(RNS) Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, who died last week at age 91, will be remembered as one of America’s foremost religious philosophers — a prolific author and an extraordinary theologian who for nearly 60 years influenced both Jews and Christians.
A respected teacher at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Borowitz founded Sh’ma, an influential Jewish journal of opinion that he edited for 23 years. He is the only Jew to have served as president of the American Theological Society.
Gene Borowitz didn’t match the stereotype of theologians, who so often make pronouncements that seem to emanate from a distant academic ivory tower and use off-putting technical terms such as “Godhead,” “immanence,” “transcendent” and “salvific.”
Borowitz was different — an original.
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Maybe that’s because he was born and raised in “Middle America”: Columbus, Ohio. He earned an undergraduate degree at Ohio State University and received his rabbinic training and ordination at HUC-JIR, Reform Judaism’s rabbinical school. Unlike many other world-class religious philosophers, he served as a congregational rabbi and as a U.S. Navy chaplain during the Korean War.
As an HUC-JIR faculty member, Borowitz compelled three generations of rabbinic students, including me, to explore, examine and, frequently, redefine our personal spiritual beliefs, something that endeared him to his students.
He wrote 19 books, of which his most significant is “Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew.”
Simply put (if that is possible to describe a profound theology), Borowitz asserted that human beings have an eternal covenant, a contractual relationship with God that operates within a shared community of faith. The work, translated into Hebrew for Israeli readers, tackles the question of how a modern person wedded to individual autonomy can find spiritual fulfillment with God.
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While “God talk” may sound dry and remote from our everyday lives, the charming and charismatic Borowitz, the “dean” of Jewish theologians, had the amazing ability to make theology popular without dumbing down his complex beliefs. He wrote books and articles for teenagers, young adults and the laity — people who may never have engaged in serious spiritual questions about religious commitment.
During his long career, Borowitz accomplished what few other theologians are able to: making the quest for God relevant and exciting with the remarkable potential to permanently change a person’s life.
And Gene Borowitz touched my own life on several levels.
Gene was a teacher who had the ability, as the cliché goes, to read the telephone directory and make it come alive with spiritual meaning. He did this by stressing that ordinary aspects of life have the potential to become sacred moments. That is, if one takes God seriously (as Gene always did), there is no separation between the divine and the mundane.
In the early days of courting my wife, Marcia, who holds a joint MA degree in religion from Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University and at the time was teaching at William Paterson College, I took her on a date to hear Gene lecture at a Manhattan synagogue.
The large audience was enthralled as he spoke about two well-known theologians, one Jewish and the other Christian: Martin Buber and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Decades later, I remain convinced that listening to Borowitz was a more satisfying dating experience than simply going to a movie, even if it starred Paul Newman, Marcia’s lifelong cinematic heartthrob.
When HUC-JIR presented honorary doctorate degrees to my rabbinical class, Borowitz was my “sponsor” at that emotional ceremony. When he placed the academic hood that symbolized a Doctor of Divinity title over my shoulders, Gene whispered in my ear: “Well done, Jim, you are a good rabbi.” Who could ask for anything more from a spiritual giant?
When I heard of Gene’s death, I was keenly aware that a major chapter in my life had come to a close.
There are 18 signatories on my rabbinic diploma representing the seminary faculty and administration. Sadly, like leaves on the tree of life that fall to the earth, over the years my teachers have died one by one.
But I always took comfort knowing that I still remained a “student” because at least some of my professors remained alive. But that is no longer true now that Gene has died. He was the last of my mentors to die.
I want to believe with all my heart that Eugene Borowitz is still teaching students and lecturing to appreciative audiences in the Academy on High in the World to Come.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. )