On Erev Shabbat BaMidbar, my teacher Byron Sherwin became an echo of Eternity.
I first met Byron over the phone in 2000. I had heard about doctoral studies at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and hoped that this would be a way into more spiritual growth. At the time, I felt stymied: an associate Rabbi at a large congregation, I was so busy helping others that I could see no way of furthering my own spiritual journey. Doctoral studies seemed a perfect way out, or forward, or …. something.
Dr. Sherwin wasn’t so sure that I was right for the program. I remember our conversation, remember being somewhat surprised; I had been an honor student in college, did just fine in Rabbinical school. What was his question? Was it that I didn’t quite know what I wanted? It frustrated me. It made me think.
Byron, who became my teacher and my mentor, was just that kind of provocative, insightful spirit. There must have been something in my voice of the chip on my shoulder – a half-baked feminist, reactionary reformist, mostly thoughtless sloganeer. What Byron heard in my voice, I now know, was indicative of a very green apprentice. Perhaps just considering what it would take to gentle me out of my ill-considered anger, to help me settle down to listen to the Still Small Voice, was exhausting.
Whatever – he let me into the program. I thanked him with an excoriating evaluation after my first learning seminar in Chicago.
Later, much later, he would explain to me that he had been quite ill at the time, more than he had known. And, in truth, all the later years of my learning at Spertus were better than that first one. And, in truth, the first one wasn’t bad. I have the notes. His reach, and his grasp, of the material was extraordinary.
Thank G-d, and thank Byron, I am no longer half-baked, half-thoughtless, half-reactionary. Here are some of his teachings:
1. Feminists don’t have to go outside of Jewish tradition to make their case. They just have to become learned enough in the tradition to find their ammunition there.
2. Corporations are golems. Just you wait and see.
3. Some day a person will have two, or three, or maybe four parents. Halakhah can make sense of this.
4. Life is lived below as well as above the neck. Try to unify yourself.
Byron Sherwin was a brilliant mind in a quirky psychology in a body that let him down too soon. He took care to supply all of us, his students, with voluminous resources on the topics we studied, “so that for the rest of your career, you’ll have what you need to teach.” He spent careful time reading final exams that numbered in the hundreds of pages, and didn’t grade on a curve. He cared about our personal lives no less, following the role modeling of his own masters, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others, Rabbis in the Hasidic tradition:
One day the Rabbi asked the student, how is your study partner?
the student replied, I don’t know.
The Rabbi shouted, what do you mean, you don’t know? you study together, you eat together, you work together – how can you not know if your study partner is happy or sad, content or in need?
Byron cared about our personal lives and took us in as far as we needed. I only wish I did not have the feeling that we were not, really, able to give him what he himself needed from us, his students.
It is said in the Talmud that a faithful student does not speak a word contrary to the master’s teachings in his lifetime. I confess I can’t imagine why I would, now.
ברוך דיין האמת