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The legacy of Robert Gordis: a memorial tribute on the first Yahrzeit.


FOR MANY YEARS, DURING THE HOLIDAY OF Passover, when the Song of Songs is read in the synagogue, I turned to The Song of Songs: A Study, Modern Translation and Commentary, by Robert Gordis, not only to read his wondrously poetic translation and rendition into twenty-eight songs and fragments, but to study his detailed fifteen chapters and the scores of notes in his commentary. Although text and commentary have become familiar to me by an annual re-reading since the book's publication in 1954, the book remains an ever-fresh source of literacy, religious, and intellectual enjoyment. In 1992, the holiday came only several months after the death of Gordis on January 3, and, so, the sense of bereavement, deprivation, the feeling of heaviness of heart affected my study of the book, and I felt that my mood was more fit for Lamentations than for The Songs of Songs. The death of Robert Gordis brought to an end a most productive, creative, pulsating life, that of a person who stood tall among his peers, and who will be remembered as one of the outstanding scholars in the field of Jewish studies, whose name will evoke the same respect that we owe to rabbi-scholars like Solomon Schechter, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Louis Finkelstein.

The words "rabbi-scholar" are intentionally hyphenated, for these men, who, while pre-eminent for their meticulous, objective, and unprepossessed scholarship, were, at the same time recognized for their wide communal and leadership qualities as rabbis. Gordis served as rabbi of a large congregation for thirty-eight years. He established the first Conservative all-day school in the United States, now named the Robert Gordis Day School of Belle Harbor. He was president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America and of the Synagogue Council of America. He took an active part in interfaith activities. He was recognized as the leading philosopher of the Conservative movement, a role which came to final expression in his chairing of the committee which produced Emet Ve'Emunah, the first ever formulation for the ideology of Conservative Judaism.

All of this, and much more, can be mentioned about Gordis as a public figure. But there was another side to him that, in my estimation, was even more important. For twenty or more years he was professor of Bible and of philosophies of religion at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where his influence was felt by hundreds of students who became rabbis and scholars. In 1952 he was a co-founder of the quarterly journal, JUDAISM, and, for two score years, he served first as chairman of the board of editors and then as editor. The forty volumes of the journal, that were published while he was at the helm, will stand as a tribute to his indefatigable energies and creative qualities as editor.

And last, but most important of all, there are the twenty or more books that Gordis published, as well as the numerous scholarly articles that only a professional bibliographer can take into account.

The books can be put into two categories. First are the works on the Bible, particularly on the Wisdom literature. I have already mentioned his The Song of Songs, first published in 1954. Prior to that, in 1951, his massive study of Ecclesiastes was published as Koheleth -- The Man and His World. In 1973, his treatise on that book was combined with the treatise on Lamentations. In 1965, he published The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job; in 1978 this work was replaced by an enlarged edition, The Book of Job: Commentary, New Translation and Special Studies. In 1974, his treatise on Esther came out. These works alone, on five of the Wisdom books of the Bible, will suffice to sustain Gordis' reputation as a master of Bible scholarship, a field of study that has been much more cultivated by Christians than by Jews. In some respects, Gordis was a pioneer in dedicating himself to Bible studies, and has served as a role model for younger Jewish scholars.

When an East European rabbi was told of the magisterial commentary on the Psalms by Samson Raphael Hirsch, he remarked that the Lithuanian Jews recited the Psalms (Tehillim) and studied Talmud, but Hirsch recites Talmud and studies Tehillim. In this respect, mutatis mutandis, Gordis was a Hirschian. He tried to reclaim the Bible for respectable Jewish scholarship. For his pragmatic, hard-headed, rational bent of mind, that was always attracted to matter-of-factness, the Wisdom books were especially congenial and appealing.

His study in depth of the Wisdom literature inevitably gave Gordis insight into many aspects of Biblical scholarship in general, and at least three of his other works resulted from his intensive study: namely, Poets, Prophets and Sages -- Essays in Biblical Interpretation, 1970; Biblical Text in the Making, 1971; and The Word and the Book -- Studies in Biblical Language and Literature, 1976.

Taken together, his eight books on the Bible place Gordis in the very first rank of Biblical scholarship and, alone, will constitute an enduring monument to his eminence and authority.

Gordis' scholarship, as I have said, also falls into a second category: his books that manifest his character as rabbi and teacher, the rabbi whose duty it is to teach his congregation, his edah, the widely-dispersed community of Israel. In these volumes Gordis addressed many of the issues and problems that modern life has created or accentuated for the Jew who has not been overwhelmed by the secularism that has become so pervasive. Into this category fall at least the following eight books: Judaism for the Modern Age, 1955; Root and Branch -- Judaism and the Free Society, 1962; Judaism in a Christian World, 1966; A Faith for Moderns, 1966; Sex and Family in the Jewish Tradition, 1967; Love and Sex -- A Modern Jewish Perspective, 1978; Judaic Ethics of a Lawless World, 1986; and his last volume, The Dynamics of Judaism -- A Study in Jewish Law, 1990.

These books reveal a mind that may be best described as that of a Renaissance Man, a mind far removed from any suggestion of parochialism; a mind at home in different cultures and civilizations; a person who looks for truth and wisdom wherever they may be found, and who disregards no-trespass signs; a person who can speak of Judaism to Christians and secularists as easily and as comfortably as he can speak to professing Jews. Gordis was an American Jew but, also, a Jewish American, for he believed in the truth and importance of the Bill of Rights as well as in the truth and importance of the Ten Commandments. He believed in the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but, also, in God who is the creator of Adam and Eve, the progenitors of all mankind, of all men and women made in the image of God. Gordis held firmly to the principle of live and let live: he was tolerant of all things but superstition, cruelty, and hatred. He immersed himself often in the study of Halakhah, Jewish law, but he also had great regard for opinions and decisions of the United States Supreme Court, which he studied with open-mindedness and respect. Holding firmly to the Jewish this-worldly affirmation, Gordis held with equal firmness that, while the natural is holy as a manifestation of the Divine, the existence of the Divine draws the spirit toward a transcendental experience that brings a spiritual significance to human experience and life. The Song of Songs, he wrote, "is both the record of God's revelation to man and of man's aspiration toward the Divine."


Robert Gordis might well have claimed, with justification, that his last book, The Dynamics of Judaism -- A Study in Jewish Law, is both a record of God's revelation to him and of his aspiration toward the Divine. For Gordis believed that revelation is "a meeting involving both God and man as active participants."(1) Revelation, he maintained, is dynamic. There is continuity, as a deposit of past revelation, but there is also change, expressive of the newness of revelation. There is constant interpretation of the past and reinterpretation, and both the interpretation and the reinterpretation are "words of the Living God".

The book can justly be read as Robert Gordis' intellectual and religious last will and testament. As the Preface states, nearly all of the contents of the book were written especially for it. Gordis lived long enough to have completed the manuscript, including the Preface, but he unfortunately fell ill while reviewing the edited manuscript. The work was written when he was already an octogenarian, yet, at a time when the author enjoyed the mature, full vigor of mind and spirit. I think that, as he wrote the book, Gordis was happy that he was putting the finishing touches on the labors of his life. He did not try to say anything that he had not said before. He had thought and brooded over its contents long and over many years. This is precisely why the book is so important: it is a reaffirmation of his strongest faith, recorded in his mature, old age.

Gordis recognized that this volume would reflect the character of the author and the nature of his life. It would not, therefore, be a book written in an ivory tower; the author could not claim detachment from his station and its duties; he was dedicated to Torah lishmah, to learning for its own sake, learning with no ulterior, no practical purpose, and to learning for the sake of his life, Torat hayyim, learning with a pragmatic end in view. It is not easy, or perhaps even possible, always to keep these two activities separated. They often intertwine, for Gordis was no split-personality, a scholar in the morning and a famous, busy rabbi in the afternoon. I think that Gordis as a rabbi believed that he also had to be a scholar, and, as a scholar he believed that he had to be a rabbi. The two callings were sometimes in dialectical tension, that was resolved and harmonized by a supervening spirit that made him the whole person who was the author of The Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law.


A central thought of the book is that Judaism is not a religion that, in the past, was often identified as the "Mosaic faith." Nor is it solely the religion of the Mishnah and Talmud. The special character of Judaism, said Gordis, is the fruit of development. Contrary to Arnold Toynbee, Judaism is not a fossilized religion. The "dialectic of continuity and change" has almost always been characteristic of Judaism. What Roscoe Pound said of the law in general may be said of Judaism and of Jewish law: "The law must be stable, but it must not stand still."(2) This may sound paradoxical, the affirmation of contradictions, but life and the world are not based on the rules of logic; they operate not on the principle of either/or, but on the principle of both/and. "Evermore in the world," said Emerson, "is this marvelous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats."(3) He might have added "stability and change, permanence and alteration."

Insofar as Judaism is a Biblical religion, it developed, over the centuries, says Gordis, a unique character that differentiated it from all paganisms. First,Judaism is a faith that represented the commitment of, and to, an entire people; the covenant is not with any special group, a caste of priests or members of a superior class -- "God's covenant encompassed an entire people". Second, the covenant was, and is, ethical in character. And third, Israel enjoyed a unique religious leadership in the prophets, whose central demand was for righteousness. The sages and rabbis who followed sought to embody the Biblical-prophetic principles of righteousness into halakhah, the laws and way of life. Because of the loss of the Temple, the sages and rabbis felt that the great need was to preserve Judaism and the Jewish people, and they resorted to an emphasis on rites and ritual -- on the ceremonial law -- to achieve these ends. Religion, culture, and kinship became interrelated in Judaism. Other ancient peoples also had these three characteristics, but only the Jewish people and Judaism have survived, and Jews continue to constitute a unique people by organically combining these three elements (Ibid.)

The Jewish people have a long history, a religion and a culture that have a very rich past, but not everything in a people's past is usable. At least three principles of Judaism stand out as special from the total tradition and cannot be discarded; they are, above all other aspects of the Jewish tradition, of supreme usefulness, now and ever, and these are:

First, the principle that life must be affirmed -- "affirmation of life a good here and now, including all its physical and spiritual aspects, and in spite of all its frustrations and agonies". Gordis quoted with eager approval the statement in the Talmud that "every human being is destined to render an account before God for all the blessings of the world that his eyes beheld and that he did not enjoy".

Second, the principle of sell-fulfillment. This flows naturally out of the first principle, the affirmation of life. By self-fulfillment a person affirms his or her life. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"(4) "If I am here, all is here, and if I am not here, who is here?"(5) "Love thy neighbor as thyself."(6) One must begin with love of oneself.(7)

Just as there are commandments between one person and another, and commandments between a person and God -- mizvot bein adam lehavero, and mizvot bein adam laMakom, -- so, too, there are mizvot bein adam le'azmo, commandments between a person and himself or herself: "the obligation of a human being to preserve his physical and mental well-being and, above all, to safeguard his personal integrity and purity -- in a word, to refrain from sinning against himself." This is a category of commandments that ought to be recognized as existing at the very core of Judaism. Its recognition

would effectively rebut the notion of "victimless crimes" and stigmatize practices like alcoholism, prostitution, drug abuse, and suicide as infractions of the moral law. Indeed, the Jewish tradition considers the Biblical injunction "Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously" (Deut. 4:9, cf. v. 15) as the basis for the religious duty to take care of one's health and well-being.(8)

Just as self-fulfillment flows out of the principle of the affirmation of life, so, too, the principle of social justice flows from the commandment of the affirmation of life.

It is because each human being has a right and a duty to enjoy the blessings of the world that justice is a universal obligation. Injustice in all its forms means the encroachment by one person or group on the legitimate and inalienable right of another to partake of the joys available in this world, in which all human beings have a share.

As expressive of the spirit of Judaism, Gordis quotes the Hasidic rebbe who declared, "Why do you worry about my soul and about your own body? Worry about my body and your own soul!" (Ibid.)

One may, writes Gordis, accept the opinion of Rabbi Akiba that the Golden Rule of Judaism is the great principle, kelal gadol, the fundamental commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself;" or one may prefer the statement of Ben Azzai, that the foundational principle of Judaism is the passage in Genesis (5:1): "This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God; male and female He created them." It does not matter, for there is "no denying that 'the great principle of the Torah' is ethical."

The principle of the affirmation of life, and the principle of self-fulfillment, with its implication that the right of self-fulfillment means also the duty of sharing in the blessings of the world, "all unite to establish the ideal of justice as the cornerstone of Jewish ethics.

Yes, justice is the cornerstone of Judaism -- Gordis did not tire of emphasizing and restating this principle. Not love but justice. Perhaps some persons can feel the emotion of love for people far removed from them, on the other side of the globe, but for mankind, in general, to use "love" in this way verges on cant. The most that can be demanded

is that we respond to all other human beings in the spirit of justice, no matter how far away or how different they may be. Nor do we require any other standard. Justice is enough. It applies equally to all persons by virtue of their common humanity, their innate dignity as children of God, and their inalienable right to the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Even God Himself is bound by the demands of justice ("Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" |Gen. 18:25~). "Clearly," says Gordis, "justice is the ultimate value to which God's will must conform." "...|I~n Jewish tradition and law, the ethical is the highest rung on the ladder of faith."

Because, following the destruction of the Temple by the Roman army, the ceremonial law was emphasized as a unifying force of the Jewish people, the impression may have been created that rites and rituals are all-important. They are, indeed, important, says Gordis, "But what of the relative importance of ritual and ethics in Judaism? ... Here the evidence in both the Bible and the Talmud, though often overlooked, is extensive and unequivocal -- ritual is important but ethics is paramount." In the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the central feature is the recital of the al het, the "great confession." Gordis calls attention to the fact that of the forty offenses that are listed, "all are ethical sins, not one a ritual transgression...."

In view of the centrality of ethics,justice, and righteousness, it is not surprising that Gordis should give to the status of women in Jewish law more extensive consideration than to any other feature of halakhah. He believed that the "greatest revolution" of modern times is the change in the status of women. In view of the fact that women constitute at least one-half of the world's population, Gordis may well be right. He finds many things that need correction -- indignities, injustices, improprieties, humiliations that cry for removal or correction. But Gordis was not one who despaired. As a scholar who was intimately aware of all the legal details, and the wrongs that need amelioration, he also saw that the Jewish tradition had a trend in the right direction. "It is not strange," he wrote, "that women began with many disabilities. What is remarkable is the ongoing effort in Judaism to enlarge their rights and opportunities and to limit the powers and prerogatives of men, a pattern that may be traced from the biblical and rabbinic periods to the present." One of the most interesting and useful aspects of The Dynamics of Judaism is the documentation that it provides to prove the correctness of this far-reaching judgment.

Gordis's approach to the problem of women and to halakhah in general reminds me of William James' statement that he was not an optimist and not a pessimist but one who believed in amelioration. Nothing is inevitable, and the possibility of improvement is ever-present. Gordis was a meliorist, for that is what Judaism imposes upon its adherents -- the people of Israel are commanded to act mipnei tikkun ha'olam, "for the improvement of society," for the correction of the unfinished world, for doing the work that the Creator left undone. The Jew "comes |into the world~ with work to do, he does not come to coo."(9)

But, for Gordis, meliorism implies change, improvement on an existing situation; something that is wrong calls for replacement with something that is better. Judaism involves the use of two forces to accomplish a change for the better -- namely, reason and moral conscience -- both of them attributes that are helek Elo'ah mima'al, "a portion from God above."

Throughout Jewish history, these two great canons of reason and moral conscience have been the means by which Jewish leadership received the traditional inheritance of the past and preserved it for the future. In the majority of instances, the tradition could be and was maintained with little or no change. But when change became necessary, the Rabbis did not hesitate to evaluate the tradition and modify it before handing it over to their successors. They recognized that successive generations of scholars were not merely repeating traditions and decisions from the past, but were revealing new and unfamiliar aspects of the Torah. It is not without interest that the comments of scholars on the work of their predecessors are called hiddushim, "novellae," "new interpretations" (Ibid.).

The rabbis and sages firmly believed that the Torah embodied "the highest spiritual and ethical values," and, therefore, they did not hesitate to interpret the Bible "freely, invoking one procedure in one case and a diametrically opposite one in another, depending on the goal they sought to achieve," and the goal was always justice, righteousness, and ethical value.

A large part of The Dynamics of Judaism discusses numerous instances of this process of ameliorating halakhic decisions and legislation, and the possibility of using the process -- reason and the moral conscience -- especially in the area of the status of women. This aspect of the work happily makes the book itself a hiddush, a new, creative interpretation, by one who had a deeply pious regard for tradition -- a tradition that contains in itself a program and a process for change that will bear witness to both reason and the demands of the moral conscience. It is a work of consequence. It was written by a man whose life, character and mind reflect an intense and life-long study of the Wisdom books of the Bible.

MILTON R. KONVITZ is Professor Emeritus of Law and of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He has been closely identified with JUDAISM since its inception.

1. The Dynamics of Judaism: A Study of Jewish Law (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 82.

2. Roscoe Pound, Introduction to the Philosophy of Law (1922).

3. Emerson, The Conduct of LIfe (1860), VII.

4. Avot, 1:14.

5. B. Sukkah 53a.

6. Levit. 19:18.

7. Cf. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (1957), p. 60 ff.

8. Gordis, Op cit., note 1, pp. 21, 33, 63.

9. "Peace," by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
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Author:Konvitz, Milton R.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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