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Richard Lowell Rubenstein

(1924– )

Richard Lowell Rubenstein is a U.S. rabbi and theologian. Rubenstein was born in New York City; his parents were non-observant Jews and he did not have a barmitzvah. He was tempted to enter the ministry but was told that he would have to change his name. Instead, he embraced his own tradition. He entered Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, simultaneously attending the University of Cincinnati (BA 1946). He was at HUC during the Holocaust years when the reality of Jewish life clashed with the optimistic liberalism of Reform Judaism. Becoming more observant, he switched to JTS when Abraham Joshua Heschel left HUC to join the Seminary faculty. He was ordained at the Seminary and received his MHL in 1952. While serving as rabbi in Brockton (1952–54) and in Natick (1954–56), Massachusetts, and as interim director of the Hillel Foundation at Harvard (1956–58), he studied at Harvard Divinity School where he received his STM (1955) and at the graduate school where he received his Ph.D. in 1960.

In 1958 he became director of Hillel and chaplain to Jewish students at the University of Pittsburgh (1958). In 1969 he was appointed adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Pittsburgh. Given the controversy of his writings and what he defined as "bureaucratic excommunication," Rubenstein's career in the rabbinate was stymied but academic positions in religion were becoming open to Jewish scholars. From 1971 to 1995, he was a professor of religion at Florida State University. In February 2001 the university created a professorship in his name. In 1987 the JTS conferred the degree of Doctor of Hebrew Letters, honoris causa, upon him. Many years later, Rubenstein became president of the University of Bridgeport.

There is general agreement among theologians that Rubenstein's first book, After Auschwitz (1966), initiated the contemporary debate on the meaning of the Holocaust in religious thought, both Jewish and Christian. In it he argued that after Auschwitz the belief in a redeeming God who is active in history and who will redeem mankind from its vicissitudes is no longer possible. Belief in such a God and an allegiance to the rabbinic theodicy that attempted to justify Him would imply that Hitler was part of a divine plan and that Israel was being punished for her sins. His rejection of God, however, does not entail an end to religion or an end to Judaism, for in a meaningless world human community becomes all the more important. Consequently, Rubenstein emphasizes the importance of rituals, rites of passage, and religious community over doctrine and ethics.

Rubenstein's next work was The Religious Imagination, a psychoanalytic study of Midrash, which was followed by an autobiography, Power Struggle. In 1972 he published a slim but influential work entitled The Cunning of History, which argued that the Holocaust is an expression in the extreme of what was common to the mainstream of Western civilization. Rubenstein viewed the Holocaust as manifestation of major political, demographic, economic, and bureaucratic trends in contemporary civilization and therefore of importance far beyond the Jewish community. Rubenstein's later book, La Perfidie de l'Histoire (2005), deals with the challenge of Islamic extremism to Western civilization.

Among his other books are The Age of Triage (1983), and Approaches to Auschwitz (2003), co-authored with John K. Roth. Always a strong supporter of Israel, a life-long student of genocide and of antisemitism, Rubenstein spent the opening years of the 2000s seeking to understand the phenomenon of Islamic antisemitism as manifested particularly in Europe.


M. Berenbaum and B.R. Rubenstein (eds.), What Kind of God?: Essays in Honor of Richard L. Rubenstein (1995).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.