A Word of Thanks

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21 May 2019

The following was transcribed from the Jewish Action Reader, Volume I, which was published in 1996:

The synagogue was crowded, I had bought no seat.  The usher sent me upstairs with scant ceremony to a tiny hot balcony, perhaps first designed as a choir loft. It was crowded too, but I managed to wedge myself into a corner of a bench. I could not see the synagogue floor or the bimah, only the top of the ark, but I did not consider myself ill treated. Anyone showing up  on Yom Kippur at the Jewish Center, the most fashionable and elegant Orthodox shul in New York, without having a place for himself in advance, was lucky to gain admittance.

My parents were worshipping in the Bronx at my grandfather’s shul. Being an overburdened radio writer at the time – it was 1937- I had preferred to stay in my Manhattan apartment, hence my last-minute invasion of the Jewish Center. I had heard of Rabbi Leo Jung, but I had never met him or heard him speak.

Sermon time came. I settled back, my mind closed, to enjoy my own meditations. The voice surprised me: warm, cultured, curiously blending solemnity and ironic humor. The words surprised me: clear, literate, striking words, neither pompous nor affected. I began to pay attention, and then the ideas surprised me: religious ideas, articulated in the light of the secular wisdom I had learned, and some secular wisdom that I hadn’t learned. Spoken in this manner, viewed in this fresh — and I had thought inevitably unkind — light, the Judaic commitments of my Hassidic grandfather seemed not naive, but wise beyond secular wisdom. Some instinct had always told me that Judaism held the deep truths, despite the skeptical criticism I had absorbed, but my instinct thus far had been little more than a guess. I got on my feet, craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the speaker, and saw an unusually handsome man with commanding eyes, a neat beard faintly tinged with gray, and spare controlled gestures.

I do not remember what Rabbi Leo Jung said in that sermon. I do remember that I listened and that the sermon was a turning point for me: the discovery that a modern mind could hold to Judaism and possibly persuade others that the faith could maintain itself in this most doubting age.

Naturally, I made it my business to become friendly with this man. I found him quite approachable, busy as he was. He had a custom of walking around the Central Park reservoir every day. It soon became a settled thing that I accompany him on these walks. Through hot days and cold, through sunshine, fog, snow and rain – he liked his walk in all weathers — we marched around the oval cinder path, enjoying the air and the view of the skyscrapers, and thrashing out one by one the classic theological conundrums. We talked at length, too, about the ideas and commitments of the Jewish faith. This pleasant and informing ambulatory friendship went on for several years, interrupted by his travels or mine and then resumed.

During my service in World War ll as a naval officer I kept up a steady correspondence with him. I came back after three years in the Pacific and settled in the New York suburbs, a newly married man. Dr. Jung and I still managed an occasional Central Park walk. His stride was as springy, his pace as brisk, and his controversial wit as swift as ever. By then I was not arguing against him very much. The years at sea had allowed me time to think things through. Give or take a few idiosyncrasies of viewpoint, I had arrived at the general Orthodox position I hold now. We began to dream, to talk, and to plan of propagating that view. I published my first novel, and Dr. Jung said that I should turn my pen to the service of Judaism.

He formed a discussion group of young men with traditional views. Our meetings went on for a year, until my first child was born and I had to drop out. During that year Dr. Jung bore down hard on my duty to write on behalf of the Jewish faith. Once he gave me a book by Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, and told me that this should be my model. I read the work and was overawed by its learning and zeal, neither of which, I felt, I could possibly match.  It seemed the height of presumption for me to think of following in the path of Hirsch.

All the same, Dr. Jung had planted a thought in my mind. The thought grew in time to be the book called This Is My God. I was thirteen years bringing off the task. In that stretch of time I did not manage to transform myself from a layman to a Talmudic scholar. I tried, but the world was too much with me, and anyway it appears I was destined to be a story-teller, not a philosopher. I learned a great deal, but the more I learned the more the margins of mastery seemed to recede.  At last I despaired of learning enough, and sat down to execute the assignment, hoping to contribute clarity and writing skill to the undertaking, without aspiring to be another Hirsch.

I submitted the finished manuscript to Dr. Jung, and had the benefit of a detailed and wise critique, which made the work much better. When the volume was published in 1959 I sent him one of the first copies off the press, and I also returned to him the copy of The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, by now somewhat battered. The task was done.

So l owe an eternal debt to my late teacher and friend, Dr. Leo Jung, not only for a long process of education, and for an invaluable editorial review, but for the original suggestion for This Is My God, which has stayed in print ever since. In my case, Dr. Jung’s influence on a young man had a public result. But he had an equally powerful effect on the lives of thousands of other people, this effect being expressed in their daily private actions.

Through some of the most desperate decades that the Jewish people have ever endured, Rabbi Leo Jung held the fort for the Mosaic faith by his writings, his speeches, his teaching, and his editorial work, all infused with his charming and forceful intelligence. He worked himself into physical exhaustion in welfare and rescue missions, but always came back with new vigor and amazing endurance.

If thirty Leo Jungs had been effectively placed all over the United States at the time he began his ministry, I believe American Jewry today would be largely Orthodox in outlook; but there was only one Leo Jung. While he was with us we regarded him as a beloved leader, and we looked to him for strength and light in the struggle that never ends to honor the Torah of Moses. And now that he is gone, that remains his legacy to us — strength and light to battle on in his spirit.

Chaval al daavdin v’lo mishtakchin”

Alas for those who are gone, and whose like is not to be found!”

— Sanhedrin, 111a

Editor’s Note: Much of this article was originally included in the volume published on the occasion of Rbbi Leo Jung’s seventieth birthday.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.