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On the Third Anniversary of His Death, Remembering Leonard Fein

What began with an angry letter to the editor bloomed into a friendship that transcended ideological barriers and brought an Orthodox rabbi and a secular, liberal Jew together

Avi Shafran
August 10, 2017
Via Youtube
Via Youtube
Via Youtube
Via Youtube

The manila folder bulges with letters (for younger readers: those are something like emails that have been printed out), and is labeled “Leibel correspondence.” It holds communications between me and the writer/thinker/activist Leonard Fein–Leibel, as he liked to be called–whose third yahrtzeit, or death anniversary, falls this year on August 10.

We first met in the mid-1980s, after I wrote an angry letter to Moment Magazine, which he founded and was then editing. I don’t remember much of my complaint, but do recall it being quickly overwhelmed by the friendship that evolved from his phone call acknowledging my letter and asking if we might get together to talk.

My wife and I and our young children were living in Providence; Leibel was in Boston. We had lunch at a kosher restaurant in the latter locale.

Leibel and I had little in common. I was a committed and somewhat brash Orthodox rabbi (I’m still the rabbi, and some will say still brash); he, a secularist, socially conscious (what they call “woke” today) intellectual. In a way, we were adversaries. In another, though, we were, as he might have put it, comrades.

To this day, 30-odd years later, I clearly remember what he said when I had finished reciting birchat hamazon, the blessing after meals. He told me that he used to say the blessing too but choked on the words, from Psalms, traditionally appended to the prayer: “I was young, and have grown old, and have never seen a forsaken righteous man.”

“I’ve seen many righteous people forsaken,” Leibel said.

Thinking for a moment, I offered that a truly righteous person might seem forsaken, hungry, and cold, but never feels forsaken and never in fact is. God has his ways and plans, and those who trust Him know that, however it might seem, He does not forsake.

That was the first of many “debates” we had over ensuing years, in not all of which I had the final word. But our “arguments” were what Jewish tradition calls “for the sake of Heaven”–that is to say, dialectic intended to reach some truth. Which puts me in mind of something he once said: “The revelation at Sinai is the most important event in Jewish history–whether it happened or not.” (For the record: It happened.)

We interacted intellectually over the decades. I would write him (eventually, e-mail him) when something he wrote in his weekly column for the Forward particularly pleased or outraged me, or just to ask a question. He would do the same about things I had written. When I published a book of collected columns, I asked him for a blurb. He wrote, inter alia, that the essays were “always elegant, and though I frequently disagree with their thrust, there are times–the best of times–they force me to rethink my own positions.” I could have written precisely the same about his corpus.

One day, in the late 1990s, after both he and we had moved to New York, Leibel called me with a proposition. Would my wife and I, he asked, be amenable to being part of a small group of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish couples to just “schmooze” about our lives. No agenda, no debates, no “outreach”–just Jews from different places interacting on a personal level.

What a beautiful idea, I thought. At the time, I was fairly new to my position at Agudath Israel and, although the project was not to be publicized in any way, I felt it proper to ask one of the organization’s rabbinic leaders for guidance. The elder I asked was renowned for drawing the boldest of lines when it came to theological or social issues. He responded that not only may I participate, I must, as meeting other Jews is always a good thing.

The rabbi, I realized, shared something with Leibel: love for all Jews. And so, the project was undertaken. For a number of weeks, our small group met, noshed and talked.

After one of our get-togethers, Leibel told me something that left a deep impression on me. He said, “If I had to be stuck on a desert island with one other person, either a non-Jew whose attitudes were similar to mine, someone of intellectual bent and with a fine-honed social conscience; or a Hassidic Jew with whom I had nothing but some Yiddish in common, I would choose the Jew.”

He admitted being puzzled by his visceral choice, but insisted it was the one he would make. Leibel had nothing, of course, against non-Jews. But he felt deeply connected to every member of Klal Yisrael, no matter how different.

And I am grateful for his example.

May his memory inspire us all.

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at