There will be memorial services here in Denver to honor the life and accomplishments of Stanley Wagner, Rabbi, educator and risk taker who died this week. To me he was a serious man, a characterization that speaks to both his public demeanor and his drive to make a difference. It is therefore wonderful to relate a story in which I enjoyed a light moment with him.
I do not recall the exact year this story occurred but at that time Rabbi Wagner was already the Rabbi Emeritus of BMH synagogue. Rabbi Abner Weiss was a visiting scholar for Shabbat at BMH and was slated to give various talks on Kabbalah. His main address though was on Shabbat after services and his topic was Reincarnation. Rabbi Weiss, in addition to serving as a congregational Rabbi in Los Angeles was also a certified regression therapist. To bolster his conviction that reincarnation is a real phenomenon corroborated by experience with people he regressed, Rabbi Weiss boldly stated that Reincarnation is a doctrine accepted by every Rabbi of renown, with the important exceptions of Rabi Sa’adyah Gaon (9th century) and Rabbi Moses ben Maimom—known as Maimonedes (12th century). In truth, Rabbi Weiss’ assertion was bold and inaccurate. Many great Rabbis throughout Jewish history have dissented and flatly opposed the authenticity of Reincarnation as a Jewish doctrine. The fact that in the entire corpus of the Talmud no mention is made of Reincarnation is strong evidence to support Maimonedes and any others that deny the validity of Reincarnation as compatible with Jewish belief. Reincarnation became a widespread Jewish belief through the agency of Kabbalah—from the 12th century until today.
On that given Shabbat the preliminaries of Rabbi Weiss’ remarks gave way to the spellbinding and emotionally intense stories of people who “discovered” during regression, with him, past lives and events during those lives that significantly impacted on their current lives. As with many other accounts, these remarkable stories corroborated Reincarnation because as people recollected a prior life—blocks that were present in their current lives resolved.
When Rabbi Weiss finished his presentation most of us in the audience remained spellbound—mouths were literally agape, especially for many who had come with skepticism if not disbelief. As Rabbi Weiss positioned himself to receive questions for the audience, he was preempted by a now standing Rabbi Wagner who at first acknowledged his deep affection and respect for his colleague. Then, with the seriousness of a steamroller set to smoothly set the pavement straight, Rabbi Wagner launched into attack mode and explained why Reincarnation had no place in Jewish thought. Caught between what they had heard the guest speaker so convincingly portray as a real phenomena and the proclamation of their Rabbi Emeritus—a stunned silence enveloped the room.
I was sitting in the back of the room and felt my Kabbalisitc knees jerking to respond in defense of Reincarnation—but I knew that breaking the silence required a wisdom that could preserve the dignity of both Rabbis. Upon a moment of reflection the solution I offered to those assembled was a simple one: Rabbi Wagner, you see, is a reincarnation of Maimonedes. When the laughter subsided, Rabbi Wagner graciously accepted the compliment—he used a Yiddish word to convey, “If only” I was Maimonedes.
Perhaps his own daring (how far he was willing to go) held a spark of that genius of Jewish rational thought brought forward from Spain and Egypt to of all places, Denver, Colorado. Maimonedes was radical in his time and Rabbi Wagner proposed and carried out some radical ideas for the sake of Jewish community here in Denver.
Did Maimonedes have a lighter side? We may never know. Rabbi Wagner, the serious man, did.