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When a Torah Scholar Dies

Today marks the 4th anniversary of my rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. People are sometimes surprised when I tell them that rabbinical school is five years long.

Those of us ordained by HUC-JIR begin the first year together studying in Jerusalem, and then four more years on one of the stateside campuses in New York, Cincinnati or Los Angeles. Five years is a pretty significant amount of time, and it’s often the case for many rabbinical and cantorial students that those five years of study overlap with significant moments of our lives. The people you study with become the people who dance at  your wedding, who sit by your side at shiva when a parent dies, and who you ask to officiate at the brit or babynaming for your new baby.

You spend so much time with these people, that (as I used to joke)- you know how many diet cokes they have had that day, and you notice when they cut their fingernails.The core curriculum keeps you so close together that it wouldn’t be unfair to compare it to the experience of high school; moving through the hallways of HUC like a little pack.  

You spend a *lot* of time together.  

Our class became close, quickly. We celebrated together, cheered each other on, and took care of each other— especially as ordination drew closer, and the anxieties of job placement and moving began to set in.

We were each other’s people.

The only people who can rival your classmates in importance are your teachers. The professors at the college during my time there were a mix of long tenured professors like the late Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, who was celebrating his 100th semester teaching when I took his Modern Jewish Thought course— and then younger, newer professors, like Dr. Wendy Zierler— a modern Orthodox professor teaching Hebrew, feminist critique and literature to Reform seminarians.

And I was one of the lucky ones, because Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken was my teacher.  I think I knew at the time how extraordinary he was, but certainly- in the last few days since his untimely and tragic death, it is all laid out for me in stark relief.  

When my class arrived on campus in 2010, Dr. Panken had just stepped down from his position as dean, because he wanted to teach more. He was literally the first teacher I had on campus, for that very first 8:40am class on the first Monday of my time on the NY Campus: “Introduction to 2nd Temple Literature”. He would also be the one to ordain me as a rabbi, with the laying of his hands on my head, granting me s’micha.

Together with my class, I had the good fortune of knowing Dr. Panken closely as my teacher, both in and out of the classroom, as a fellow Berkshire lover, and then, as my Rav ha’Smikha– my ordaining rabbi. It was a moment I will not soon forget then, when this past Tuesday, those same classmates and I sat together in a row at his funeral.

As Rabbi David Stern, president of the CCAR said at his funeral on Tuesday afternoon,

Rabbi Aaron Panken was good at just about everything: his curiosity and intellect made him expert in far more than most people could ever hope to master—- and his first love in the Jewish academic sphere was Talmud.  He taught us Talmud in a way that made you want to learn it— even me. The layers of aramaic often scared me away, but his teaching, his passion, and his humor always pulled me back in. And so in honor of my teacher, I want to teach a little Talmud tonight.

… it was taught in a baraita: When a Torah scholar dies, everyone is his relative.

This baraita— which means simply that it is an additional oral teaching that at some point was codified along with the Gemara, appears in Tractate Shabbat 105b.

“When a Torah scholar dies, everyone is his relative.”

Of course, the rabbis knew that this statement taken at face value could be problematic— and so the text continues and the Gemara asks “Does it enter your mind that everyone is his relative?” Or in other words— do you really think your experience of his death is the same as his relatives?

Tonight, I have no doubt that hundreds of my colleagues are stepping onto bimas around the world with heavy hearts. I know that the new rabbis and cantors who were ordained on Sunday morning just after his death find the joy of their first Shabbat as rabbis and cantors diminished. There are countless multitudes mourning the death of this great Torah scholar. And still we know– that the designation as mourners is reserved for his wife Lisa, his children Eli and Samantha, his parents Beverly and Peter, and his sister Rabbi Melinda Panken.

So, what would Aaron Panken have to say about the continuation of this baraita? How are we to reconcile the baraita “When a Torah scholar dies, everyone is his relative?” with the reality of who is at the center of this loss? The text continues: Rather, say: Everyone is considered to be like his relative, in the sense that everyone rends his garment in anguish over him, and everyone bares his shoulder over him in mourning, and everyone eats the mourner’s meal over him in the public square as mourners do. The death of a Torah scholar is a personal loss for every Jew.

It is a personal loss for every Jew, not only those who knew him.

The loss is personal, because we have lost not only the world of Torah that he held within himself, but we lost a sacred  link in the chain of transmission. This loss is personal for those of us who knew him, and those of us who did not because his death does not simply mark the end of a chapter, but the loss of a whole new book, that he was just beginning to write.

And so tonight, I join with my colleagues and friends, and his colleagues and friends, in this sacred connected community bound by a thousands-year old chain of tradition— and bare my shoulders with you, my Hevreh community, in mourning.  

The other day, after returning from his funeral, I went to my bookshelf to pull out my notebooks from rabbinical school— hoping maybe to uncover a hidden gem, to remember something he taught us and in that way to learn from him just one more time.

And so— one last mishnah, dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken:

The mishna relates another episode portraying unusual conduct by Rabban Gamliel. He bathed on the first night after his wife died. His students said to him: Have you not taught us, our teacher, that a mourner is prohibited to bathe? He answered them: I am fragile. (BT Berakhot 16b) 

In my notes in the margin of this teaching, I wrote: “Panken asks “Rabbinic leadership- what happens when we do differently (“more”) than we teach?”

He was always pushing us to move past a surface understanding of these ancient texts— how would they apply to our lives as rabbis? Rabbi Panken was a Reform Jew to his core: steeped in the movement in every possible way, and equally steeped in deep and nuanced Jewish learning. In other words— how can we be exemplars not of some lofty, idealized learning, but how can we be exemplars of what it means to be human? I wish he were here still to help me and all of his students understand if we’re getting it right— to answer his question, by saying that what happens when we do differently than we teach is probably (at least two things):

First, we teach. We hold up the tradition. He loved learning, and he loved teaching- and more than anything, he had a vision of a Reform Jewish rabbinate that was fluent in the texts of our tradition.

He wanted us to know the tradition so that we could bring it to life with authenticity.

But secondly— when we do differently than we teach, we show that we are human. That we are fragile.

He embodied these teachings and more with every fiber of his being, and tonight, we are all mourners for this loss of a mensch like no other.  He was truly, the best of us.

May the memory of this righteous and sweet man be forever a blessing.


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