Terms of Endearment – A Tribute to Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld by Cantor Sarah Sager

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple was written by Cantor Sarah Sager as a tribute to Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld, whose 100th birthday milestone we will honor on October 11-12, 2013 during Shabbat evening worship, Shabbat morning Torah study and a celebratory luncheon on Saturday October 12th. All are invited. We encourage you to join us for part of the weekend either in person or by live-streaming into the link for Shabbat evening worship if you cannot make it that Friday night to our service. Please share, respond to this posting below, and continue the dialogue in remembrance and tribute to Rabbi Lelyveld’s inspiring rabbinate at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple.

“My Dear Ones”

For 28 years, every time Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld addressed us, whatever the topic, whatever might be on his mind, those were the words with which he began.  “My Dear Ones”:  every Sabbath, every festival, every year at the High Holy Days, with those words of connection and relationship, he shared with us his thoughts, his insights, his observations.  His topics were many and varied, sometimes surprising, always fascinating, thought-provoking, frequently controversial or, at the very least, simply interesting!  He clearly relished the opportunity to share his thoughts and paid us the compliment of speaking at his high level of intellect and insight. He did not “dumb down” his message. He did not concern himself with whether or not he was espousing a popular point of view. And, given whatever situation it was that he addressed, he told us what he thought was the right approach, the correct attitude, the moral stance.

He took seriously his position as leader and teacher of our congregation as he spoke of the nature and obligations of contemporary Jewish life, of the importance of our commitment to the State of Israel even while acknowledging all of its complexities; he spoke of the moral imperatives of our lives as Americans and our responsibility to the African American community. He addressed whatever injustice or inequity he observed in contemporary American life. He loved the prophets and championed the prophetic message of our tradition:  “Let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream”, “What is it that Adonai requires of you?  Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”, “Is this the fast I require of you? [No, it is]…to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain…”

Even today, 100 years after his birth, and 17 years since his death, there are members of our congregation who speak of how he inspired them to act, to take a stand, to see important issues in a new light, to become more aware, better informed and educated about Judaism, Israel, our world.  He spoke, as well, of history and philosophy, of poetry and literature, of art and music — all of which he clearly loved and enjoyed.  He wrote, he spoke, he taught, he led — not only this congregation, but many national organizations as well.  His opinions were sought and heeded in the highest councils of power and influence.

He also spoke to “his dear ones” one by one, in the intimate tones of pastor, advisor, counselor, and personal spiritual guide.  These are the less well-known, the quiet, private aspects of his rabbinate.  But there are many who speak of how he was there for them when a loved one passed away, when a child was troubled, when a marriage was in crisis, or to address any number of distressing personal issues that needed attention and wise guidance.

Sometimes he made mistakes – not intentionally, but out of his strong sense of right and wrong, of how an issue ought to be resolved, of the correct approach which he perceived perhaps more quickly than the individuals to whom he was responding. These also became part of his legend and ongoing influence upon us all – just like the “big” words that he used and the Hebrew phrases and the philosophic constructs that it often seemed were clear to him alone.  We complained and we told him, even while we were very proud, even while we spoke of him with respect and admiration because we knew he was unique, we knew he had national stature and a code of moral rectitude that spoke to the eternal values of our people.  He told us truths we might not want to hear.  He opened our eyes to injustice we may not have been ready to see.  He did not let us rationalize our comfortable foibles and failings, nor did he excuse his own.  He asked more of us. He asked us to strive to be better, to reach higher, to hear the words of our God calling on us to fulfill our potential as human beings created in God’s image.  He taught us from his vast knowledge of practically every area of human endeavor and involvement.  He was our teacher, our preacher, our pastor, and guide.  He was our rabbi.

And we were and will forever be, his “Dear Ones.”