the centrality of the synagogue and day school education. The home in which Carol and Gershon loved to host Seminary faculty and students for Shabbat dinner is saturated with Jewish art. Though he couldn’t carry a tune, Gershon loved hazzanut and knew how to daven like a pietist. The rhythm of his week and the sanctity of his family life were dictated by Shabbat and haggim. Indeed, the unadorned pine coffin in which he will soon be buried eloquently expresses his deep desire to live and die as a Jew.

In sum, Gershon’s Judaism was a matter of the heart. His clients often turned to him for his compassion as well as for his wisdom. Above all, it was the extent of his legendary charitableness that made of Gershon and Carol a force of untold good. Let one small example stand for many. In the summer of 1993, Samuel Melton of Columbus, Ohio, lay on his death bed. With some visionary gifts, Sam had enabled the Seminary to strengthen its leadership in the neglected field of after-school Jewish education. Sam wanted to give the Seminary one parting gift of one million dollars and summoned Gershon and me to his bedside. Columbus was not especially easy to get to, and Gershon promptly chartered a private plane to provide the transportation. Sam was relieved by the chance to bestow his gift face to face and I was ever grateful to Gershon for the depth of his commitment to the Seminary. To my unexpected benefit, Gershon would stay by my side till I stepped down as chancellor in June 2006. Over those 15 years only Carol knows how many hours Gershon and I spent on Saturday nights on the phone talking Seminary business.

Before Gershon accepted the chairmanship of the Seminary, he visited Dr. Louis Finkelstein, its renowned fourth chancellor, to ask him what should the relationship between chairman of the board and chancellor actually be? Dr. Finkelstein responded simply by holding aloft two fingers of one hand held tightly together. Gershon was fond of telling that graphic story and I can happily attest that he fully heeded the advice. What made Gershon such a devoted partner, wise mentor, and intimate friend is that he gloriously anticipated Ezekiel’s vision of a Jew for whom Judaism constituted his very DNA. How sad that he is gone and no longer among us.

Rabbis Should Speak Out

These words were delivered at a JTS convocation honoring 55 members of the Rabbinical Assembly for their distinguished service.

The question of whether and how rabbis should speak out on controversial issues of the day has been with us for a very long time—probably as long as there have been Jewish communities concerned about their place in Gentile societies and states, and rabbis charged with leading and serving those communities. If the subject has become especially contentious in America of late—causing significant strife in many communities, and a rethinking of the rabbinic vocation and the limits of rabbinic authority—the reason seems to be that American Jews in 2017 find ourselves in a situation utterly without precedent. Technology, society, and culture are all in flux; the health of the planet itself seems threatened; anti-Semitism seems resurgent and the peace process in the Middle East frozen. On top of all that, complicating matters further, the relevant political divide in America today is arguably not only that between Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative but between supporters and opponents of a president who has disavowed major elements of long-term bipartisan policy, foreign and domestic, and disavowed major elements of the Jewish and Christian ethical traditions anchored in deeply held conviction about what God wants from us.

What should rabbis do in this situation? What should they say, on the pulpit or off? What alliances and marches should they join or lead? There seems broad consensus that Jews should not remain silent when core interests and values are at stake, but little agreement about how to define those values or protect those interests, or what the role of the rabbi should be in such efforts.

I believe that the lack of consensus on these points makes the role of the rabbi more, rather than less, crucial. It is imperative that those charged with teaching Jews Torah speak out loud and clear on moral and religious issues of the day. They must speak out carefully yet boldly; with love for God and Israel; and always from deep inside the teaching and the practice of Torah.

Consider the role of the rabbi for a moment in light of the construction of the tabernacle commanded in this week’s parashah, Terumah. The building blueprint set forth in the book of Exodus is detailed. One might think that all God needed from the Israelites were carpenters to cut and nail the boards, and weavers to cut and dye the cloth. But that is not the case. God requires Israelites who “excelled in ability,” and calls Bezalel, whom YHWH had “endowed with a divine spirit of skills, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Exod. 35:21, 31). The Lord of heaven and earth needs human beings with multiple capacities and talents to take part in building a tabernacle that will make it possible for God to dwell be-tokheinu—in and among the people Israel. God needs experienced and insightful human partners in covenant to do all the mitzvot necessary to make the world a place that reveals God’s glory in its justice and compassion.

Rabbis are more than hewers of boards and dyers of wool. We do not train them as we do at JTS so they can announce page numbers or direct rote performances of ritual. It takes all the knowledge and wisdom they command, all the learning and people skills they bring to the task, all the cognitive and emotional intelligence with which they are equipped, to pronounce and preserve the difference between tamei and tahor, pure and impure—the job of Aaron and the priests who came after him. Our rabbis have to build and grow holy communities, keep the peace in those communities, and make sure they are places that bring out the best in all their members. Rabbis must bless the people Israel with their words and their presence; teach via texts and example; invite God into Jewish lives; and help make us worthy of having God reside amongst us.

We also want our rabbis to be prophets of a sort, which means helping their communities to hear clearly what God wants of them, and helping our words reach God. The words sent in God’s direction include protest, petition, thanksgiving, praise, love letters, or silent meditation. The words headed back toward us from God’s side include command, forgiveness, comfort, appeal for help, or reflection on the relationship between God and humanity. Paraphrasing Abraham Joshua Heschel, we might say that the rabbi in his or her prophetic role helps the rest of us to keep God always in mind, and stops us from focusing only on our own needs and desires.

Heschel made that declaration about Israel’s prophets in his 1963 address on “Religion and Race,” and when he marched in Selma, Alabama, he affirmed, as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that rabbis must call out injustice, call for compassion, and call lies lies. They cannot teach the opening chapters of Genesis without reminding us that human beings are assigned to work and tend the garden of earth; that all human beings are children of Adam and Eve created in God’s image; that this status carries with it a demand to protect human dignity always and everywhere. Rabbis cannot teach the Exodus narrative without stressing over and over, as the Torah does, the obligation to take care of the stranger, free those enslaved, and not bow down to false gods. The Judge of all the earth must be assisted in doing justice. YHWH must be helped in the work of redemption associated with God’s very name.

This does not mean, I hasten to add, that the rabbi should tell people how to vote. The problem with rabbis giving such advice goes far beyond IRS regulations concerning the status of religious nonprofits. The complexity of the human situation on the one hand and the nature of classical Jewish texts on the other both militate against simple translation of Biblical or rabbinic imperatives into endorsements of particular candidates or policies. Love for the stranger is compatible with a variety of government directives. Widows and orphans must be clothed and fed—that demand is non-negotiable—but multiple valid approaches to distributive justice have been articulated in Republican and Democratic platforms. Love of the Jewish people, love for the Land of Israel, and love of the stranger can be used to justify a whole range of positions on West Bank settlements. And—complicating matters still further—fulfillment of one mitzvah might clash with fulfillment of another. Sometimes the imperative to Jewish action is clear and unequivocal. Most of the time, however, hard choices must be made and difficult priorities determined.

That is why a rabbi has to be careful in the translation of timeless mitzvah to the partisan politics in the headlines on a given Shabbat. It would be a terrible mistake for our government to repeal the Johnson Amendment and permit churches, synagogues, and mosques to get into the business of political campaigning. A rabbi’s job is to teach Torah and to help Jews live Torah, not to be a political operative. Spiritual/moral leaders cannot fulfill their calling effectively if they routinely sound off on contemporary controversy rather than helping Jews listen week in and week out to the voice of Torah. The latter task requires listening to and respecting the diverse voices inside each community—as the community, to be served by the rabbis who lead them, must be willing to listen to their rabbis, even and especially when challenged by disagreement.

Bottom line: for rabbis to do the priestly/prophetic job to which they are called, they and their communities need to trust each other’s dedication and integrity.

All of us are here today because we love our tradition, despite and because it sometimes makes our lives more difficult, weighing us down with “capital-M” Meaning. We are here because we love the Jewish people—which may be easy to do in the abstract but is never easy when it comes to actual individuals in actual communities. You cannot be a rabbi unless you truly value disagreement “for the sake of heaven,” and believe in your kishkes that it must somehow be essential to the fulfillment of our eternal covenant with the Holy One.

I conclude with a word of Torah that I learned from Heschel some 45 years ago, when I asked him as a student reporter with incredible chutzpah how he had the chutzpah to call the Vietnam War evil—not just wrong, but evil—and to write on the first page of his book God in Search of Man that religion had declined because it had become “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel said to me, in these words or words close to them, “I am the heir to a great religious tradition, and as such it is not only my right but my duty to speak in its name as best I can, knowing that others will speak differently.”

It takes enormous courage to do that—and enormous humility to do it well. You’ve got to know your Torah, and know your Jews, and love them both, and love God. We are living in a historical moment that may well test our patience and our courage, elicit every ounce of every skill we command, break our hearts over and over, and strain our capacity for hope. I pray that our rabbis, with the blessing of the communities they serve, will have the wisdom to exercise the right, and perform the duty, of speaking in the name of Torah, and will do so with the wisdom and skill needed right now throughout the tabernacles of  the Children of Israel.