Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A giant is dead -- David Lieber, a Bible scholar who united the spiritual and intellectual

One of the most inspiring figures of my rabbinical school education was Rabbi David Lieber, with whom I studied Psalms and who was the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash, a Torah text and commentary that can be found in nearly every Conservative synagogue and that has greatly enriched how we view our biblical heritage.

I was saddened today when I learned that he had passed away late last night. The funeral services will be held in Los Angeles Thursday.

Rabbi Lieber was the kind of giant of Jewish scholarship that is so rarely found today -- for Rabbi Lieber, unlike for so many current scholars, there was no divide between the academic and the spiritual. When you studied Psalms with him, it was with the tools of modern scholarship in hand. But the atmosphere in the classroom was characterized by anything but the sterility we sometimes associate with the academic -- it was deeply spiritual.

His technique was slow and deliberate. Just as it was with the ancients and the medievals, Rabbi Lieber treated every word and turn of the text like there was the possibility to uncover infinite holiness beneath it. Rabbi Lieber knew that, as brilliant as the medieval scholars were, they had unfortunately lost something that the ancients knew so well -- the Psalms are poetry. For Rabbi Lieber, the value of modern scholarship is that it -- in things like its revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken tongue -- had reawakened us to the true depths of the beauty and poetry of the text. It had reawakened us to realize that the Psalms are songs that were meant to be sung -- meant to be sung at specific spiritual times and places.

Dr. Lieber, thank you so much for what you have given me. I am so deeply grateful to The Blessed Holy One that I had a chance to learn with you.

May his memory be a blessing.


The services will take place at 11 a.m. on Thursday at the American Jewish University (formerly, the University of Judaism) where Rabbi Lieber was long the president. He is survived by his wife, Esther, and his children, Michael, Danny, Susie and Debbie. Notes of condolence may can be sent to his wife at, 305 El Camino, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.


I had not been aware of this, but Rabbi Lieber served as a chaplain in the Air Force. He was born in Poland and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


It took them a few days to get around to it, but the New York Times finally wrote a nice obit-- focusing on the contribution that the Etz Hayim was for Judaism.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A community of caring, a legacy of study . . . and song

Walking around Jerusalem -- as I hope, God willing, to be doing in only about a week -- one often sees a sign like the one to the right. It's a death notice -- one that Minna found posted outside a pet store -- announcing not only where the funeral will be (on the very day the notice was posted), but also where, in the ancient tradition of the Jewish people, the mourners can be found afterward, so the community can visit them during their week of initial mourning.

Minna went to the funeral earlier this week for the deceased, Rabbi Mickey Rosen, and I expect she will be writing about that experience soon on smamitayim -- about how clear it was to her while she was there that Rabbi Rosen left a deep mark on many people. [True to her word -- as usual! -- Minna did write about the experience. See second half of this blog post.]

So, I will only say a little bit here about Rabbi Rosen's emotional and spiritual impact -- just that he was the founder of Yakar, a synagogue and place of learning that deeply impacted many people, including my former rabbinical school colleague, Barry Leff who wrote a hesped recounting how much he was impacted by Rabbi Rosen and by Yakar and the songs of prayer he participated in there.

I will just share something indicating that Rabbi Rosen was also very much a scholar. Here is a description about Rabbi Rosen's recent book, QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim:
The Przysucha (Yiddish: Pshiskha, pronounced Pe-shis-kha) school of Hasidism believed in a service of God that demanded both passion and analytical study. There was little or no study of kabbalah in Przysucha, and the emphasis was not on trying to understand God, but on trying to understand the human being. It was clear to them that one could not stand with any sense of integrity before the Divine Presence unless one first had some clarity of who one really was.

Directly or indirectly, Przysucha had declared an internal war upon the hasidic leadership of its time. It simply refused to accept anything that smelled of falseness and self-deception, be it the honor due to a zaddik or a particular religious practice. Przysucha equated pretension and self-deceit with idol worship.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, when the center of the hasidic world was in Poland, R. Simhah Bunim transformed Przysucha Hasidism into a movement and thus rose to become a, if not the, dominant personality in the Hasidic community.
May his memory be a blessing.


Rabbi Rosen only had a small impact on me personally, although I vividly remember how his talit seemed to be constantly in a process of falling off and being pulled back up when he spoke before his congregation. But it does strike me how what I wrote above has weaved within it -- even in just the title of this blog post -- three themes that I am striving to weave into a whole in my own life as a person, as a rabbi and as a spiritual caregiver:
  • the thread of scholarship (davka academic scholarship (in addition to other kinds of Torah learning))
  • the thread of spiritual care (with the community caring for Rabbi Rosen's family )
  • the thread of spiritual inspiration (with Yakar's songs of spirit)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

From Somalia to Jersusalem

In sleepless hours Wikipedia is often my friend. Up late, feeling pain over the incomprehensible evil and stubbornness that is Antisemitism -- that it should even follow us as far as Mumbai -- I found myself finally becoming curious over this piracy that is threatening cruise ships and supertankers off the horn of Africa and the links it might or might not have to Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia. I learn the pirates are thriving in the chaos that is Somalia in the wake of so many wars, both civil and with neighbors like the also deeply-impoverished Ethiopia. I learn that Ethiopia is a land of many high mountains and that its seasonal rains in its west are what fed the annual floods of the Nile -- floods that literally made possible the civilization that had once enslaved the Israelites with its water and soil for crops growing in a desert. And I learn of the small and ancient community of Jews that once lived in that west of Ethiopia, and tears come to my eyes as I read again how once nearly 15,000 of them were rescued in only 36 hours from the chaos that was Ethiopia in 1991 when the State of Israel sent planes to get them. I learned how even the Orthodox rabbis of Israel -- who can sometimes be so frustratingly inflexible -- gave their blessing to this mission by granting permission to break the laws of Shabbat by flying planes then.

In a world where there is so much hate and killing and violence, it is good to remind ourselves of where love comes from. As a chaplain, it is good for me to remind myself of where caring comes from. It is good.


These thoughts came to mind, today, as I was reading a talk that Art Green recently gave about Zionism -- about his Zionism -- to a group that is sometimes accused of being anti-Zionist, or even anti-Jewish. Good reading.