Remembering Dr. Borowitz

Not long ago, the Jewish world lost one of its most important teachers with the passing of Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz. He was a professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. I was blessed to have studied with him from 1981 to 1985, the year I was ordained. Dr. Borowitz was also my Rabbinic Thesis advisor.
Eugene Borowitz was one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, but he also made his mark in other fields. He took a special interest in advancing the cause of Jewish education. (Reading Hebrew, the self-paced, cleverly designed workbook he co-authored with Lillian Adler, remains the best adult Hebrew reading primer I’ve ever seen.) He also founded Shema: A Journal Of Jewish Responsibility, a small format publication, each of whose issues featured deliberately divergent points of view on a broad range contemporary Jewish issues. He was intellectually brilliant – certainly one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Since his passing, many stirring and learned tributes have been written in his memory, including eulogies delivered in his honor by his fellow HUC faculty members. My aim here is to share a few memories of what it was like to be one of his students.
I last saw Gene Borowitz six years ago, when I went back to New York City along with my Class of ’85 HUC friends to receive our honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees marking the 25th anniversary of our ordination. I was somewhat shocked and saddened when I saw him in the audience and later walked up to say hello. The teacher I remembered for his very tall, somewhat intimidating posture and deep, resonant voice was now stooped and fragile. I’d heard that the passing of his beloved wife, Estelle, a number of years earlier had taken a great toll on him, but I wasn’t ready for how profoundly he had aged since I had last seen him.
Dr. Borowitz was a powerful presence in my life all throughout my four years at the New York School. His introductory level Modern Jewish Thought class was electrifying. I don’t remember how long the class sessions were in those days – maybe an hour and 20 minutes – but I was always taken by surprise at the end of class because the time passed so quickly. “This is what grad school should feel like,” I remember thinking.
In the course of that class, I found that I loved Jewish philosophy, loved the sensation of my mind at work, loved playing with ideas and piecing things together. Even when the likes of Kant, Kaplan and Buber didn’t give me the answers I sought, their forthright confronting of the problems of being both modern and Jewish gave dignity to my own struggles, doubts and questions. It was all very exhilarating. And this was where Dr. Borowitz could be so inspiring. He had the gift of writing (and teaching) with sublime lucidity. He could lay out difficult, subtle ideas in a way that made them comprehensible and beautiful.
Speaking of his writing, back in those days, his introductory level college textbook, Choices in Modern Jewish Thought, hadn’t yet been published, but we were the first class (circa 1981 to 1982) to work with photocopied galley proofs of that book. That was where we first learned about the six great systematic Jewish philosophers of the modern era. How many times over the years, teaching both teens and adults, have I subsequently reproduced his famous (to his students) Table Of Modern Jewish Philosophers! Six Jewish thinkers, three Rationalists (Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck and Mordecai Kaplan) on one side, three Non-Rationalists (Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel) on the other side. That little chart encapsulates one of his great achievements, being the first scholar to map the terrain of contemporary Jewish philosophy.
Choices in Modern Jewish Thought (and, later, its offspring, intended for congregational adult education classes, Liberal Judaism) exemplified that gift for gorgeous clarity. Somehow, he could lay out the almost ineffable subtlety of Martin Buber’s I-Thou experience in a way that made sense.
What was it like to study with him, to sit in one of his classes? Let me share a couple of anecdotes.
As is well known among Dr. Borowitz’s students, he could be an exacting, demanding teacher. He loved this material, took it very seriously and wanted his students to bring that same passion and seriousness to their study. When students didn’t rise to the level of excellence that he expected, Dr. Borowitz – through body language, tone of voice or an unfiltered, critical remark – made no secret of his disappointment or displeasure.
All teachers everywhere have their own standards, idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes and the wise student ferrets out those preferences early in the semester and works within those boundaries toward teacher approval and a passing grade.
Early on in Modern Jewish Thought, my HUC buddies and I thought we had figured out what pushed Dr. Borowitz’s buttons and we did our best not to push them. There were two transgressions, sure to arouse his displeasure, that remain fixed in my memory to this day, 35 years later.
The first was talking to hear yourself talk, to bask in your own cleverness. Dr. Borowitz scorned that kind of nonsense and let you know it in one of the above-mentioned ways.
The second was pretending to have read the assigned material when you hadn’t actually done so. He could detect that kind of deception from a mile away. Under such circumstances, self-preservation would have counseled silence on the part of the unprepared student, but from time to time one of us would try to fake Dr. Borowitz out, offering a comment on material we hadn’t prepared. It never, ever worked. The poseur was always exposed.
The same professor who approached his subject matter and scholarship with such great seriousness also had a lovely sense of humor and a hearty laugh. On Purim, when, during the HUC Purim spiel, nothing was sacred and sarcasm and parody reigned supreme, Dr. Borowitz consumed our silliness with great delight.
One year, a very talented classmate of mine presented a parody of the song “Tradition” from Fiddler On The Roof. It was called, “No Tradition.” At one point, the Tevye character spoke these words:

Because we have no tradition
None of us knows who he is
Or what God expects him to do!
You may ask:
Where did this lack of tradition get started?
I’ll tell you:
I think it was during the Enlightenment…

At that moment I stole a glance at Dr. Borowitz to see how he was receiving this presentation. I can still visualize him, sitting in the front row of the chapel, literally doubled over, joining in the raucous laughter.
Another time, also on Purim during our spiel, one of our classmates had the audacity to stand before the assemblage of students and faculty, holding a bowl of cereal in one hand and a spoon in the other. (Rabbi Borowitz could often be found on the basement Conference Level of the New York School eating a bowl of Grape Nuts for lunch.) The student’s sketch consisted of standing at the front of the chapel in silence, eating spoonfuls of cereal while silently doing impressions of Dr. Borowitz’s facial mannerisms. Professor Borowitz laughed aloud along with the rest of us.
As I mentioned earlier, Gene Borowitz could be tough, but he could also be tender. I want to tell the following story because it so exemplifies that side of him.
It was the spring of my senior year at HUC. I was, to put it kindly, a hot mess: depressed, anxious, unsure of my rabbinic aspirations, questioning everything. Early job interviews had already begun, and my thesis - nowhere near complete - was due at the end of the week.
I had just had a disastrous interview with the national Director of Hillel in which I was unable to cogently articulate why I thought I’d be a good campus rabbi. Feeling utterly defeated, I left the interview wondering how I was ever going to survive the next week.
On my way to the 4th Floor elevator, I encountered Dr. Borowitz, who gestured for me to come over.
“Um, Steve…” he intoned, “I was wondering when I might see the final two chapters of your rabbinic thesis, given that it’s due at the end of the week…”
I felt it coming. I tried to stop it. I couldn’t. I started to sob.
Dr. Borowitz looked at me, extended his arms, and pulled me close to his chest. He didn’t let go of me until I stopped crying.
Meanwhile, I’m standing there thinking, “My nose is running all over the necktie of one of the giants of 20th Century Jewish philosophy.”
When I’d finally calmed down, he held me at arms length, looked into my eyes and said, “It’s a shame that the ones who care the most, suffer the most. You’ll be fine.” And with that he walked away.
Dr. Gene Borowitz taught me a lot about the autonomous Jewish self, Jewish existentialism and rationalist vs. non rationalist Jewish philosophy, but what he taught me about hesed - loving kindness - in those few minutes in front of the 4th Floor HUC elevators will stay with me forever.
And now you know, too.
May his memory be a blessing.
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