On December 24, the last day of Hanukkah, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, one of the great American Rabbis, died at the age of 93.
It was a light in my life to have known him during the past 40 years, and to have learned from his firm commitment to peace and social justice, expressed with gentle and compassionate demeanor — a medium that cohered with the message.. Rabbi Beerman served Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles from the earliest days of his rabbinate in 1949 till his retirement in 1986. From then until last week, he continued to serve the Jewish people, the human race, and Planet Earth.
While Rabbi Beerman was a student at the Reform rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem in 1947, he volunteered to serve in the pre-state Labor-Zionist-led military organization, Haganah. From that service, he said, he learned to become a deeply committed pacifist. He carried that commitment into a life-long profound critique of the warlike aspects not only of US policies but of Israeli government policies.
I felt humbled and honored when he invited me to speak from the pulpit at Leo Baeck. He and I have been the only Rabbis who were members of the National Council of Elders, and he was a member of the Rabbinic Network for the Earth that was initiated by The Shalom Center. My last contact with him was less than a month ago, when he sent a donation to The Shalom Center that was considerably more substantial than his previous ones.
He had gently raised with us the question of why The Shalom Center had not addressed more extensively than we did, the Gaza War of this past summer. I explained that we had committed ourselves to take the climate crisis as our lead concern, believing the Jewish people and Torah have a unique wisdom and a useful political weight to contribute to addressing that global danger. His contribution came a little later –— expressing his support for our choice.
One story of his life that has been a profound teaching for me:
In the early’70s, many American antiwar religious leaders were despairing of being able to end the US government’s war against Vietnam. So a delegation of American religious leaders went to Europe, meeting there with governmental, business, academic, and religious leaders, urging Europeans to act more vigorously to end the war. All the delegation was Christian, except for Rabbi Beerman.
One meeting they had was with a key Cardinal in the Vatican. All the members of the delegation spoke, except for Rabbi Beerman. The Cardinal finally turned to him and said, “Rabbi, I am conscious you have not spoken.”
Rabbi Beerman replied, “I have been thinking that there has been great distress in the Catholic Church over concerns that a generation ago, the Church may not have acted decisively enough to prevent the Holocaust. I hope that a generation hence, you will not need to be asking yourselves whether you could have done more to end the Vietnam War.”
His life and his memory are already a blessing. In the words that end the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning: “May the ONE Who brings about harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe teach us to make peace within ourselves; among ourselves; among all Yisrael, the Godwrestling Jewish people; among all our cousins, the children of Ishmael; and among all who dwell upon this planet.”
And as Rabbi Berman — a devotee of Spinoza’s panentheism — would have said, The ONE Who must help make this peace, so broad and deep, is we ourselves, the human species, united in the will to heal the wounded world.