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Rabbi Gendler’s eloquent voice for Jewish universalism, social justice

Written By | Apr 7, 2022
Gendler, Rabbi Everett Gendler, Jewish, Universalism, died

Rabbi Everett Gendler. Photo taken by Hannah Van Sickle at Gendler’s Great Barrington home in 2018

Rabbi Everett Gendler, a leading civil rights advocate, environmentalist, and advocate of Jewish universalism, died on April l at 93. He led an extraordinary life. He was jailed in Georgia in 1962 with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the father of the Jewish environmentalism movement and spent the last two decades helping organize non-violent protests in Tibet, collaborating with the Dalai Lama. He was concerned that Zionism was corrupting Judaism by replacing God with the State of Israel as a focus of attention. He was further concerned with the mistreatment of the indigenous population of Palestine. He and I have been in touch for many years.

It was Rabbi Gendler’s view that Zionism, Jewish nationalism, is a rejection of Judaism’s moral and ethical universal tradition. He worked to make the world a better place for men and women of every race and religion. In 2013, he received the “Human Rights Hero” award from T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Also, in 2013, he was awarded the Presidents’ Medallion from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Gendler was instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s address to the national rabbinical convention on March 25, 1968, ten days before King’s death.

Born August 8, 1928, in Claritin, Iowa, Rabbi Gendler served from 1978-1995 as the Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he served as rabbi for congregations in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Havana, Cuba. In addition, he served as rabbi of the Jewish Center of Princeton, New Jersey, and Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.

In his book Judaism For Universalists,” Gendler recalls, early in his career, being referred to as “a radical universalist with a rabbinic degree.”

If this taunt had come at a later time, he writes, he would have replied,

“Of course, I’m a universalist! How could I dare to be a rabbi without being concerned for all human beings? Abram’s original command from God, as he was sent on his journey and assured that ‘I shall make of thee a great nation,’ was ‘Be thou a blessing…in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed (Genesis 12-2,3). Not to be a universalist, not to be concerned that through the quality of Jewish life all human families would be blessed, would represent a betrayal of the original purpose of God’s call to Abram to become Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

Rabbi Gendler made a notable contribution in translating the writings of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869-1931), the rabbi of a small Polish town. A delegate to the Fourth World Zionist Congress in London in 1900, Tamares became disillusioned with political Zionism. Tamares wrote extensively about his rejection of nationalism and embrace of pacifism. About what he saw as the unique Jewish mission in the world

In Tamares’ view, the viability of the educational mission of the Jews to mankind and therefore to the betterment of all humanity was dependent on the continued existence of the Jews throughout the world. The Zionist dream of “normalizing” the Jewish condition —-including a return to national life was seen by Tamares as a betrayal of the Jewish mission in history, to impart ethical living to all of humanity. He believed that the idea of “exile” was not a punishment but a purification since the Jewish mission is unlike the mission of the nations.

In 1929, Tamares, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote that the very notion of a Jewish state as a spiritual center “was a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.”

He noted that,

“Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which may be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a ‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the three-foldedness of ‘homeland, army, and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics, and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah, ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.'”

In an interview with Lawrence Bush, then editor of Jewish Currents, Gendler was asked about his skepticism about Zionism which, Bush noted, “is particularly unusual for a contemporary Jewish book.” Gendler response being:

“Yes, and it’s the one Jews seem most concerned about, Israel. So let me say that I am overwhelmed and delighted by the outpouring of scholarship and culture and sheer fruitfulness of Jews living together and sustaining institutions in that land, but I have personally not found visiting Israel a positive experience…My painful feeling has been that Israel has become a too-available substitute for Deity or even values in defining Jews and Judaism. Israel-centrism is a great danger for Jewish identity, and the behavior of what I have seen since the 1967 war called ‘imperial Israel’ is a great danger to Jewish values….You know the number of non-Zionist Jews in the American Jewish community is quite sizable. And in my congregations, people who shared my discomfort with Israel, especially with its displacement of the Palestinians, had a place to come.”

Rabbi Gendler rejected the idea that Israel was the “homeland” of all Jews and that those living elsewhere were in “exile” or a “diaspora.’ He writes that,

“The entire notion of ‘diaspora’ leads to the view that my not living in Israel’s most significant Jewish fact of my life. Subjectively, however, I find that this fact hardly matters at all. I live my Jewish life in this place and time…My life in America is far more free than it would be in Israel…Were I an Israeli with concerns about life and politics in Israel extending to the situation of the Palestinians, and were I to undertake their direct action of the kind in which many of us in the U.S. participated during the civil rights movement…would I find the atmosphere more respectful of civil disobedience than I did here? I think not.”

In assessing contemporary Israel, Gendler urges readers to

“…keep in mind such elements as a state-authorized Chief Rabbinate refusing recognition of a religious conversion overseen by as eminent an Orthodox rabbi as Haskell Lookstein, the continuing indifference in Israel, without any serious move toward exploration, of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, repeated in 2007 and 2017; and the recently passed Israeli law enshrining to right of self-determination in Israel as unique to the Jewish people.'”

Everett Gendler lived a long and productive life. He was active until the end and he will live on through the important words he has left with us, and through his example of involvement in efforts to improve the world. His universal Jewish vision came long before Zionism and will live on into the future.


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Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.