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Remembering Our Neighbor and Friend, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

January 2009

Rabbi WolfWe are still shocked and grieved by the sudden death of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, whose wit, intelligence, and erudition brought brilliance and nonconformity even to an iconoclastic university community.

The greatest gift that he brought us was deep and sustained religious faith, which he found at a very early age, as a seven-, eight- and nine-year-old, after his father’s death from tuberculosis.  He told me that he would sit in the synagogue, mostly Emanuel Congregation on the North Side of Chicago, where his uncle, Rabbi Felix Levy, was spiritual leader, and find comfort in the Hebrew Prayers, in thinking about God, and in sensing God’s Presence.  He sought that Presence thoughtfully ever since.

Arnold told me that as a child, he had a religious experience, a sense of God’s helping him, when he found the verse from Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).  He told me that he found comfort in not having to understand what God was thinking, especially in the death of Arnold’s father, and in it being all right to have God without having to second guess the Deity.

Arnold was always very close to rabbis.  Another uncle, Tobias Schanfarber, had been the rabbi at KAM Temple for many years.  Arnold was impressed with his Uncle Toby’s pastoral skills and his Uncle Felix’s scholarship, and with the learning and eloquence of Rabbi Solomon Goldman of Anshe Emet Synagogue, where Arnold also became involved as a youth.

Throughout his lifetime, Arnold kept up with all writings on Torah and Jewish theology, as well as in the general field of theology, everywhere.  He admired and encouraged Jewish studies professors, inspiring several individuals, including Rabbi Laurence Edwards, to go into Jewish studies as well as into the rabbinate.   But he especially loved the creative and scholarly work of rabbis, beginning with his uncles.

Whenever I published something in Jewish thought, history or literature, in any journal, Arnold would see it right away and I’d receive an encouraging note or phone call or voice mail from him.  Over the past 20 years I would anticipate his messages even more than a printed copy of the magazine.  I can’t put into words how encouraging that was.  It meant more, no less, to me that he did this for many other rabbis “in this place and in every place,” to cite the words in a special Kaddish Prayer of Rabbis, which is traditionally recited whenever we study Rabbinic passages or even accounts of great rabbis and their teachings.

We all have voice mails that we keep.  One of mine is particularly special: “A. J. Wolf calling on July 20 after I had a second reading of your essay.  I think you’re on to something…only you could have done it…fascinating.”  Arnold would tell rabbis that their work was “important.”  He regarded serious and sustained writing about Judaism and Jewish life as important.  Sometimes, when he didn’t agree or wasn’t sure he agreed, he’d say: “I hope you’re right.”

I was honored whenever he and Grace attended services here at Rodfei Zedek.  It was a singular honor to have had him preside over my “bar mitzvah” or thirteenth year celebration at Rodfei Zedek seven years ago, just as his childhood friend, Rabbi Samuel Dresner, officiated at my original bar mitzvah in 1967.  A couple of years ago, I got to attend Arnold’s actual bar mitzvah in that the Reform Judaism of his youth had abolished the bar mitzvah ceremony and emphasized confirmation at a later age.  I took the whole weekend off from Rodfei Zedek to be at that memorable celebration, but our congregation did not dock me because they understood why it was important to me.  It was also important to our congregation, as well, judging by the many Rodfei Zedek members I saw at KAM-Isaiah-Israel over the weekend.

It gives me great comfort to know that during his final years, Arnold was called upon by Dr. Murray Baumgarten to write essays analyzing trends in Jewish and general theology for Judaism magazine, of which Arnold’s uncle, Rabbi Felix Levy, was a founding editor.  Arnold was a gifted theologian and commentator on Jewish life, and his books and essays were invaluable contributions to contemporary Jewish thought.  I first came across his books in high school.  They were in public and synagogue libraries in Springfield, Massachusetts!

Some will be surprised that I remember Arnold primarily as a Jew who loved God and writings about Judaism and Jewish life.  After all, he was known as an activist—for civil rights, for Palestinian rights, and for liberal causes and in the peace movement.  He did indeed devote time and take risks for these causes and more, as the result of his strong religious faith and sense of social justice.  But I remember him for something else, as well, which I know was very important to him.  Arnold was a devoted Hebraist and Zionist.  As a teenager he studied Hebrew texts with his Uncle Felix, who had a profound influence on Arnold as an early Reform advocate of Zionism.  At the University of Chicago Arnold pursued tutorials in biblical and Rabbinic literature with Shmuel Feigin in the basement of the Oriental Institute.

Upon arriving at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where neither Zionism nor study of modern Hebrew were then encouraged, he found a fellow student, Ezra Spicehandler, who later specialized in Hebrew literature, with whom to study, and worked for the Zionist Movement as a Young Judea chapter leader.  He made a point of studying the history and thought of Zionism and learning Zionist songs.  When he returned to Chicago as assistant rabbi at Emanuel and then as rabbi of B’nai Yehoshua, he continued his Hebrew studies at the College of Jewish Studies and at the University of Chicago, becoming so proficient that he could follow lectures in Hebrew.  Classmates who later disagreed with his stances on Israel and the Palestinians would tell him that they could not question his love of Hebrew and of the Jewish State.  Indeed, during his early rabbinate Arnold debated spokesmen for the American Council for Judaism, which did not believe that Jews should have a state of their own.

I first met Arnold Wolf in the cafeteria of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the late 1970s.  I was introduced to him by Professor Seymour Siegel, who often debated Arnold Wolf after Arnold became the chairperson of a short-lived but explosive organization called Breira (“Choice”), which advocated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with guarantees of no terrorism.  Arnold, who was Hillel Director at Yale, had to show the national Hillel leadership that he exposed the students to points of view other than his.  Breira’s meetings were often attacked by the Jewish Defense League, and its leaders, including Arnold, were threatened many times.  I recall that Professor Siegel was upset with Breira and often criticized Arnold in Sh’ma magazine, but respected his learning and his commitment to Judaism and the Jewish People.

I recall thinking in the 1970s that it was inevitable that some Jews would embrace a platform such as Breira’s, and that there would be strong views on both sides, and that it was better that someone of Arnold’s wit and commitments should champion that point of view or any point of view than a humorless ideologue.  While, during the 1990s, I felt hopeful about a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, I returned after the violence of 2000 to thinking, as I did in college, Seminary and New Haven years, that peace depends not on anything Israel does or doesn’t do, but on Egyptian or Jordanian intervention that would include outreach to the Palestinians, negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians, and statements by respected Muslim clerics recognizing both Israel, Egypt, Jordan and a Palestinian state as legitimate nation states in the Middle East.

Arnold believed in challenging the status quo even when no one was ready to hear it.  His words were always effective and often delightful, especially when they were blithely self-deprecating or blithely critical of pomposity and rigidity.  He expected the best from America and Israel and Jews because of traditions rooted in biblical justice.  He had the best comedic and stage whisper timing of anyone I knew.  If he didn’t always have the patience to hold back for the d’var b’ito, the strategically timed word (Proverbs 15:23), it was due either to his overwhelming sense of justice or to his prodigious wit.

Hyde Park and Chicagoland, American Jewry and Israel and the world were more thoughtful and fun places because of these qualities, because of Arnold.  We shall all miss Rabbi Wolf, and I know that the entire congregation joins with me in extending condolences and prayers of comfort to Grace and to the entire family.

I conclude with a poem that I sent to KAM-Isaiah-Israel in April 1994.  It was read at his 70th birthday celebration, which I could not attend because I was leading one of our first New York trips for b’nai mitzvah students and their parents:

TO RABBI ARNOLD J. WOLF

So sorry to be out of state
For this worthy birthday fete.
But from New York I celebrate
Your friendship, learning, wit.

“At 70 comes the age of the hoary head”—
According to hoary Rabbinic nomenclature.
Which is to say that gray hairs, like the far-
reaching things you’ve said,
Have, until now, been premature.

But not soon enough for the rest of us,
Sometimes cheering, sometimes jeering, what
you’ve declared.
For the thinking and stock-taking you’ve provided thus,
Were more profound and honest because you dared.

Who hasn’t marveled at your energy and vision
That keep you not only up-to-date but avant-garde?
And who hasn’t been struck by the bull’s eye precision
Of your pithy one-liners and searching barbs?

Your style and verve never fail to engage
Any listener or reader. What persistence!
And you are impossible to upstage,
Except perhaps from a long and safe distance.

And today you gather with children, and devoted wife;
With proud friends, colleagues, and a blessed Congregation;
With Rabbis you’ve reared,—all wishing you long life,
Health and joy.  And all of us grateful for your inspiration!

May the memory of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who reached his eighty-fifth year, always be a blessing!

Bivrachah, Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Rabbi Wolf passed away on December 23, 2008. Learn more on Wikipedia.

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