A Nothing that is Something


Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, this past Jan. 20, a month shy of his 92nd birthday.  Dr. Borowitz, the holder of two earned and three honorary doctorates, was, in the best sense of the term, a public intellectual. While he turned his attention to many aspects of Jewish life, perhaps his most enduring contribution is his helping us skeptical liberal Jews find new approaches to grappling with our tenuous relationship with God.

Borowitz was one of my teachers during each of the five years that I attended the New York School of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where I was ordained in June 1971. While he taught a number of subjects, he was most compelling when encouraging students to develop language that would enable us to articulate our evolving relationship with God.  

By the end of our five years at HUC-JIR, Borowitz had introduced us to such luminaries of 20th-century Jewish religious thought as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, Leo Baeck, Emil Fackenheim, and others.  Although Borowitz was most influenced by Buber, he prodded us to discover for ourselves the strengths and weaknesses of each of these thinkers. He wanted us to know why we believed what we believed.

As a teacher, Borowitz was both inspiring and demanding.  A brilliant and often entertaining lecturer – with a deep, sonorous voice accompanied by fluid and expressive gestures – he was able to analyze complex theological positions with clarity and grace. And despite his gifts as a speaker, he was eager to hear what we students had to say; he was constantly eliciting our often confused and conflicting views, pushing us to dive ever deeper into our own intellectual, emotional and spiritual depths.  

No teacher has ever pressed me to work harder; in my fifth year, our class was required to hand in a 10- to 15-page paper on modern Jewish religious thought every two weeks throughout both semesters. To his credit, Borowitz was diligent about promptly returning them, with his incisive comments written in distinctive green ink.

Though 45 years have passed since I took my final formal class with Borowitz, he has continued to serve as my teacher.  Over the years, I have learned from him at a number of public lectures, some directed to his rabbinical colleagues, others directed to a lay audience. In addition, I have learned from his abundant writings; he is the author of 17 books and innumerable articles. Whenever I find myself engaged in one of his books or articles, I am transported through time and space back to his classroom in New York, where he once again stands before me as my esteemed teacher.

In addition to his own nonstop writing, Borowitz encouraged others to join in dialogue by contributing to what he began in 1970 as an eight-page biweekly publication and edited for 23 years: Sh’ma: a Journal of Jewish Responsibility. 

Throughout the decades, “Sh’ma” has explored a wide variety of communal issues, including both interfaith and intrafaith relations, our relationship with Israel, and our role in promoting social and economic justice. As an aside, Borowitz could not resist revealing his wry sense of humor in every issue by including this notice to readers: “We print typos that do not obscrue (sic.) the meaning.”

The year 1987 was my 13th as rabbi of Temple Habonim, in Barrington, my Bar Mitzvah year with my congregation. To mark this milestone, I invited Borowitz to speak at a Friday evening service. On the chosen Shabbat, several of the local Christian clergy were attending our worship service, so Borowitz adapted his talk to fit the interfaith context.  

Though his address was almost 30 years ago, I remember his opening words as if it were yesterday: “We liberal religionists want to believe in nothing ... BUT (long pause) ... a Nothing that is Something.”

As a result of that opening gambit, Borowitz held us all in the palm of his hand for the duration of his remarks. He first elaborated on the reasons for our skepticism and doubts leading us to believe in nothing: the darkness, the evil, the corruption in our world. But he then urged us to search for some form of affirmation – that Something that transforms the Nothing from negative into positive. He urged us not to give up in our struggle to identify the goodness that lies at the core of our relationships with each other and with God – however we might experience God. 

Borowitz’s religious outlook, the very outlook he outlined in his address at Temple Habonim back in 1987, was shaped by the writings of religious existentialists. It is no accident, then, that his first book was “A Layman’s Introduction to Religious Existentialism” (Dell, 1966). 

In this book, which examines the work of eight Christian and two Jewish religious existentialists, Borowitz stresses that the thinkers share a common approach but do not necessarily arrive at common conclusions.  At the center of this approach stands not the disembodied intellect but the whole person, body and soul, “the self, the concrete individual facing the problems of existence in a very specific here and now.”

Nowhere is Borowitz’s existential religious perspective more poignantly expressed than in his first book’s dedication to his wife, the mother of his three daughters:

“To my beloved Estelle, who has taught me the meaning of existence in covenant.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org