Rabbi David L. Lieber dies at 83; president emeritus of American Jewish University

Rabbi David L. Lieber, the president emeritus of what is now American Jewish University and the guiding force behind a modern Torah commentary for Conservative Judaism, died of a lung ailment Monday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 83.

Lieber was president for 29 years of the University of Judaism, which last year was renamed American Jewish University after merging its Bel-Air campus with Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

As the university's first full-time president, Lieber oversaw its expansion from a tiny campus in Hollywood that concentrated on training Hebrew teachers to a more comprehensive institution in the Santa Monica Mountains that encompasses programs for undergraduates, graduates and adult learners. He also started its rabbinic program, the first on the West Coast for Conservative Judaism, and an MBA program for nonprofit management.

"He had the vision of moving the campus farther west as he saw the Jewish community moving farther west," said Robert Wexler, who succeeded Lieber as the university's president. "Now we are in the epicenter of Jewish life in Los Angeles."

Lieber was one of the nation's longest-serving college presidents when he stepped down in 1993. A biblical scholar, he returned full-time to teaching and was elected in 1996 to a two-year term as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

He also devoted himself to a project he had wanted to pursue for more than two decades: the creation of a new interpretive text for Judaism's Conservative branch that would reflect contemporary beliefs and modern scholarship. When the idea was approved by the movement's Rabbinical Assembly in 1987, Lieber became general editor.

Unveiled in 2001, the 1,560-page volume called Etz Hayim, or "Tree of Life," replaced a Torah translation and commentary that had been used in Conservative synagogues since the late 1930s. Traditional enough to be accepted by many Orthodox synagogues, the older commentary, written by J.H. Hertz, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Britain, was "antiquated and apologetic," Lieber said, particularly about sex and gender.

The new commentary, issued by the Jewish Publication Society of America, takes a less literal approach to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Reflecting recent archaeological finds, it questions some biblical narratives, such as whether Joshua ever really conquered Canaan and whether Moses was a real person or a folk hero. It also softens the interpretation of passages concerning homosexuality, which the Hertz commentary had described as an "abyss of depravity" and avoided references to God as "He."

"There's a need always for a new Torah commentary to reflect the age in which it is made," Lieber told the Jewish magazine Forward in 1999.

Lieber was born in Poland on Feb. 20, 1925, and came to the United States when he was 2. After graduating from City College of New York in 1944, he received his rabbinical training and a doctorate in Hebrew literature at Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He also had a master's from Columbia University.

From 1950 to 1954 he was rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. In 1956 he was named dean of students at the University of Judaism. In 1964 he became president and in 1979 oversaw the university's move to its present location in Bel-Air.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Esther; four children, Deborah, Michael and Daniel, all of Los Angeles, and Susan of Pittsburgh; and 11 grandchildren.

A service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air, CA 90077. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the university's Ostrow Library.