The news arrived on Parashat Vayechi, of the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, their final words and reminiscences. Jacob implores Joseph to bury his father with his ancestors, and requests hesed ve'emet-that same act of kindness which marked the life of Rabbi Dr. Michael Signer. Could there be a time more fitting for Michael to die and leave us all bereft than on that Shabbat?
Many of us knew Michael through his Torah, his amazing teaching, his incredible memory which forgot more than we'll ever know. We were his colleagues and friends and students at Hebrew Union College, we learned Rashi and so many other medieval commentators with him. We might have argued with him in English or Hebrew or noch besser German or some language Michael knew far better than we did, but he knew best. We became friends and study companions with Rabbis long gone for centuries with Michael as our guide. He made Rashi come off the page and into our souls. He introduced me to the Chariot of Ezekiel. With his own coke-bottle glasses under that tussle of brown hair we were given new lenses with which to view the Torah and understand it.
I had the unique experience of sharing 11 of my 15 years in South Bend with Michael as my congregant—though he often corrected me and said he was my assistant Rabbi. Sure! How I remember trudging through the snows of Michiana to meet Michael for our weekly Torah study, or memories of Michael and Betty arriving at Temple Beth-El in South Bend to pray in such weather to honor Shabbat and the holidays. What were we California boys from Los Angeles and Temple Emanuel doing in the blizzards of Indiana? In graduate seminars at Notre Dame’s theology department his voluminous command of sources allowed PhD candidates and fellow professors to scribble away notes in Latin or Greek, so awed were they by his brilliance. During all the years Betty and Michael celebrated the High Holy Days in South Bend Michael offered a noteless yet breathtaking dvar torah on Jonah. It was the spiritual highlight of our worship. His words opened the gates of prayer wide. I wish we had recorded every one.
He explored other opportunities, thoughts about writing, discussed his travel and seminars, brainstormed programmatic ideas to link the Synagogue, the Jewish community, and Notre Dame. He fumed vayihar apo when he received his medallion as the Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture, and felt that comments demeaning to the Jewish people and to the nature of the Christian Jewish dialogue had been spewed forth. He didn’t just write books about interfaith dialogue or study it from a distance: he lived and breathed Dabru Emet every day with every student and colleague, at every faculty committee or meeting, with every priest and minister and reverend and parishioner he met. A second Jewish chair in theology and the Holocaust Project at ND which he and Betty developed will be lasting legacies. His collection of books will become the Rabbi Michael A. Signer Library at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Speaking of food, which was often for Michael, Betty watched Michael like a hawk for years. There wasn’t a time we were at a restaurant when Michael would not say, "I'd love to eat this, but Betty would kill me!" He violated the prohibition once at opening day of the Chicago Cubs, figuring the prohibition did not apply when he was out of state. Michael was that conscience in my ear about rearing my sons, advised me on how to handle two bnai mitzvah as a divorced dad, how to take the 'high road', led the minyan for my family when I lost both my parents, and spelled me on the bemah during Yom Kippur Yizkor when I broke down after those losses. But most significantly, when Doris Bergen, a German historian told Michael about her colleague soon to arrive at Indiana University South Bend, Margarete Myers, he listened really well, told Betty about the new single Jewish professor. Fortunately for me, Betty then asked Doris, "would she like our Rabbi?" The rest is history, and without Michael and Betty's mitzvah of matchmaking I don't know whether we would have met, married, or been so blessed to have our twin daughters. What joy for Michael to take such pride in that noble act of hesed as our shadchan.
Notre Dame professor David Hachen, son and brother to rabbis, wrote: "Michael was an angel, figuratively and maybe even literally. He dwelt among us so we could see how a person could be righteous, thirst for knowledge and wisdom, love Torah, and build bridges to the Other. His love of words and the books that are filled with them was not just because they contained insights into both the divine and the human, but because through our interpretations of them-through Midrash-words provide us with a vehicle whereby we can learn about and see who we are, and reflect on what we aspire to be. Though words and Torah were his life, his eyes saw the Beauty in the world and never seemed to fixate on just one thing. He could be quiet, meditative and full of prayer, or an animated teller of stories. Michael was not a preacher, nor a judge. As a Rabbi, a teacher, he knew that his students had to discover Truth and decide for themselves what is Good. As an angel he created paths that people could take to go places that they did not know existed. Now in his passing Michael has taken one of those paths. Though he is gone, the paths are still there."
And so we return on that path to Rashi, who teaches that the second book of the Torah Shemot, the story of the Exodus, begins by listing the names of the children of Israel, because Torah enumerates them while they were living, and again enumerates them when it tells of their deaths, showing how dear they were to God, and that they are compared to the stars which shine above. So it is with Michael, who we must remember as he lived, who has illuminated so much of life and Torah and kindness to us as the stars have brightened the skies, and who was dear to God and to us all.
Zecher haver tzadik v'hacham livracha.
Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein
4 January 2009 18 Tevet 5770
Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis
Palm Springs, California