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Eugene B. Borowitz

(1924 - 2016)

BOROWITZ, EUGENE B. (1924 – 2016), U.S. theologian, rabbi, leader of liberal Judaism. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, by Eastern European immigrant parents of Litvak ancestry, Borowitz received his undergraduate degree from Ohio State University in 1943, with a focus in philosophy, and subsequently attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was ordained rabbi in 1948. Following ordination Borowitz initially served a congregation in St. Louis and later returned to HUC to pursue a Ph.D., but with the outbreak of the Korean War he entered the Navy and for two years served as a chaplain. At the same time, Borowitz worked toward a D.H.L. (Doctor of Hebrew Letters) degree in rabbinic literature, which he completed with distinction in 1952. He later became founding rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York (where he remained active until 2000), and began to pursue a Ph.D. in religion from the joint program of Columbia University and Protestant Union Theological Seminary. After he was appointed director of the Religious Education Department of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1957, Borowitz turned toward the field of education proper and earned an Ed.D. in 1958 from Columbia University.

Borowitz understood early on that a new kind of thinking was necessary which could build on the work of the early modern German religious thinkers, and yet take the modern American Jewish reality seriously. Already in 1965 he wrote on the transition from impressionist worship to expressionist prayer, representing a relatively early attempt to grapple with the impact of existentialism, phenomenology, neo-Orthodoxy, and revisionist theology.

Borowitz's early independent study of Jewish philosophy led him, with fellow student and and lifetime friend Arnold Jacob *Wolf , to the non-rationalist thought of Martin *Buber and Franz *Rosenzweig . While Borowitz was tempted to embrace their religious existentialist positions, and while he was attracted to their understanding of the relationship between the self and God, he was deeply troubled by Buber's rejection of the possibility of absolute knowledge and his overemphasis on the autonomy of the individual independent of any uniquely Jewish commanding covenantal relationship with God. Borowitz began to develop an understanding of the commanding nature of covenant and was the first to introduce and explore the idea of "covenant theology" in 1961.

Borowitz initially demonstrated his systematic scholarship with an existentialist theology of Judaism in three books published in 1968–69: A New Jewish Theology in the Making, A Layman's Guide to Religious Existentialism, and How Can A Jew Speak of Faith Today? His most accessible book in this area is Choices in Modern Jewish Thought (1995), which outlines the development of Jewish thought from Moses *Mendelssohn through the establishment of the fields of postmodern and feminist Jewish thought.

About his early intellectual inquiry, Borowitz wrote: "Instead of becoming another confirmed mid-century agnostic, I became convinced that only belief could now found, even mandate, our strong sense of personal and human values." Given the crises of values and lack of moral absolutes invoked by the horror of the Holocaust, he realized that modern thought was deeply in need of a meaningful revitalization.

Borowitz was particularly conscious of the impact of the Holocaust and the rebirth of Jewish statehood in Israel on the psyche of American Jews, yet unlike other modern Jewish thinkers who put these events at the center of their systems, Borowitz began a lengthy process of developing a theology that was uniquely American and which represented their "pragmatic aesthetic and a pioneering, even confrontational, assault on the status quo." Borowitz has since argued that the pivotal issue that shaped a century's Jewish thought has been a standing commitment to the "commanding power of ethics" and not any issue resulting from the Holocaust or the establishment of the Jewish state.

Borowitz's commitment to human values, from the perspective of Jewish texts, led him to develop his thinking specifically about the nature of Jewish ethics. As part of his efforts to go beyond the work of Buber and Rosenzweig he identified, in his essay "A Life of Jewish Learning," "the problem of a theology of 'halakhah,' of what non-Orthodox Jews believed that should impel them to observe more than, as we still called it then, the Moral Law." Borowitz also widened his understanding of theology to include the larger claim that, in general, Jewish theology is Judaism's "meta-halakhah, the belief which impels and guides our duties." He candidly wrote: "We know we are commanded but …we have no widespread understanding of Who or What authoritatively commands us, and how such a thing is possible …"

His own commitment to ethical response as a Jewish duty compelled Borowitz to engage in social action, which for many liberal rabbis was often the most natural expression of a liberal Jewish commitment to universal ethics. In 1964, Borowitz went with several rabbis join Martin Luther King, Jr., in St. Augustine, Florida, at a demonstration for civil rights following King's appeal to the CCAR conference. After 15 rabbis were arrested for praying as an integrated group, they asked Borowitz to write up from the notes of the rabbis' conversation in jail why they went, which later was a front page story in the New York Times.

Borowitz further developed the idea of covenant theology in his most comprehensive work on theology, Renewing the Covenant (1991). He identified a postmodern theology as that in which the Jewish people renews its Covenant with God in a way which compels each of us to live a Judaism in which liberalism and the categories of traditional practice created by rabbinic Judaism are complementary rather than competing modes of thought.

Much of Borowitz's work concerns itself with the dilemma of the postmodern Jew: committed to autonomy but necessarily involved with God, Torah, and Israel. Borowitz writes: "The postmodern search for a substitute absolute began as it became clear that modernity had betrayed our faith. Repelled by the social disarray and moral anarchy around us, we are attracted by systems – which provided clear cut, authoritative direction, in other words, which offer a strong, at least strongish, Absolute." "I believe," writes Borowitz in the autobiographical essay "A Life of Jewish Learning," that "we come to God these days primarily as the ground of our values and, in a non-Orthodox but nonetheless compelling fashion, as the 'commander' of our way of life."

From 1962, Borowitz taught Jewish philosophy and theology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. HUC-JIR awarded him the title Distinguished University Professor, the first time it was awarded at an American Jewish seminary. Borowitz was also awarded several prizes, including the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in Scholarship of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 1996. In 2002 the Jewish Publication Society included him in its Scholars of Distinction series with the publication of Studies in the Meaning of Judaism, a selection of his papers over the course of 50 years. Also among the more than 17 books that Borowitz wrote are The Mask Jews Wear, which received the National Jewish Book Award in 1974 in the field of Jewish thought, and an extensive evaluation of the role of theology and aggadah in the Talmud in The Talmud's Theological Language-Game (2005). In 1970, Borowitz became the founding editor and publisher of Sh'ma, a Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

In addition to his work in the fields of modern Jewish thought and ethics, Borowitz has engaged directly in Jewish-Christian theological dialogue from a positive stance, a product of both historical-political and historical-religious concerns. Since participating in the first formal Jewish-Catholic Colloquy held in the United States in 1965 and thereafter in his book Contemporary Christologies: A Jewish Response (1980), Borowitz has sought to preserve full religious dignity and honesty in such theological exchanges.

Borowitz died on January 22, 2016, at the age of 91.  

[Rachel Sabath Beit Halachmi (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.