William Sloane Coffin - an appreciation

A rabbi remembers his mentor.

The first time I heard William Sloane Coffin speak was at a memorial service for Abraham Joshua Heschel at B'nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan. As I listened intently to Coffin's address, I thought to myself, "That is the kind of rabbi I want to be someday." Of course, Coffin was not a rabbi, but a renowned Presbyterian minister. Nevertheless, his eloquence, humor and chutzpah all greatly impressed me. I quickly realized why he had been dubbed "the greatest white preacher in America." The Rev. William Sloane Coffin died on April 12 at the age of 81. In Jewish tradition, it's customary to pay tribute to one's teacher after his death. Beginning with that day in Manhattan, I learned much more over the next several years about Coffin's singular contributions to American life: his work as a chaplain at Yale University, as a civil rights "freedom rider" and as an activist against the Vietnam War. The more I learned about Coffin, the better I understood why he and Heschel were such close friends. Like their colleague, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., both believed that as religious leaders they were obligated to work for social change; both possessed what Heschel described as "moral grandeur and spiritual audacity." But it was only this past winter that I actually met Coffin. I decided that the best way for me to have a serious conversation with Coffin was to interview him for Tikkun magazine, for which I serve as a contributing editor. And so, after reading as much as I could by and about him, I made a pilgrimage to Strafford, Vt., where Coffin and his wife, Randy, were living. WHEN I arrived at the Coffin home, I was shocked to see just how weakened Bill was from a stroke and other ailments. He sat in a tattered recliner, his wilted legs covered by a heavy woolen blanket. He was much thinner than I remembered him, and his speech was severely slurred. One thing, however, remained the same: his spirit. For the next two hours, Coffin spoke with great passion and precision - his slurred speech required that he choose his words even more carefully than before his stroke - about all of the great moral and spiritual issues of the day, from abortion to the environment to interfaith relations. It was clear that while he rarely left his living room, he continued to travel great distances in his mind. After completing the interview, Coffin insisted that I have a drink with him. But he was concerned about me making it home before the Sabbath. "What would 'Father' Abraham [Heschel] think if I caused you to violate the holy Sabbath!" he exclaimed. Over the next several months, I spoke regularly with Coffin by phone. At first we worked together on editing the interview, but after a few calls we just schmoozed, discussing his old age, my new marriage and the complications of religious leadership and human frailty. For the most part, I asked questions and he answered them. He was very concerned that a new generation of religious leaders emerge that is passionate about issues of social and environmental justice, members of the clergy who see themselves not only as priests but as prophets. He felt there were too many "old Turks" and "young fogies" in positions of religious leadership. As we spoke, I always held a pen in hand, ready to record a quotation from the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr or Albert Camus. Most precious to me were Coffin's own aphorisms, as he had the rare ability to formulate beautiful poetic insights in the course of conversation. The one that stands out in my mind during this period of mourning is, "The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity and compassion, and there's no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night." Bill Coffin lived a good life - a life dedicated to justice and righteousness, to love and peace. May his memory serve as a source of blessing and inspiration to all those who seek to do the same - may his memory be a blessing. The writer is director of informal education at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and faculty adviser to Jewish Seminarians for Justice.