A ‘powerful speaker, gracious teacher’
Rabbi Herbert Weiner
June 12, 2013
Rabbi Herbert Weiner of Jerusalem, formerly of Maplewood, died on April 22, 2013, at the age of 93. An author whose writings on the Kabala and Jewish mysticism were for many the first introduction to the richness of the Jewish spiritual tradition, he was the founding rabbi of Temple Israel in South Orange and had a long career both in and out of the Greater MetroWest area as a writer and lecturer.
His son-in-law, Rabbi Tom Gutherz, wrote the following appreciation.
Born in Boston in 1919, Herbert Weiner attended the Boston Public Latin School and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1942. During World War II, he interrupted his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Institute of Religion — where he was later ordained a Reform rabbi and received an honorary doctorate of divinity — to serve in the U.S. Merchant Marines.
Soon after his ordination, Weiner became the founding rabbi of Temple Israel of South Orange in 1948. Beginning with a small group of families that met in a large home on Scotland Road, he served this community for 34 years as it expanded into a large congregation. (It reconnected with its congregation of origin in 1982 to become Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.) After retiring in 1982, he remained active studying, writing, and speaking about Jewish mysticism in the United States and Israel.
The author of numerous articles for such publications as Commentary, Time, and American Judaism, he wrote a chapter for National Geographic’s Book of World Religions and contributed numerous pieces to New Jersey Jewish News. His articles covered diverse topics in Jewish spirituality and contemporary religious thought; he was considered the first to draw attention to the revival of Hasidism in America following the war, and especially to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
His first book, The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi (1961), explored the “varieties of religious experience” in the new State of Israel, chronicling communities as diverse as Christian monasteries, hasidic sects, and the secular spirituality of the kibbutzim. It also contained penetrating interviews with Martin Buber and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. His engaging style blended the detailed observations of a journalist with his own thoughtful distillation of the spiritual wisdom of the movements he chronicled.
It was the publication of 9 1/2 Mystics: The Kabbala Today in 1969 that brought Weiner to the attention of a larger audience. Described as a “modern spiritual classic,” the book describes Weiner’s encounters with the living practitioners of the esoteric Jewish mystical tradition, together with his insights into the value of that tradition for contemporary seekers. It played no small role in the renewal of Jewish life in the ’60s and ’70s. For many, 9 1/2 Mystics was the point of entry into a deeper encounter with a more spiritual Judaism.
The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi and 9 1/2 Mystics were both recipients of the National Jewish Book Award.
Weiner maintained associations and friendships with groups as diverse as Chabad, the Bratzlaver community of Jerusalem, the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as a number of Christian theologians. He was a powerful speaker as well as a gracious teacher, who was generous sharing his time with the constant stream of spiritual seekers from all traditions who sought him out.
Weiner’s life and passion were bound up with the emerging State of Israel. He made his first visit there in 1946 as a volunteer, where he was involved in activities with the prestate Hagana. In 1949 he brought over a group of American students for the Summer Institute with The Hebrew University, one of the first international study programs for American students in Israel. He returned to Israel regularly, helping establish institutions of liberal Judaism, such as Har El, Jerusalem’s first Reform congregation. In 1962 he laid the groundwork for the opening of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College, serving as its first administrator when it opened in 1963.
In his later years he divided his time between New Jersey and Jerusalem. His wife of 30 years, Shirley Jacobs Weiner, predeceased him in 2009. He is survived by three children: Jonathan Weiner and his wife Miriam Rajner of Jerusalem and their daughter Talia; Carmi Weiner and her husband Tom Gutherz of Charlottesville, Va., and their children Ilan, David, and Tamar; and Alisa Summers and her husband Steve Summers of Easton, Pa., and their children Jesse and Lauren. His memory will be cherished by his family, friends, and colleagues and by his many students and readers.
Six days, 40 years
Rabbi Herbert Weiner
In 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, NJJN invited Rabbi Herbert Weiner, then a resident of Jerusalem, to share with readers his memories of that time and other thoughts on Israel, one of several articles he contributed to this newspaper.
In the spring of 1967, my family and I were on a short sabbatical in Israel from my congregation, Temple Israel in South Orange. We were supposed to return to the United States at the end of May; I was scheduled to perform a wedding in New Jersey at the beginning of June.
As we began packing, the Middle East began to bubble with threats of war.…
The coming battle, Arab radio proclaimed, would once and for all expunge this festering non-Arab entity called Israel from the area. Jews were told to get out or be thrown out; it was a message repeated day and night in English and in Hebrew — just to make sure we understood.
My small children were with my wife and me. I tried to shield them from this on-air saber-rattling, but the broadcast threats were unrelenting.
We heard Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s attempts to respond to the existential threats. But to us, his voice sounded shaky, unsure. Foreign Minister Abba Eban ran to whatever foreign embassy would receive him, asking for support. None was offered.
Dark jokes began to circulate; one suggested posting a sign at the airport: “Will the last Jew to leave the country please turn out the lights.”
Suddenly, the threats ceased. That meant I could keep my promise to officiate at that wedding in New Jersey.
At the end of May we went to Amsterdam, where we would visit a while before taking a plane to Newark.
In the last days of May, the Israeli army indeed had appeared to relax its state of readiness.
Then, without warning, the Israeli air force surprised and destroyed almost all of Egypt’s planes and tanks on the ground. Within hours Israeli troops crossed the Sinai and the Suez Canal, into Egypt.
It was in Amsterdam that we heard the news: The war had begun. Of course, I had to return to Israel. Within days, I had made the arrangements — but by then, it was over. The Arab nations had surrendered. Israel had paid a grievous price in dead and wounded, but it had survived, counterattacked, and won.
Now, I was off to New Jersey and the wedding festivities, but I felt grievously wounded — I had not been there for the Six-Day War.
But having missed being there made one thing certain: Whenever war broke out in Israel — and it broke out several times over the next few years — I was there. No matter that I was not a soldier, that I had a job as a rabbi, that I had nothing to contribute to the war effort — when Israel was threatened, I had to be in Israel.