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A conservative Reform rabbi dies

An oxymoron? No. Therein lies a heartwarming and tear-stained story.

Rabbi Clifford Librach, of blessed memory. Photo credit: Miles Barel

(RNS) — Yesterday was the funeral of my good friend and colleague, Rabbi Clifford Librach.

You might not know his name, which would have been just fine with him. Cliff did not live for fame, nor did he seek it out. He had grown up in St. Louis, had a prior career as a lawyer and then studied for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His rabbinate spanned almost 40 years. Cliff served small- and mid-sized Reform congregations: Bloomington, Illinois; Sharon, Massachusetts; and his final pulpit in Danbury, Connecticut, from which he retired several years ago.

Cliff was smart and was well-published — in Tablet, Commentary and First Things, and created a podcast for the Tikvah Fund.

As you might have discerned from that bibliography, Cliff was almost utterly unique. He was a Reform rabbi, and he was a conservative.

Cliff was a conservative, and in a very liberal movement. He was conservative on numerous political and cultural issues and, yet, counted among his closest friends and most cherished colleagues any number of left-leaning and centrist (like me) rabbis, who weep with me at this death.

That is the thing about Cliff’s death; with his passing, a full 10% of American conservative Reform rabbis died. Of course, Cliff knew that he was in a minority within the movement, and he loved being the political, intellectual and spiritual outlier. He was that, but never a curmudgeon; never mean, always open-hearted.

That was his grace, and that was his graciousness. When you hung out with Cliff, as I did countless times over the years, you could and would argue about politics, culture, Judaism, observance, and when it was over, you would have a beer or a Scotch.

Cliff never believed that he was invariably right, even when he was. As suited his legal background, he would argue a point with the utmost of rationality. He could concede a point. He knew that there were numerous paths to truth, and he was content to walk along the one that he trod.

There was something so intellectually and spiritually generous in the man. Many times, he would say to me, “Jeffrey, you might be right. I don’t know. I just don’t know.” That is called intellectual humility. You never thought that he was about to string you up for your beliefs or not return your calls or texts or avoid you at a professional dinner. He would not laugh at you or belittle you. He would never engage in name-calling. He was who he was, and he loved you for who you were, as well.

As a colleague and friend, Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, noted:

Cliff had strong opinions – but he had a mind and soul capable of going deep and if he saw a flicker of that in someone else he would push to bring it out. He lamented the lack of discourse and debate among us as rabbis. I will miss his wisdom and guidance.

Finding the flicker and the spark — in Jews, rabbis, all people — and especially in the re-birth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. That was one of Cliff’s singular passions. On several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s, during some of the darkest times in the Israel-Palestinian conflict — indeed, during the First Intifadda! — he would cajole me to drop everything and accompany him on a private solidarity mission for a few days. Just like that. Because Cliff believed in simply showing up.

And yet, with all that, he was also intensely private.

This was his last email:

My dear cherished friends,

My scans of Tuesday show clearly that my cancer of two+ years ago has returned.  My oncologist will now search for the best of the medical treatments (surgery and radiation having been ruled out) for me. This, of course, was not the news I had hoped to hear.

My family is very supportive and is right here with me. I am surrounded by love.
Your support and friendship and embrace have always been precious to me.  As I now confront my mortality, I pray that through our closeness, my light will continue to glimmer in the twilight — through each of you.

I welcome your calls and emails and cards, though I may seek to avoid making myself the focus of our conversation.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking of myself.

May Almighty God bless, protect, and guide you and us all, forever.

That was right before Rosh Hashana. I texted him after that, several times. Cliff was too weak to respond. But, I felt his presence and his love.

Cliff Librach loved Jews, and Judaism, and this country, and Israel — and he also loved teaching with a fierce and abiding passion. That was how I first “met” him — listening to a presentation that he gave on post-modern thought. I befriended his words and ideas before I ever befriended the man.

There is one thing that he taught and that will always live with me: Cliff might have been the first person to teach me, and others, that the scene in the Passover Haggadah of the sages pulling an all-nighter in B’nai Brak was, in all likelihood, a piece of fiction.

Why?

Because, he pointed out, those sages did not live at precisely the same time.

So it is, Cliff taught: Torah is a conversation between people who do not live at the same time, or in the same place, but who are, nevertheless, present with each other.

His words:

My friends, it turns out that the Haggadah is not supposed to be a script which we slavishly read, word for word; but rather a tickler, an ice breaker, an invitation to talk – in grand historic Jewish tradition. Talking and talking and talking is . . . well, kosher! 

I weep for Cliff — for our friendship that spanned the decades and that transcended time and space.

But, even more than that, I weep for what that friendship represented: the perpetual eilu v’eilu (“these and these”) of Judaism, that elegant notion that we can find sacred ideas in many corners of political and social thought. I weep for the utter kindness and solicitousness that I saw him demonstrate to Jews and others with whom he would passionately disagree, but always knowing that at the end of the day, the relationships were far more important than being right.

I write these words in the days after we read of how Jacob wrestled with a stranger and became Yisrael.

Like our ancestor, Cliff struggled with that nameless stranger whose name is Cancer, and he limped away from that struggle. Cliff lived a life of struggle — with ideas and with ideologies.

Like Jacob, he might have limped from those struggles. But even in his wounding, there was, and is, a blessing.

Go in peace, my friend.

(One last point. The photo for this story was taken by my old friend, Miles Barel. Cliff was Miles’ rabbi and teacher. My own father, George Salkin, of blessed memory, was Miles’ photography teacher, decades ago, in high school. Cliff taught me. This is a Jewish story. Enough said.)