Arnold Wolf, 1924-2008
On Tuesday, December 23, one of Hyde Park’s towering figures, Arnold Jacob Wolf, Rabbi Emeritus of temple K. A. M. Isaiah Israel, died, apparently of a heart attack, at the age of eighty-four. Arnold, however, was only one year into his adulthood, since (raised at a time when Reform Jews did not approve of the bar mitzvah) he had just celebrated his own coming-of-age, his bar mitzvah, at the age of eighty-three.And this was emblematic of Arnold’s later years. “Life begins at seventy,” he used to say, and indeed he seemed to become more joyful, more free of stress and inner tension, as the years went by.
It’s difficult to capture Arnold in words, because the reality was so much larger, so much funnier, so much more improbable, than any fiction could be, even one written by a writer far more gifted than I.Still, to try to put him before people who didn’t know him, and to remind those who did know him of what they loved and lost in him, seems like something that has to be tried.
If you saw Arnold for the first time, you might think you were looking at one of those trolls of middle-European fairy tales, a short, round, white-bearded Rumplestilkstin whose gruff, almost snarling voice seemed suited to a character of that cantankerous sort. But whereas Rumplestiltskin, consumed by dislike and envy, had, I imagine, dull guarded eyes, Arnold’s sparkled, and you could see in them such variegated colors of love, for all the people, young and old, whom he reproved, chastised, and even mocked. (“Religion is a serious business,” he would say, “but this congregation is a joke.”) Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, his contemporary, said at the funeral that Arnold was first and foremost a lover – and then he added, “To love Jews is no small accomplishment.”You saw that accomplishment in the eyes first, because it consisted above all in a willingness to see the other person as the person was, and, at the same time, in a willingness to be seen, faults and all. There was no critique of Arnold that he did not make first and most trenchantly himself.
Arnold thought a rabbi ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” – as another rabbi and close friend put it at the funeral. A lot of his “afflicting” was political. Reform Judaism has always stood for the idea that the moral law is the core of Judaism and that its imperative to pursue social justice is Judaism’s central commandment. Fine ideas, increasingly paid mere lip service as Jews have become contented, prosperous, middle-class insiders. For Arnold, however, these ideas were intimate parts of his daily thought, and imperatives to a life of social action. He marched with Dr. King. A decorated veteran of the Korean War, he crusaded against the Vietnam War. He supported the career of Mayor Harold Washington. At the end of his life, he campaigned for Barack Obama, and Obama’s victory brought him a new sense of optimism. (The President-Elect wrote a lovely statement about him that was read at the funeral.) Long before such ideas were more than pipe dreams, he supported a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, and he represented the Meretz Party in the World Congress of Judaism. In his essay, “A Theology of Activism,” he writes:
I believe that Judaism mandates a quite specific political ethic which is binding upon all Jews. I include among our political obligations the amelioration of inequality, offering sanctuary to those fleeing oppression and tyranny, and a perpetual struggle for peace, even at some risk to our own security and safety…[T]he positive commandment of Judaism is to begin to act again and again, in the face of all doubt and with due consideration of all that negative experience can teach…God will complete our imperfections. She will not forgive our self-defensive cowardice or our fear of failure.
Arnold was one of the least cowardly people I’ve ever known.
Arnold was opinionated, and he had definite views about the concrete political choices that his general view entailed. Above all, though, he wanted others to search out the conclusions for themselves, to give up the comfort of tradition and ask how things really are, to dissent, to object. To argue with life on behalf of life.
Arnold was shocking. His gruffness scared both children and adults. And yet he was a superb teacher, if you hung in there. With the bar and bat mitzvah classes, he challenged those twelve-year-olds to stop their giggling and their self-defensive reticence, to come up with a view, with anything that was real.He afflicted them, and he was perfectly willing to be afflicted in return. I remember hearing a young teen activist for lesbian and gay youth light into him for his somewhat conservative views on gender and same-sex marriage, and the frankness of the exchange showed how Arnold had offered himself to those kids as a vulnerable equal, rather than lording it over them.
Last summer Arnold told me a story about the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber that also stands for Arnold as a teacher. Arnold had taken his two young sons, ages seven and nine, to Israel, and they met the great man. Instead of holding forth, Buber asked the kids, “What do you want to know?” They said that they would really like to understand how the telephones worked in Israel. Buber spent an hour telling them all about the details of the telephone system. That was how Arnold, too, found the person where the person was, and honored any passion that brought that person into conversation.
All the obituaries of Arnold speak of him as a crusader for social justice, and this is true, as I’ve said. In his later years, however, Arnold even argued with the Reform tradition and its emphasis on the supremacy of politics. More theologically driven than many Reform rabbis, he became more and more focused on spiritual matters. So just when you thought you were learning what he was about, he was already moving on, in search of elusive truths. Once, invited by an editor to spell out my own religious views, I wrote an article about the classical Reform tradition and its Kantian notion of a rational religion dedicated to the moral law; I tried to show why this tradition was so attractive to me. Of course I sent it to Arnold for comments. When I got home the next day, there was a message on my answering machine in that inimitable voice: “You know what the trouble is with you? You’re a god-damn Reform Jew.” But at my own bat mitzvah in 2008 (how lucky I was to have his blessing, so shortly before his death), he spoke of a reconciliation between Athens and Jerusalem, between moral reason and religious insight, so perhaps he had found a way to that harmony in his own spirit. Certainly he had never seemed more serene, more delighted with life, than in those days.
Here are two stories about Arnold that seem contradictory. In his bar and bat mitzvah classes, whenever kids would complain about something, he would say, “It’s not about you.” And yet, in his Torah study sessions with fellow rabbis, so one reported at his funeral, he frequently said to people, “It’s always about your own life.” Was he just inconsistent? I think we can put those two stories together, if we think that in a deep sense one’s own life is not about oneself. Arnold believed in introspection. (He was a lifelong advocate of psychoanalysis, and in later years became a board member of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.) He did want people to let the text summon them to deeper self-knowledge. But in the end, any self-knowledge worth the name tells you that your life is not about you, it is about action directed at the good of others. To self-involved teens, he emphasized the focus on the other; to intellectualizing rabbis, the need for personal self-examination.But the message in the end is the same: know yourself so that you can serve justice and promote peace.
Arnold was a man of Hyde Park in the deepest sense. He engaged with the needs of the community, and he cared about what happened everywhere. “We cannot be invulnerable surrounded by vulnerability,” he wrote. “Our role is in the city and not away from it.” This would at one time have set him at odds with the University of Chicago, which used to understand its mission in detached ivory-tower terms and to conceive of the surrounding neighborhoods as dangers to be kept at bay, rather than as partners in a search for justice and truth. Today, a more open and vulnerable spirit has come to prevail in our University, and Arnold must have taken special pleasure in seeing how the University was accepting its own partnership in and responsibility to our community, with its mixed income levels, its mixture of races and religions, and its unequal levels of opportunity and possibility.
At one time, Arnold wanted to be a professor: he had all but enrolled in our University’s graduate program in Egyptology. What turned him away, he told me, was his psychiatrist’s observation that he had gifts for reaching people that he would not use fully in that sort of life. So Arnold knew and valued the academic life. He read voraciously, you could talk to him about almost any topic, his office contained a glorious library. What, however, does his life say to those of us here in the University who have made the academic choice?
On the one hand, there was much in Arnold’s life that fits very well with the ethos of the University of Chicago: a passion for challenge and argument, a love of the search for truth whatever its inconveniences, a profound respect for dissenting opinions. All these virtues are part of our tradition, and they are especially honored, perhaps, in our Law School, so it seemed just natural for Arnold to turn up here, as he once did to debate same-sex marriage (with that same teen activist as one of his opponents on the panel).
But there is something else in the history of this University that does not sit well with Arnold’s life: a kind of superiority about knowledge, a feeling that having digested “the great books” made you better than other people, a sort of cultivated smugness. All that stuff (fortunately not on display in our Law School) Arnold would and did see through in an instant, and he always preferred the honest groping questions of a twelve-year-old to the self-defensive pontificating of a self-appointed big shot. That sort of teaching and learning has death written all over it, and Arnold was always on the side of life, with all its suffering and inconvenience.
That, I think, is the way his life challenges all of us in the academy: to be out there, to stand for something you care about, to forget abut how learning creates a hierarchy of egos, and, instead, to find ways to make your learning serve life, justice, and truth.