I am deeply saddened by the death last week of Rabbi Balfour Brickner.
For two generations — as a pulpit rabbi in Washington, founding the staunchly liberal/progressive Temple Sinai, then on the national staff of the Reform movement, then as a pulpit rabbi again for New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and since his retirement thence, as an independent peace-and-justice activist — he was a stalwart of what was the great Reform commitment to Judaism as the quest for social justice.
He remained committed to that vision, and the action that flowed from it, even when much of the Reform movement became mushy about it.
Alongside radical Catholic priests, black ministers, and young black and Jewish activists, he helped lead the first Freedom Seder in the basement of a black church in Washington in 1969, when the very idea was outrageous to many Jews and attractive mostly to people more than a generation younger than he was.
I remember that some kid among the 800 participants that night asked, “Why do we drink four cups of wine?” And instead of giving some solemn analysis way over the kid’s head, he said, “So we shouldn’t get totally shikr [drunk]!” I was tickled that instead of assuming four cups was more than made sense, his answer assumed it was less than made sense. Indeed he had a wry sense of humor, unusual among deeply committed justice activists.
He applied his passion for justice and for peace not only to the American government during Vietnam, when many in the Jewish community hushed their voices in deference to Israeli officials who urged them to be quiet about the war, but also to what he saw as the deeply unethical and self-destructive behavior of the government of Israel toward the Palestinians.
This not despite the fact that he was a passionate Zionist but because of it — inheriting that along with his name, honoring the British foreign secretary who opened the door to Jewish settlement in Palestine.
Nor did he hold back from vigorous criticism of those American leftists who refused to condemn terrorism carried out by some Palestinian organizations. He called such people tuchus-lekers — butt-kissers — not behind their backs but to their faces at gatherings he attended at which they were present, rather than hiding in the synagogue pews among easy supporters.
The last time I saw him was just a few months ago, at a small gathering of religious anti-war activists. He was vigorously, wryly disgusted with what had come to pass for religion among most Americans, Jews or otherwise, and even with “religion” itself, because it so easily abandons justice for feel-good ritual.
On his distaste for ritual I disagreed with him — that glorious Freedom Seder in 1969 is evidence of how ritual can transform and energize people to work for justice — but I also see that he had a point. He will turn out to be “wrong” only if we in fact shape a religious and ritual practice that is filled with fire for justice and for peace.
I miss him already. We all will, whether we know it or not. But the knowing is important — for it is our memory of this tzaddik that can help to make our lives a blessing to the world.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of the Shalom Center.