Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, his memory a blessing

I was Arnie Wolf's student and Hillel congregant at Yale from 1976 to 1980. As a teacher, he was intellectually beyond me: one of the first people to appreciate the French Jewish ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, for example. As a spiritual leader and political activist, he was fearless and funny at the same time, a wonderful example for us all.

Following his example, when we reach the last paragraph of the Amidah, to this day I say out loud, le-takein olam b'malchut shaddai, "to repair and perfect the world with God as our Guide."

I also like to tell A.J. Wolf stories.

  • The year he began a High Holy Day sermon, "Karl Marx once wrote that the main thing Jews care about is money. And I think he was right." He went on to explain that because Jews take the power of money seriously, we take economic justice seriously: a true Marxian insight, but delivered in the provocative Rabbi Wolf style!

  • His insistence that teshuvah (repentance and return) really wipes away sin from our constitution. I remember objecting that when we have the habit of doing something wrong, it's in our brain cells and body chemistry and not so easily wished away. "I believe," he said, "that teshuvah wipes sin out of the brain." A neuroscientist before his time!

  • The time that the Yale Political Union wanted to arrange a debate on the Middle East. One of the organizers said, "We can invite Rabbi Wolf for one side, but then who will speak for the Jews?" When Arnie heard this, he roared with laughter. Back then, the two-state solution he advocated was a radical's dream. Now, it is everybody's pious hope. The times have changed, and he helped change them.

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