My rabbinical role model has died

He added one crucial word to Reform Jewish vocabulary. It is a word that we need to hear, again and again.

Thirty five years ago, the singer songwriter, Paul Simon, sang these words: “Who’ll be my role model, now that my role model’s gone?”

That is the question that I ask myself today. This past Shabbat, one of the most significant and influential Reform rabbis of our time, Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, died 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 older Reform synagogue in the United States. He had previously served congregations in Chicago and Curacao (the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas), and Monroe, New York.

Shim had the blessing of serving the Reform movement during 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 national and local.

He was a persuasive orator; a cunning thinker; an intrepid activist; a great writer, not only of books on God and Bible and Jewish practice, but of fiction as well.

Let the resume stop there. I can see Shim blushing in the grave.

The larger truth is simply this: He was my colleague, my friend, my mentor, my counselor, my confidant – 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 ordination. I was working at Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, one of the Reform movement’s summer camps.

Shim came to camp that summer, and he worked with the kids in my unit. He was already close to fifty years old, and they ignored that already “advanced” age, and they loved him. (Decades later, after his retirement from KI, he spent more time in his beloved Maine, where he fished and boated and devoted himself to the Jewish students at Bowdoin College. It was as if he had rebooted his career. How he loved those students – and vice versa).

We spent long hours in deep discussion about American Judaism, Reform Judaism, Israel, God, and the rabbinate. We became good friends.

Shim encouraged me through my remaining years of rabbinical training. In 1983, I took a position in the Philadelphia area. Shim became my closest colleague – if not geographically, then emotionally and Jewishly. When our oldest son, Samuel, was born, he dedicated his Shabbat morning sermon to him (as well as dedicating an ornate chair of Elijah to the KI museum). He stood next to me at Samuel’s brit.

Through it all, there was his beloved Judy at his side, who shared his life for seventy years; his children, Naomi, David, and Eve, who elicited the ever-present twinkle in his eye; his grandchildren, and ultimately, his great-grandchildren. I remember how tender he was with his already aged father, who had been a noted Orthodox chazan, about whom he once quoted the Psalmist to me: “Do not cast me off when I am old.”

We had Shabbat and Thanksgiving dinners with the Maslins. Shim invited my late father to help him with photographs of the houses of worship on Old York Road in Elkins Park and Jenkintown; that project ultimately became a book, One God Sixteen Houses. Through that project, my “two fathers” came to know each other. Shim often served as a paternal figure for me – a surrogate rabbinical father, if you will.

We traveled together – notably, in Israel and St. Thomas and the Berkshires. On that later trip, Shim and I visited the local market in Stockbridge. He could not stop staring at a fellow shopper. Finally, he asked me: “Is that one of our colleagues?”

I replied: “Not unless Philip Roth is now a Reform rabbi.”

We approached the noted author. We introduced ourselves, and we began to make star-struck small talk.

Then, Mr. Roth asked us: “So, what do you guys do?” To which Shim replied: “We are rabbis…” No sooner had the last syllable of that word left his lips than Roth ran out of the market! The very last thing that Philip Roth wanted to do was to talk to two rabbis.

That was the man.

And, this was the Jew.

Shim centered his Judaism on Jewish peoplehood — on clal Yisrael, though he was always a fierce defender of Reform Judaism and often a not-so-gentle critic of Orthodoxy. He was a liberal Zionist. Above all else, his Judaism encapsulated the words of the haftarah blessing; she-kol divarav emet v’tzedek, “all his words were truth and justice.”

There there was that word that he practically introduced to Reform Judaism: mitzvah.

Nowadays, the word comes easily to us. That was not the case in the 1970s. In those days, for many Reform Jews, the word mitzvah usually only followed the word bar or bat. For many Reform Jews, and others, the word mitzvah came in its Yiddish pronunciation – mitzveh, a nice thing to do.

For Shim, and for many of us, the word was not the Yiddish and folksy mitzveh – a nice thing to do.

Rather, it was the Hebrew mitzvah – the Jewish thing to do.

In 1979, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide To The Jewish Life Cycle, which Shim edited. It was the first official publication of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to elucidate the idea of mitzvah.

In each paragraph, he would write about the sacred opportunities for Jewish engagement – with history, tradition, the Jewish people, and God – and he would do so with his refrain: It is a mitzvah to…

Shim wanted to teach Jews how to make Jewish responses to life. He wanted to give their lives Jewish meaning, depth, and character. It was the mitzvot – and little else, he believed – that had guaranteed the creative survival of the Jewish people.

Because of that, 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 in order to leave to the world a legacy of lox and bagels, nor in order 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 in order to produce a generation that proudly wears chais around the neck, golfs in the low 80s, reads the New York Times and donates over a billion dollars annually to philanthropy. While condemning none of this and participating in some of it, I do not see any of it as providing a clue to 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 unfolding 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 a mature faith. That was the subject of his last book, God For Grownups.

This is how he concluded his introduction to that book, which serves as his final word:

I love God, and it does not matter to me whether or not God returns my love.

I pray to God, and it does not matter to me whether God is moved or is even aware of my prayers.

I reverently study “the word of God,” and it does not matter to me whether or not God ever spoke 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 may come closer by even an iota to an understanding of God. To approach God, we must first divest ourselves of those naïve notions of God that we were taught as children and that are still being taught in houses of worship today. What I am seeking, and hoping to share with the reader, is a God for grown ups.

That was Shim Maslin’s God – a God for grownups. That is the God Whom I pray Shim will meet, and Who will embrace him – and Whom I pray will live up to all of Shim’s expectations and hopes.



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