Rabbi William Cutter
Today is about remembering; it is a response to Deuteronomy's ironic charge: "Ask about the former days!" We remember the work of our Founders, especially the two in whose light later founders worked. We recall the burdens they carried and the opportunities they extended to the rest of us. We turn their ordinary words into metaphors!
I trust that you here will recall your own burdens and the sense of destiny you brought with you to HUC. I hope that you will always feel that you are having a good time -- and not let that sense of destiny crush you into self-importance. And when times aren't good, make them better!
Our school began to make things better with an inaugural night at Plum Street Temple, with carriages and fancy people, with gaslit lamps and buffet. The promise of destiny inspired a sense of importance there. But on the morrow, after the elevating inaugural, a handful of boys sat down to read from a handful of tattered books in a dingy basement.
The reality follows in the morning -- always in the morning. Then the work must be done. And that geometry is repeated in each generation, project after project, whether it is the birth of one part of our school, or its upstart challenge in the great Jewish Institute of Religion; whether it's the Zionist Congress of 1897 or the Jewish nation whose Jubilee we observe this year; or, yes, this lean little campus of ours which has had its own founders. The hard work must be seen in the harsh light of day. But that light can also illuminate. And one of the things we see in it is that between the glorious aspiration and the reality, the happy fact is that whenever creation occurs, we have had some good times.
We could find no better symbol of foundation and its ironies than the two men who -- as if in some Dickensian hyperbole -- bore names that sound the same, even if they mean different things. These names, much remembered icons of our annual gathering here, might prompt us to be smart enough to use their names for good. But the problem, once we set about to work, is: what would being Wise look like today? Keeping their names before us must prompt reflection on the fact that they would hardly recognize us if they were sitting in this synagogue. So what do their names mean?
I want to say something about names and metaphors, and about their linguistic extensions: epigrams. Some of our most familiar epigrams, like the names of famous people, are used so often that we "bim bam" them into liturgical insignificance: "Moshe Kibel Torah, and he handed it on to Joshua." It is a benevolent phrase, but lurking behind it is the tragedy of Moses' passing from the scene; "Dor Dor ve Dorshav," each generation has its interpreters -- that's progressive enough; except that it also means that the new ones overpower the old -- sometimes, as Harold Bloom has reminded us, through violence and hurtful disregard. And make no mistake about it: As we grow beyond our founders, we commit one or another form of abuse: we may demythologize them by digging up the historical dirt; we may elevate them beyond usefulness; or we may trivialize them into the occasion for an alumni luncheon. We may also do it right -- never forgetting the true historical situation in which tragedy and good times exchange, usually matter-of-factly, sometimes catastrophically.
The trick for us is to observe the ritual, to repeat the good phrases, but not to forget the toil -- the tough work and the good times created by the tough work. To do what we do with such Torah portions as this week's Sedra -- to make the repetitions work for the strength of the words through their repetition, and not to permit our enthusiasm to flag from the annual recall of our ancient beginnings.
I have my own sense of beginnings, too strong a sense for some of my colleagues. They chide me at times when I invoke my 33 years on this campus as authority for my knowing better.
In celebration of this embarrassment of years, I accepted Dean Barth's gracious invitation to be the Founders' Day speaker. His invitation came at a good time for me, for my own light dimmed a bit this winter, and I have been blessed with another opportunity at illumination. To get ready for today, I read a lot of Founders' Day talks -- including my own of nearly 30 years ago. There I found one of the great tropes of Jewish tradition, the master story of Moses meeting with Akiba at the Bet Midrash.
You will remember the passage from Menahot 29b. Moses sits in Akiba's academy and does not recognize his own Torah as it has been transformed by the 1000 years that produced Akiba. Some may use this story, as I did then, to justify Reform Judaism -- always progressive and always changing. And the story will do for that purpose. But it is also true that Reform, Zionist history, and culture at large justify the story. For the problems we face can well be read back into Akiba's revision of Moses. If the analogy works one way, it works the other as well. And if giddy inauguration precedes problem, then problem may proceed good times -- the geometry and the trope continue. And Reform did not invent the pattern. -- God did! -- And the pattern continues, whether or not Reform is true to it. I sometimes fear that we are not true to our patterns. The world will move on without us even if we deceive ourselves out of our sense of historical process and changing human need, even if we let temporary spiritualities overshadow historical development. The world will not need us if we give up either pole of our motivations: the cultural riches of the Jewish people, or the physical needs of Jewish people living in their vulgar present.
Ask about the former times, and if you ask, watch out for the sting: For who within those former times would understand us today?! And I want to speak about the stubborn perception that earlier times were better times: The Wises' time, for today's purpose, other times, depending upon one's subject. It is a dim possibility that always beckons to older people. And it is my hunch that elder states-people think that aspects of their societies world are in decline because they sense their own decline, and project it on some aspect of the younger generation. I call this the clumsy epistemology of aging.
It is a cranky nostalgia re-enforced by some admittedly clumsy features of the present generation. Which of us isn't perplexed by Israel's loss of early ideology? Which of us hasn't said something about the terrible decline in civility, the arts, and politics? Just listen to the students in our halls. Hardly a narrative without "I go" instead of "I said" or like as a linking word instead of a simile; "up speak" sentences that seem to curl up in a question, even when no question is asked; a cavalier relationship to the Hebrew canon; and -- most devastating to the universalists among up -- oblivion to the cultural connectives we elders cherish so. Can this generation lead us in the future, as it latches on to the good life with its pensions and portfolios; think that it has a handle on reasonable behavior? Can we assume that it knows how to interpret the Torah because it knows cyberspace and sitcom? Gewald!!
Former times were better, we say, and use whatever we see in the current generation to prove it. We are saying, essentially, that the Wises lived in better times.
But if we have "fallen off" from where the Wises were, we have to ask from what high perch they had fallen off in order to do their work.
And "hidarderut ha dorot," as this fantasy is called, is balanced by the enrichment of history, and by moves never imagined.
Can the present moment determine the future? Or are we willing to take the risk that Walter Benjamin urged, that fragments of our current situation are ready made for infinite combination. You pick the subject, and the Moses-Akiba story has to bring a smile as well as a simile.
Notwithstanding the technology which one of our own students has told us may be double edged, the changes of 33 years suggest to me that we can keep doing good things. And, yes, all gains seem somehow balanced by the problems our limited abilities create. There are gains, nonetheless.
"Dear x," I wrote to a 17-year graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School who was about to become the head of a large day school. "You are entering a field I didn't imagine would exist, and you live in a vigorous city that many thought was dying. When you came to HUC, you were interested in arts education, and you left here an intellectual and practical leader of Jewish life. Women with three children didn't have much chance to become Jewish leaders; and when I came to HUC women in general didn't have that opportunity. Our world was poorer for that. Our intellectual lives have become destabilized -- there is some confusion about our values; but the values we were certain about also fostered racisms and sexisms that seem to be disappearing. We have, for the first time in my life, some appreciation for, instead of fear of, the 'otherness' of the other. Sure we have too many consumer rights advocates, and your leadership will surrender too much to their claims; but that sense of right is part of an autonomy that fosters creativity. Israel confounds us with its stubborn disobedience to its own traditions, but should they be different from us? You are moving, in other words, into a post modern, a-historical, demythologized, unstabilized, non-monolithic, and impatient world. Those are qualities you will have to use for creating the Jewish future. I know that you will use the richness of Judaism to foster the power inherent in those qualities and to inhibit the nonsense. Good luck."
The youngest people in this synagogue today have ahead of them the greatest promise in Jewish history, and so it seems appropriate that I turn to them as I near my conclusion.
In spite of your naivete, your TV-generated speech, your confounded consumer stubbornness, and sometimes your spiritual softness, you will emerge from the time here to be the next bearers of Jewish destiny. I worry about you just as former teachers worried about me and my predecessors: Borowitzes and Schindlers and Gottschalks; Cohens and Barths and Zimmermans.
I am as confident about you as I am proud to work with you.
You will have learned to be leaders while you are here. You may not remember a lot of the specific things we taught. What you will remember will be concentrated in little quotes, perhaps a paragraph if we are lucky: tiny anecdotes about the good times you had and about our personalities.
And now to the elders here -- you who were the worries of your teachers:
This generation will do with us what we have done with Heschel and Buber, with Akiba and Moses. They will remember a line here and a line there. Then they will add a few "stretchers" (to quote Huck Finn) to fit us to what they wanted to say in the first place. They will in no way recall the amount of words we created by toiling into the night, words which we wrote into articles, books or lesson plans. They will hold us up as the models for the next generation. We will become -- if we are lucky -- simple mythology.
Maybe even a bim bam in some service a century down the road. That is how the Canon works with its literature, and that is how the Hagiographa works with its sacred people. And what they build will be many times the vision of the Wises -- all but unrecognizable when it becomes their turn to be recognized.
You, the students in this room, today are doomed to our shared obscurity. It will hurt a bit as it hurts us, but it will hurt too much if you fail to have a good time while you are doing your work, if you let your sense of destiny crowd your sense of proportion. We have to enjoy the work for its own sake, so that some future generation will say that we had good times even as we created good times. Your destinies will have emerged after the fact and not before. This is your real burden -- not knowing where it will end.
I envy your task, even if it is a burden. And, as I would rather share it than be gone, I would like to leave you with some advice. A while back a fabulous joke circulated the Internet in cyber-pseudepigrypha. Kurt Vonnegut had supposedly delivered the commencement address at a well-known but nameless Ivy League Institution. His "first" words have become the model for the irony of these glorious, ceremonial, buffet-laden occasions. Looking out at the eager crowd of baccalaureates, he gazed directly into their collective eyes and announced that the one thing he would tell any graduate today is: FLOSS!
I can do better than that. If 33 years gives me any rights, it's to try to help us carry the burden of carrying the burden. Floss, for sure -- in other words, take care of yourselves. We need you. If you must live like a bourgeois, then as Flaubert suggested, think like a Demi God. While you must pretend to rationalism, adhere to your beliefs stubbornly and with the vitality of the Zionist pioneers. While spirit may transcend time, remember that spiritual events happen in a time and in a place -- try not to forget that. And while our great poets have taught us to turn the ordinary into lofty metaphor, remember that the metaphor is what Jews start with. Our task, as Shlonsky and Amichai have taught us, is to help people turn those metaphors into the ordinary.
And may the "ein sof," that metaphor without end, whom we call God, bless you in this work.
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 22 Oct 1998