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Rabbi Richard N. Levy, 1937-2019

A beloved educator who reacquainted Reform Judaism with abandoned practices and traditions

Joshua Holo
June 25, 2019
Courtesy Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Rabbi Richard N. LevyCourtesy Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Courtesy Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Rabbi Richard N. LevyCourtesy Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, on the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles, one heard the shofar during two months of the year: Once during the Autumn month of Ellul culminating in Rosh Hashanah, and again around February, corresponding to the pending deadline for the rabbinical students’ senior theses.

As each student submitted his or her major work toward ordination, Rabbi Richard N. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinical Studies, would greet their triumph with a celebratory blast. Now, at the end of the second decade of the century, as we mourn Richard’s death and celebrate his remarkable life, another shofar blast would not seem inappropriate.

Born in Rochester, New York in 1937, Richard was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, in 1964. As a newly minted rabbi, he joined 15 colleagues in a civil rights protest in St. Augustine, Florida, and landed in jail. In preparation for their action, the rabbis had visited a local church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had greeted them during services: “Here come Moses’ children.”

Having charted this rabbinic course, his geographic trajectory took him west, to Los Angeles. From 1966-68, Richard served as the assistant rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, a storied bastion of progressivism in the Reform spirit of Prophetic Judaism, where he remained connected for the rest of his life. He then served as Director of the Hillel Council at the University of California at Los Angeles until 1975, and as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council until 1999.

Subsequently, he directed the School of Rabbinical Studies on the Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, until 2009. Richard oversaw the campus’ shift to a full-fledged rabbinical program, prior to which students would complete their studies on other campuses. He continued as rabbi of the Synagogue and director of Spiritual Growth until 2014.

Throughout his career, Richard deployed rare eloquence with distinctive pathos in the service of his relentless sense of purpose. This passionate combination would seem at odds with his consummate gentleness, were it not for the fact that Richard’s sense of purpose was itself bound up in his abiding commitment, not only to justice but also to goodness. He often greeted routine responses to “How are you?” with piercing questions, posed with unabashed human interest. He was not above a wry smile and ironic remark, nor did he shy from an ideological argument. But he emanated indiscriminate kindness and warmth, the ultimate mark of his personality and, I believe, legacy.

Most famously, perhaps, Richard championed and embodied an epochal shift in America’s largest Jewish Movement, Reform Judaism.

As a rabbi, Richard had inherited an understanding of “tradition” steeped in the first century of American Reform Judaism, founded by Isaac Mayer Wise in the 1870s. In this setting, “tradition” meant the English liturgy of the Union Prayer Book and the avoidance of the skullcap and other sartorial emblems of clan. It privileged the Biblical prophets over the Talmudic canon of the Rabbis, and it claimed, quite polemically, to have evolved beyond Orthodox ritualism.

In 1999, from his perch as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the professional association of Reform Rabbis, Richard Levy dared to reacquaint twentieth-century Reform Judaism with practices and sensibilities redolent of a very different “tradition”: kippot, kashrut, tzitzit, shabbat, and most of all, mitzvot, that is, a sense of meaningfulness embedded in the idea of commandedness. In a movement defined by individual autonomy and the proverbial “informed choice,” Richard codified this old-new orientation by shepherding the CCAR’s “Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism,” which he re-worked as A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism, in 2005.

Like many great figures, Richard’s persona sometimes outstripped his actual person. Interviewed in the Winter, 1998 issue of Reform Jewish Magazine, Richard appeared on the cover in a pious pose, wearing a kippah and tallit. The image and accompanying interview ginned up real controversy, pitting the two notions of tradition against one another from within the Movement. Soon enough, the magazine cover took on totemic significance as the “tefillin cover,” representing Richard’s ritualist push—despite the fact he appeared in the cover photo without tefillin.

Tellingly, the controversy has long since passed. Today’s Reform Judaism largely reflects Richard’s vision, to the point where it feels rooted rather than revolutionary. But Richard’s attraction to certain expressions of tradition never contradicted his teacherly commitment to religious experimentation and questioning; he always explicitly encouraged his students’ creativity, and even iconoclasm, in their intellectual and ritual development.

In his last oeuvre, Richard completed his translation of and commentary to the Book of Psalms, titled Songs Ascending, in 2017. It was the capstone to his notable career as a liturgist and translator: as a principal in the development of the Reform Movement’s 1975 New Union Prayer Book, Gates of Prayer, and as editor of On Wings of Awe (1985), On Wings of Freedom (1989), and On Wings of Light (2000), for the High Holidays, Passover and Shabbat, respectively.

For all his rabbinical influence, those who knew him personally knew him, most of all, as husband and father. Protective and adoring of his beloved wife of 43 years, Carol, who died in 2015, he officiated at her funeral with barely contained passion and love, tempered only by tender memories of his courtship of her when she was a budding performer. And his heart always resided with his treasured daughters and their families, Sarah, Connor and their son Elijah, and Elizabeth and Chad, about whom he spoke with abiding love and unselfconscious pride.

At the risk of beatification, it is difficult to remember Rabbi Richard N. Levy without remembering Moses, our leader par excellence who also committed our Divine Covenant to human language, both oral and written. In his translation of Psalm 105:26-27, Richard diverges from the JPS translation, to emphasize the power of words:

The Holy One sent Moses, servant of the Divine,

Aaron whom God had chosen,

And gave them the words of God’s signs…

Let us agree that Richard was not Moses. But who could deny that he rose to the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s designation as one of “Moses’ children”?

More than the profundity, and even courage, of his ideas, and more than the eloquence that he deployed to advance them, we will remember Richard N. Levy for the purpose toward which he unerringly directed them: Living Torah for the sake of compassion and justice.

Dr. Joshua Holo is Dean of the Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and Associate Professor of Jewish History. He served as Director of HUC-JIR’s Louchheim School of Judaic Studies from 2006-2010. Dr. Holo’s publications focus on Medieval Jews of the Mediterranean, particularly in the Christian realm. His book, Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.