Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Jesuits' Rabbi

When I moved to DC in 1979--after a few months living here in 1974-75--friends mentioned that a good option for High Holiday services was available at Georgetown University, where the school's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Harold White, conducted services in Gaston Hall for large congregations that included both university students and broader community attendants.

We often attended back then, and it quickly became clear to me that Rabbi White was the rare clergyman whose sermons invariably left you with a lot to think about. I thought about this again when I read his obituary--he died Monday at 83--which recalled that he was Georgetown's first Jewish chaplain. The Washington Post obit noted that when he asked the Jesuits who hired him why they needed a Jewish chaplain as there were not many Jewish students on campus, they told him he was there for Christians as well. Georgetown, despite its Jesuit identity, wanted its students exposed to the several religions for which the university had established chaplaincies.I also heard that Rabbi White had been brought to Georgetown because the Jesuits wanted to have someone learned in theology with whom they could discuss the many topics that crossed religious boundaries. 

Aside from conducting good services with superb sermons, Rabbi White apparently also was a rare clergyman, especially when he started out, who looked at the positive side of interfaith marriages. He would perform them, observing that he found this offered a better likelihood that a Jewish partner would continue to identify with the faith. Having had the opportunity to hear many rabbis over the years, he stood out as the best rabbi in the pulpit I recall.

As in many universities, the combined holiday services used the longtime Conservative prayer book, edited by Rabbi Robert Gordis. In the never-united Jewish spectrum, this was the closest thing to a common denominator: too long for Reform, abbreviated in the Orthodox view. I always felt it provided the perfect basis for a brilliant rabbi, like Rabbi White, to use in relating his sermon to the service. Few of our newer prayer books--be they Conservative or Reform--possess the staying power of this well-edited and balanced one.

Rabbi White made you think. He did not preach about upholding rules or present tired arguments--I recall one rabbi who had but two sermons, on Israel and intermarriage: he was for one and against the other. That was just what Rabbi White wasn't. He had an unusual gift for taking everyday ethical challenges and forcing you to confront them with wisdom and imagination. For that ability alone, which he applied so well and for so long for so many, he will be remembered.

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