Academic rigor? Absolute creativity? This must be about Rabbi Dr. Zvi Szubin

Friday, March 9, 2018

Rabbi Dr. Zvi Szubin of Teaneck, who died on March 20, 2016, was an extraordinary man.

His harrowing childhood, fleeing the Nazis, going east, going west, going to Palestine, and then eventually winding up here, must have left a strong mark on him, but Dr. Szubin’s approach to the world was passionate curiosity, a passionate desire to understand through the application of logic to text and to physical objects, and a passionate yearning to explore the Jewish world and to deepen his connection to it through understanding it and unfolding and exploring and unfurling its complexities.

It was a joyous and passionate combination of rigorous scholarship and pure creativity, and it infused his entire life.

He lived his life as an Orthodox rabbi with strong ties to the Conservative movement, never quite fitting entirely into any one world, absolutely at home in both. Absolutely at home in all Jewish worlds.

It makes sense, therefore, that his wife, Laurie Szubin, and his children, Adam Szubin and Lisa Szubin, have decided to remember him through the Ateret Zvi Prize in Hiddushei Torah. The award will be given by the Hadar Institute, the Manhattan-based post-denominational institution (né Hadar Institute) that —according to its website — “empowers Jews to create ,and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah, Avodah, and Hesed.”

Hadar now is looking for submissions; the award will “recognize a work of innovative and exceptional Torah scholarship.” It will look for the combination of academic rigor and imagination that characterized Dr. Szubin’s life.

“Our hope was to find a way that would honor my father’s memory that was fitting and appropriate and also would project some positive Jewish contributions in the world,” Adam Szubin, a lawyer who lives with his wife and children in Washington, D.C., said. He and his family chose Hadar because “of what Hadar is building as a proudly traditional and proudly egalitarian Jewish community.

“My father was an iconoclast in many ways,” he continued. “I would say that this is just one of them.”

Dr. Szubin spent many summers as a teacher in residence at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin — the first of the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps, and always known as the most intellectually oriented. “I still run into people who hear my last name and say ‘Oh! I remember Zvi Szubin!’ And not only do they remember this name, they remember something specific he taught them in, say, 1978. They would say ‘I remember this insight on Tisha B’Av’ or ‘This thing he said about the Pesach seder’ or ‘This comment on the Megillah.’ This was from 40 years ago — and I can’t even remember what I had for lunch this afternoon.

“He touched a lot of students and teachers, and he was happy to do it. And he wanted to be in as many settings as possible. It’s not just that he was open to this post-denominational approach — he sought it out.

“He would often use the metaphor of the Jewish people as having at one point, early in history, been on a ship in the ocean, and there was a shipwreck. So from early on, for most of our history, we have been in lifeboats, drifting off in different directions.

“He saw it as his duty, no matter what lifeboat he was in, to paddle toward the others.

“When he was at Camp Ramah, he was seen as an upholder of traditionalism; when he was interacting with his colleagues in the yeshiva world, about issues like agunot, he was a voice of progressivism.”

The competition at Hadar will reflect his father’s values because “it is an open call for innovative research and study and teaching that goes across all Jewish worlds, whatever the denomination, to schools and yeshivas and universities and academic settings. It is demanding that intellectual rigor be applied to a thoughtful and careful study of Jewish text. It is unusual in its combination of rigor and openness.

“I hope that we will get submissions from people from all corners of the Jewish world in terms of their own observance and practice.”

Dr. Lisa Goldstein, an otolaryngologist who lives in Englewood with her husband and their children, said that “my brother and I grew up in a home where creativity and intellectual thought were very important.

“Sometimes it’s hard growing up in the environment,” she continued. “My dad was a critic, and sometimes my brother and I would come home from school excited about something we’d learned, and my dad was so knowledgeable that he would explain why this wasn’t really so creative.

“He really cherished things that were original or creative. They had to be text-based — you couldn’t just have a creative or original thought without any proof behind it — but he loved text-based ideas, and he loved sharing ideas with students, with his family, with lots of people. And he didn’t need credit for his ideas. He would tell people and tell them to run with it. He was always giving away his ideas.”

He would scribble them everywhere, Dr. Szubin added. “He was always writing ideas on the backs of envelopes or pieces of scrap paper.”

Zvi Szubin left boxes and boxes of papers; the family took them to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they will be scanned and then available online, both freely and free.

“He was always hoping to write a book on the siddur and its language,” Lisa Szubin said. “He would have a folder on the shoresh — the root — of words from the siddur.” Those folders are in the donated boxes, and the information — the wisdom — they hold will be accessible to anyone who is interested.

One of Zvi Szubin’s specialties was uncovering the specific legal meaning of ancient words, a meaning often lost as the word seemed to take on a more poetic, less precise meaning. Take the word “ahavah,” love, Lisa Szubin said, recalling one of her father’s lessons. The Torah tells us that Jacob loves Rachel. He has many wives and mistresses, but “Rachel is the loved wife. The Bible talks about that, about who is the beloved wife, but my father felt that it had a legal implication. The wife who was loved was the wife who would inherit. It meant favored in the legal rather than the emotional sense.”

It is no coincidence that her father chose an institution that prizes not only intellectual rigor and textural integrity, but also egalitarianism, Dr. Szubin added. “That was among my father’s values. Hadar is perfect for my father — their decisions to include women are text-based. And he also was very interested in the problems of the agunot” — the bound women whose husbands would not give them divorces — “and about women’s inheritance.

“My father definitely was not in any box, and neither is Hadar.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker is one of Hadar’s three founders and leaders. All three of them — Rabbi Tucker, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, and Rabbi Shai Held — hold the title of president, and he is also rosh yeshiva and chairs the Jewish law department.

The Ateret Zvi award is a natural for Hadar, Rabbi Tucker said. “Innovative, insightful, and religiously oriented Torah scholarship lies at the heart of Hadar’s agenda, and for the last several years we have been trying to expand and reach out to more people.

“Professor Szubin really exemplified the synthesis between rigorous scholarship and a searching Jewish heart, so when his children approached us about doing something in their father’s memory that would generate meaningful scholarship, learning, and teaching, we were delighted to be able to play a part in it.

“It is an unusual award. There are a lot of opportunities for rigorous academic research in Jewish studies, and there are a lot of fora for rabbis and educators to give sermons and to teach, but there are not so many fora that really try to incentivize people to develop a religiously oriented message at the level and depth that we are looking for.

“At Hadar, we believe very strongly that the Torah belongs to and speaks to the entire Jewish people, and this prize reflects that. It is intended to inspire and attract creativity from across the Jewish world. We will be very excited to entertain a diverse array of submissions.”

Rabbi Tucker knew Dr. Szubin personally. “I remember once teaching publicly in Washington,” he said. “It was in Adam’s community. And I remember Professor Szubin coming up to me afterward and displaying delight in hearing what I had attempted to teach.

“I say this because as a young teacher and scholar, to have someone with that kind of seniority and knowledge appreciate what you are doing, and to be engaged with it, is inspiring.

“And I also remember the incredible kindness of his demeanor.

“That combination, that synthesis, really stands out to me.”

Submissions for the award should be between 1,800 and 4,000 words, in Microsoft Word; the deadline is June 30. If you have questions, email [email protected].