April 14, 1924, is the birthdate of the late maverick American Conservative rabbi Harold Schulweis. Schulweis spent over 50 years as a pulpit rabbi, 35 of them at one of the largest congregations in the United States, Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles. He became almost legendary for his outspoken opinions on issues of politics and Jewish religious law, often taking his stance years before those positions became mainstream.
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With a background in philosophy and a rational approach to all matters, including religious belief, Schulweis was scornful of the growing role of superstition and mysticism among observant Jews, as well as of what he saw as an obsessive fastidiousness with the minutiae of Jewish law at the expense of ethics and morality.
Harold Schulweis was born in the Bronx, New York, the only child of Maurice Schulweis and the former Helen Rezak. The Warsaw-born Maurice was a Yiddishist and a Zionist, a fiercely secular Jew who sold advertising for the Yiddish Daily Forward. Helen, from Ciechanow, outside Warsaw, was the daughter of a devout Hasid who was a full-time Jewish scholar.
When Harold reached bar-mitzvah age, he told the L.A. Jewish Journal in 1998, his father wanted him to deliver his sermon for the occasion in Yiddish, while his grandfather pushed for Hebrew and his mother for English. In the end, he gave it in all three languages.
The Schulweis household was not religiously observant, but when he was 12 Harold wandered into a synagogue and was moved by the proceedings. He soon began Jewish studies with his grandfather, who persuaded his parents to transfer Harold from a Yiddish-language school to an Orthodox yeshiva. That was followed by the Manhattan Talmudical Academy, the feeder high school for Yeshiva University.
Indeed, Schulweis went on to Yeshiva, graduating with a B.A. in philosophy in 1945. He later recalled how, at around the time of his graduation, professors from the university burned copies of a recently published Passover Haggadah written by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. A co-founder of the Reconstructionist movement, Kaplan envisioned a Judaism not based on a personal God.
Schulweis was shocked to see Jewish books being burned so soon after the Holocaust. He read Kaplan’s work and realized that he agreed with him. Schulweis decided to go on to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary — where Kaplan taught, and with whom Schulweis studied.
Schulweis later earned a doctorate in theology from the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California.
Schulweis met Malka Savod, an English teacher and later a psychotherapist, at a Purim dance at JTS; the two were married in 1949. He received Conservative ordination in 1950, and after a brief tenure at a New York synagogue, soon moved to the West Coast, where he became the rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham, in Oakland. He went from there to VBS in 1970.
Among the causes and principles advanced by Schulweis: the founding of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, to recognize and assist non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust; equal status for women and, later, full acceptance of gays and lesbians in Conservative Judaism; the organization Mazon, to encourage Jews to donate food from bar mitzvahs and weddings to help feed the hungry; creation of Jewish World Watch, to fight genocide worldwide; establish of the organization Keruv, to encourage conversion to Judaism.
Many of these efforts were far from popular, certainly when he initiated them, and there were rabbinical colleagues within his own movement who thought Schulweis took excessive liberties in interpreting halakha (Jewish religious law) to match his personal opinions.
Schulweis also served as a consultant to “The Simpsons” in 1991, when the show decided to give a Jewish back story to Krusty the Klown, who viewers learned was the son of one Rabbi Krustofski (played by Jackie Mason), in an episode jam-packed with Jewish wisdom.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis suffered from chronic heart disease, which was the cause of his death on December 18, 2014.