Hesped for Rabbi Ira Eisenstein

Rabbi Richard Hirsh
July 1, 2001

How strange it is that we gather to honor the life, the teaching and the Torah of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein between the Torah portions Hukkat and Balak. Yesterdays sedra is named for the key word, Hukkat, from which we get the category of Hukkim, those laws of the Torah that are resistant to rational explanation. These arcane and peculiar practices are, dafka, prized by traditional Judaism, for compliance out of faith in the absence of reason is seen as a testimony of faith.

And next weeks sedra, Balak, is noteworthy for its narrative of Balaams talking donkey, the type of miracle story that tradition prizes, in which the natural order is overturned. God is allegedly discovered not in the orderliness, regularity and reliability of nature, but in miraculous incursions into and even against nature that we are asked to affirm as further testimony of faith.

Ira Eisenstein would have found it ironic, and probably somewhat amusing, that his funeral takes place bracketed by these two Torah readings; for if there was a continuous thread that ran through his long life of Reconstructing Judaism it was the affirmation of reason, the centrality of rationality, and the demand for intellectual honesty and integrity. Not only did he teach us that we are free to question what seems implausible; we are obligated to challenge what appears unethical--even, and especially, when what troubles us is found in the very tradition we inherit and affirm.

Faith, we learned from Ira, is not accomplished by the cheap affirmation of ancient stories, or by rote repetition of rituals whose meaning escapes us. And faith in God is not simply faith in an abstract idea or a particular conception of God embodied and embedded in one or another layer of Jewish tradition. Faith, we learned from Ira Eisenstein, is found in the affirmation of potentiality, and in the belief that reason can help us discover what is godly in the world and within us.

I am honored to have been invited by the Eisenstein family to offer these remarks today. I first met Ira at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in 1975; and shortly thereafter, when with Ira's encouragement I entered RRC, I felt very much the disciple to the master. That relationship never ceased; but alongside it developed a friendship of affection and mutual interests. And so, as it was when Judith died a few years back, I feel today as if I have lost a friend who made me feel like a part of his family.

But while there are many personal moments I could recall, I want to speak this morning primarily on behalf of my colleagues in the RRA, and our future colleagues, the students at the RRC, and to offer a few reflections on what Ira meant to us as rabbis.

Before I ever came to Philadelphia to visit RRC, the College sent me, as part of my admissions information, a series of newspaper clippings. In one, Rabbi Lee Friedlander was describing his journey to RRC. Lee said he had visited other seminaries, and when he expressed his doubts about God, or his uncertainty about ritual, or his concerns about liturgy, those seminaries couldn't understand why he would want to be a rabbi. Only Ira Eisenstein understood, said Lee, that I wanted to serve the Jewish people. And for him that was enough.

For those of us in the RRA, perhaps a bit more so for the vatikim, or the Broad Street alumni whose time at RRC coincided with Ira's presidency, that message permeated the program. The pluralism we enjoyed worked so effectively because our common center of gravity, the Jewish people, exerted such a powerful pull on us. We were part of the living story of the Jewish people, simultaneously preserving and creating it. To be a rabbi for this Jewish community one first had to love the Jewish people; the rest was commentary. And we did go and learn.

If my calculations are correct, Rabbi Eisenstein was 61 when the RRC opened its doors in 1968. Between him and the students there was often a good 30-40 years; our formative experiences as Jews were different from his, our questions and problems not exactly those with which JTS students struggled in the mid 1920s.

But he gave us the room to dissent, while not compromising his own convictions. I recall, and I'm sure I speak for many of my colleagues, when Ira's patience would be tried by our repeated critiques of this or that aspect of Reconstructionist theory; and we would wait for the explosion -- which never came, in sharp contrast to what we had all heard about Rabbi Kaplan. There was a dignity and integrity to the tenacity with which Ira held the vision he had helped to create. What he expected from us was not agreement, but the same rigorous intellectual discipline that characterized Reconstructionism.

After Ira's retirement from RRC, he was an active participant in the RRA, attending our conventions, helping nudge projects, offering advice and feedback, and even, in recent years, participating in the RRAnet listserv. As the new group of Reconstructionist rabbis began to emerge from Wyncote, Ira's influence percolated down in the ways that he would challenge us to retain our focus on the Jewish people, and to regain the sanctity of the project in which we were mutually engaged. It was Ira who, during a protracted discussion over the exact wording for sabbaticals in our model rabbinic contract, pointed out that there was no prologue to the document defining the rabbi-congregation relationship as a sacred covenant entered into for holy purposes.

In a very simple sense, for the members of the RRA -- now over 225 rabbis -- Ira Eisenstein made it possible for us to do with our lives what we chose to do, and to be what we wanted to be. For many of us, had there not been an RRC, we would not have been able to become rabbis -- and would not have wanted to.

Last fall, a number of RRC students joined me for a visit to Ira's apartment in Silver Spring. He was gracious, humorous and informative. He was genuinely interested in each of those students, who they were, where they came from, why they wanted to be rabbis. And he once again rose to the defense of Reconstructionism, this time with students now in some cases 50-60 years younger.

One of our students pointed out the geometric influence Ira had had on the Jewish community -- that is, imagine every Reconstructionist rabbi who only was a Reconstructionist rabbi because Ira was determined to start a rabbinical college, and how many individual lives each Reconstructionist rabbi has touched. And she asked Ira, could you have imagined this in 1968? He looked at her for a moment and said hi-yinu kholmim--we were dreamers; who could have ever imagined? And there was a remarkable and sanctified moment of quiet as we absorbed what one man, one rabbi, one teacher, one visionary, had accomplished.

So it is with enormous gratitude that I express, on behalf of the rabbis in the RRA, our appreciation, respect and love for our teacher Rabbi Ira Eisenstein. And to his family, we express our deepest condolences, and pray for comfort and consolation in the days and weeks ahead. We loved him, and we loved Judith, as part of our larger Reconstructionist family, but the personal loss experienced by the family should not be diminished in comparison, for each of you were bound up with his life in the most personal way.

This past Friday, Marcia Falk and I were exchanging emails sharing our sense of loss at Ira's death. In speaking for all of us, but especially in speaking to the Eisenstein family, I want to quote part of what Marcia said, because she said it so well:

I find myself talking about Ira and Judith in one breath. They were such fine, intelligent, classy people. What was it about them that made one feel so comfortable? How gracious they were, how delightfully witty and charming and urbane--yet kind, warm, familial. They were old friends the first time we met. Such a rare combination of qualities. I keep coming back to fine; they were, in all senses, fine.

The most well-known not yet in Jewish thought is attributed to the brilliant German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig. When asked if he put on tefillin, he reportedly replied, not yet.

But there is a less well-known not yet that Rabbi Eisenstein offered, and it is cited in our Shabbat VeHagim siddur; I would be remiss if I ended this eulogy without quoting our teacher, this gentle giant of 20th century American Jewish life.

When we believe in God, we cannot be discouraged, because we believe that all the misery in the world is not a necessary part of life. Rather, it is due to the fact that we have not yet discovered how to do away with that misery.

We are incredibly grateful to have had Ira for so many years; and tucked away somewhere in our minds, we knew, despite the Kaplan-Eisenstein family proclivity for longevity, that we would someday be together saying goodbye. But perhaps we never really admitted that someday would eventually come.

And now it has come. Were we ready to say goodbye? Not yet; not yet.