Fearless Leader, Passionate Teacher

Alexander Schindler knew how to disagree without being disagreeable, says a friend and critic of the late rabbi.

The greatest rabbinic scholar after Maimonides, the Gaon Elijah of Vilna, was once asked what qualifications a teacher of little children must possess in order to do his job adequately. The Gaon answered: To teach little children the Hebrew alphabet, the teacher himself must have deep and complete knowledge of all of the Talmud.

Alas, we no longer seem to be bound by such austere and demanding standards. In this generation, we seem to be settling for the kind of teacher who knows about "educational method" and who promises to bring into the classroom enthusiastic spirit, no matter what such a teacher might actually know of the content of the Jewish tradition.

I am afraid that these observations apply all the more pointedly to contemporary rabbis. Some 60 years ago, Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, said to his students for the rabbinate that the trouble with the rabbis of today is that they advertise Judaism: "They tell us how great and wonderful it is--but they do not teach it." That day Kaplan made it very clear he was not demanding that rabbis teach any particular brand or ideology. What he wanted was that rabbis be rooted in authentic Jewish learning and experience, and that their ideas and interpretations should make all who came under their influence want to think and to learn.

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The Jewish community worldwide is poorer this week because Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the leader of Reform Judaism for many decades, died in his sleep on Nov. 14 at the age of 75. Alec Schindler became the commanding figure that he was because he was rooted both in the world of Eastern European culture and learning and in an innate personal earlessness.

Schindler was born in 1925 in Munich, Germany. His father was an Eastern European Orthodox Jew who was a Yiddish poet and who worked as a journalist and editor for the most Orthodox of Jewish organizations, Agudath Israel. To the very end of his days, Alec was thoroughly at home in Yiddish. There was always a particular glow in his face and a twinkle in his eye when he spoke in Yiddish.

Even as he rose to be the leader of Reform Judaism in America and, indeed, of Jews worldwide, he never became the "Reformer" who wanted to forget or even obliterate his origins. On the contrary, Alec Schindler carried the warmth that he had acquired in his parents' home with him until the very end--and so his friends, some of whom, like myself, disagreed with him very vehemently on ideological issues, nonetheless knew instinctively that Schindler was one of them.

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