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Leonard Bernstein, My Rabbi

How the Jewish conductor inspired a classical music-loving rabbi

Josh Feigelson
August 23, 2013
Leonard Bernstein.(

Leonard Bernstein.(

Leonard Bernstein would be 95 this month. I never met him, and it’s one of the great regrets of my life. He died when I was 14 years old.

Before I became a rabbi, I dreamed of being an orchestra conductor. From the time I was just out of diapers, I flapped my arms to the living room stereo as it played Mozart and Beethoven and Mahler. I chose my college, in part, because it had a lot of student orchestras, and I conducted one of them for two years. But by graduation I realized just how hard it was to make it as a conductor, not to mention as a conductor who wouldn’t roll on Shabbos. And I discovered that I loved learning and teaching Torah even more than I loved Brahms and Stravinsky and Haydn.

And yet I still can’t get over not meeting Bernstein, because Bernstein is still my idol. He was so much more than simply the man on the podium. He was first and foremost an educator. He brought old texts to life and inspired people to find meaning in them. He was always teaching, always connecting people with each other through music, culture, words, and history, whether he was leading a rehearsal or taping a young people’s concert or giving lectures or writing books. At the heart of all his activity, including his activism for Israel and his unabashed love of Jewish life, Bernstein was a teacher.

When I think of Leonard Bernstein, my rabbinic mind takes me to the image of Hillel the Elder, whose ability to welcome, listen to, understand, and embrace people made him the stuff of Talmudic legend. The stories of Hillel accepting converts where Shammai shooed them away, or of patiently answering silly questions when a nudnik tried to provoke him, remind me of the stories people tell about Bernstein—of his hugging them, welcoming them, smiling at them. It makes me think of a clip of Bernstein conducting the finale of Haydn’s 88th Symphony using only his face—such was the power of his persona, and his ability to get out of the way.

Bernstein’s teaching and texts—about music, society, life and meaning—invite a dialogue with Jewish sources, and I have begun to collect pieces of this Torah of Leonard Bernstein. Here’s one wonderful example:

On a famous night in musical history in April 1962, Bernstein conducted the Brahms first piano concerto with Glenn Gould as soloist at Carnegie Hall. In a surprising move, he spoke to the audience before the performance. While there was always creative tension between a soloist and the conductor, Bernstein said, in this case the differences between Gould and himself were so vast that he felt the need to say that he couldn’t endorse the final product.

“Then why am I conducting it?” he asked. “Because I am fascinated,” he said, “glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work… Because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist, who is a thinking performer. And finally because there is in music… that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment. And I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto and it’s in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you.”

It was a Hillelian moment. As the Talmud recounts, why did the students of Hillel deserve for the law to follow them? “Because they were at ease. They were humble. They studied their own words and the words of the school of Shammai. And not only this—they mentioned the words of the school of Shammai before their own.” Bernstein loved learning, he loved creating, he loved thinking, and he loved people.

That’s perhaps the biggest reason I continue to draw inspiration from Leonard Bernstein. I think most rabbis are probably a combination of text people and people-people. I love learning and studying, I love thinking and the life of the mind. And I love people. I love their capacity to create and care, I’m fascinated by their needs and contradictions. I became a rabbi because I wanted to help people make their lives better through learning and living Torah.

Yet I am not a perfect balance. I tend slightly to the text side of the text-people dialectic. I get frustrated with people more easily than I get angry with texts. And that’s why I love Bernstein: He reminds me that that’s my yetzer hara, and inspires me to overcome it. As I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, there are two loves in being a rabbi: love of Torah and love of Jews. But you have to love Jews just a little bit more than you love Torah. This was Bernstein’s lesson too.

“I believe in the potential of people,” Bernstein wrote in an essay for the This I Believe series in the 1950s. “I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of ‘human nature.’ Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead.” Bernstein was a believer, a person who saw the image of God in human beings. He believed in human creativity, in the human capacity for change and becoming. That isn’t always easy, and it frequently leads to being disappointed. But, he wrote, “the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.”

I never met Leonard Bernstein. I never saw him conduct, never played in his orchestra. But 23 years after his death, he continues to be one of my rebbes.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson is Director of Strategy and Field Building at the iCenter, and co-founder of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative. He lives in Skokie, IL.