Thirty-five years ago, singer songwriter Paul Simon sang these words: “Who will be my role model now that my role model is gone?”
That is the question I am asking myself today. This past Shabbat, one of the most important and influential Reformed rabbis of our time, Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, passed away at the age of 91.
To list his titles, to go through his resume, is an exercise in nobility. He was the senior rabbi emeritus at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the sixth senior Reform synagogue in the United States. He had previously served congregations in Chicago and Curaçao (the oldest surviving synagogue in America), and Monroe, New York.
Shim had the blessing to serve the Reform Movement in its richest and most productive decades. He was president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, along with numerous other communal positions, both nationally and locally.
He was a persuasive orator; a cunning thinker; an intrapidic activist; a great writer, not only of books on God and the Bible and Jewish practice, but also of fiction.
Let the resume end there. I see Shim blushing in the grave.
The greater truth is simply this: he was my colleague, my friend, my mentor, my counselor, my confidence – and in the words of Paul Simon, he was my role model as well.
It was the summer of 1979. I was a young rabbinical student, two years away from the dedication. I worked at Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, one of the summer camps of the Reform Movement.
Shim came to camp that summer, and he worked with the kids in my unit. He was already nearly fifty years old, and she ignored that already “advanced” age, and she loved him. (Decades later, after retiring from KI, he spent more time in his beloved Maine, fishing and boating and devoting himself to the Jewish students at Bowdoin College. It was as if he had restarted his career. How he loved those students – and vice versa).
We have spent long hours in deep discussion about American Judaism, Reform Judaism, Israel, God and the rabbinate. We have become good friends.
Shim encouraged me through my remaining years of rabbinic education. In 1983, I took a position in the Philadelphia area. Shim became my closest colleague – if not geographically, then emotionally and Jewishly. When our eldest son, Samuel, was born, he dedicated his Sabbath morning sermon to him (like dedicating an ornate chair of Elijah to the KI Museum). He was standing next to me at Samuel’s brit.
Through it all, his beloved Judy was on his side, sharing his life for seventy years; his children, Naomi, David, and Eve, who awakened the everlasting radiance in his eyes; his grandchildren, and finally, his grandchildren. I still remember how tearful he was with his already elderly father, who had been a well-known orthodox chazan, about whom he once quoted the psalmist before me: “Do not put me off when I am old.”
We had Shabbat and Thanksgiving dinners with the Maslins. Shim invited my late father to help him with photos of the houses of worship on Old York Road in Elkins Park and Jenkintown; that project eventually became a book, One God Sixteen Houses. Through that project, my “two fathers” got to know each other. Shim often served as a father figure to me – a surrogate rabbinic father, if you will.
We traveled together – especially in Israel and St. Petersburg. Thomas and the Berkshires. On that later trip, Shim and I visited the local market in Stockbridge. He could not stop staring at another merchant. Finally he asked me, “Is that one of our colleagues?”
I replied, “Not unless Philip Roth is now a Reformed rabbi.”
We approach the noted author. We introduced ourselves, and we started making star-struck small talk.
Dan, Mr. Roth asked us, “So, what are you doing?” To which Shim replied, “We are rabbis …” Not long before the last word of that word had left his lips, Roth ran out of the market! The very last thing Philip Roth wanted to do was talk to two rabbis.
That was the man.
And, this was the Jew.
Shim focused his Judaism on the Jewish people – on clal Yisrael, though he had always been an ardent defender of Reformed Judaism and often a not-so-soft critic of Orthodoxy. He was a liberal Zionist. Above all, his Judaism encapsulated the words of the haftarah blessing; she-kol divarav emet v’tzedek, “all his words were truth and justice.”
There was that word that he practically introduced into Reformed Judaism: mitsvah.
Nowadays, the word comes easily to us. That was not the case in the 1970s. In those days, for many Reformed Jews, the word mitswa usually followed only the word bar or bat. For many Reformed Jews, and others, the word mitsvah came up in its Yiddish pronunciation – mitsveh, a nice thing to do.
For Shim, and for many of us, the word was not the Yiddish and folk mitsveh – a nice thing to do.
Earlier it was the Hebrew mitsvah – the Jewish thing to do.
In 1979, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, edited by Shim. It was the first official publication of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to explain the idea of mitswa.
In each paragraph, he would write about the sacred opportunities for Jewish involvement – with history, tradition, the Jewish people and God – and he would do so with his refrain: It is a mitsvah to …
Shim wanted to teach Jews how to create Jewish responses to life. He wanted to give their lives Jewish meaning, depth and character. It was the myth – and not much else, he believed – that had guaranteed the creative survival of the Jewish people.
As a result, he had little patience for ethnic Judaism, for nostalgia, and for what we might rightly call Jewish kitsch.
These are his words:
We Jews have not survived for 4000 years to leave the world a legacy of lox and bagels, nor to leave a legacy of ethnic comedy and best-selling fiction, not even to leave a legacy of Nobel Prize winners. We have not survived for 4000 years to produce a generation that proudly wears chais around its neck, golf in the low 80s, reads the New York Times and donates more than a billion dollars annually to philanthropy. While I do not condemn any of this and participate in it, I do not see any of it as an indication of the survival of the Jewish people.
What would keep the Jewish people alive – not as a museum piece, but as live actors in the ongoing and evolving religious drama of the world?
Nothing less than this – that we would be a goy kadosh, a holy people.
More than anything else, Shim Maslin wanted Jews to have an adult faith. That was the subject of his latest book, God For Grownups.
This is how he concludes his introduction to that book, which serves as his final word:
I love God, and it does not matter to me whether God returns my love or not.
I pray to God, and it does not matter to me whether God is moved or even aware of my prayers.
I respectfully study “the word of God,” and it does not matter to me whether God has ever spoken those words.
I listen to the voice of God, even when God is silent.
I do these things in the belief that by doing them I can get even closer to an understanding of God with even a jot. To approach God, we must first rid ourselves of those naive views of God that we were taught as children and that are still taught today in houses of worship. What I seek, and hope to share with the reader, is a God for adults.
That was the God of Shim Maslin – a God of adults. That is the God I pray that Shim will meet, and that he will embrace him – and that I will pray to live all the expectations and hopes of Shim.