Rabbi/Dr. Alfred Gottschalk
President Zimmerman, Distinguished colleagues of our faculty, members of the Board of Governors and Overseers, Honorees, Graduates, Friends all,
It is a joyous moment that brings us together as we celebrate and the take delight in the achievements of our students after many years of hard and diligent study. We recognize as well the life time achievements of our distinguished honorees and the Heller Prize recipient, the late, extraordinary diplomat and humanitarian, Count Folke Bernadotte, of whom today we take special cognizance. At times such as these we reflect upon moments of origin. We are particularly grateful to those in our own lives who encouraged us and who gave us constancy and support to pursue our goals to become rabbis, university and seminary teachers and scholars in order to make that essential difference in the world for which our training has prepared us. I have had the privilege over some twenty five years of serving as President of the College and prior to that twelve years as Dean of the Los Angeles School, of enjoying these moments of transition. During the course of that long academic career and the attendance of graduations and convocations, I have come to value the importance of brevity and self-restraint in graduation speakers. I was not, however, prepared for such a consummate demonstration of both as during the recent Ordination ceremonies of our New York school at Temple Emanu-El. Our President Sheldon Zimmerman, after a long Ordination and Investiture ceremony and Joseph Prize presentation, ascended to the podium and announced to an astonished crowd that his scheduled ordination address would be deferred because of the lateness of the hour. There are many ways to win the hearts of an audience through humor, erudition and wit, but this one fashioned to the needs of the hour set a new standard. Clearly one that I cannot hope to emulate!
These precious moments awaken memories within us of how we took the path we did and in so doing sidestepped others that from time to time looked as compelling and attractive. In the last analysis, it seems however, that we followed the advice of the English poet Byron who wrote that "where the heart rests, let the head lie also." My own reason for being here reaches back to the time when as a young boy in Oberwesel on the Rhein, a small but beautiful village near the fabled Lorelei, I stood in the synagogue pressed together between my grandfather and father, both of blessed memory, devout in prayer. I sensed awesome moments at times of worship, especially in those darkest hours of the late 1930s, when they wrapped their tallit ever tighter around them and in the Kavana of their prayer, shut out the evils raging around them. Perhaps more than any other single series of moments, it was these which shaped my love of Judaism and subsequently my love of Jewish learning. My religious instruction in Oberwesel was sporadic, because we were no longer permitted formal instruction. It wasn't until I came to America that I found in the synagogue that my father chose for us the spirit that animated so much of my young life. The synagogue became, in effect, the center of my being. There a great teacher, Rabbi Ralph Silverstein, and a joyful Cantor Bernard Matlin, now both of blessed memory, gave us that sense of caring and excitement about being Jews in a world that was burning Jews. The synagogue served as the counterpoint to all that was whirling around us. It was in that synagogue that my Jewish learning began. It gave structure and meaning to my life. It was there that I learned of Yehoshua ben Peracheya's advice. "Find a teacher, acquire a study companion and when you judge people give them the benefit of the doubt." (Avot 1.6)
At this time, I am particularly cognizant of the importance of great teachers, whether they be parents or grandparents, Hebrew or Sunday school teachers, cantors, rabbis, university professors or other mentors who gave us a world view and a passion for learning that enabled us to reach a time such as this. It is important to underscore that the Jewish people is linked to a persistent characteristic which has accompanied it through the millennia of its wanderings. It is the imperative to learn. It was imposed upon every Jewish child since the emergence of the Pharisaic party over two thousand years ago. Learning meant "Talmud Torah," the study of sacred text, not only in a scriptural sense, but in the comprehensive scope that included the entirety of human life and intellectual striving.
Another Mishnaic teacher, Ben Zoma, asked, "Who is wise?" He answered, "He who learns from all people." As it is said, "From all my teachers, I have gotten understanding," (Avot 4:1) It was teaching such as this that led to the promulgation of doctrines central to the cornerstones of our religious heritage, namely the oneness and ethical nature of God, the solidarity of the human family and the uniqueness of Israel as a vehicle for the extension of God's truth in the world. Our sages emphasized that there are two aspects of Jewish learning that intersect at every moment. These two positions are represented by Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Gamaliel III, the son of Judah ha Nasi. Rabbi Meir said, "Whoever occupies himself with Torah (learning)for its own sake, attains much... He becomes a perpetual spring, yes, even like a river in full stream." (Avot 6.1). Rabbi Gamaliel, on the other hand, believed that all study of Torah not combined with useful work is, in the end, futile and leads to wantoness.
Rabbi Meir recognized that pure research is vital and that the function of the academy was to provide the scholar with the opportunity to pursue truth for its own sake. Rabbi Gamaliel added perspective to that view when he stressed the need to connect scholarship to a vocation so that what was learned could be integrated into life. Passive scholarship was not a rabbinic ideal and it should not be the ideal within an academic institution today. If this does not sound like arcane advice of ivory tower scholars, it is because the Pharisaic scholars were neither arcane nor ivory tower people. The Pharisaic party according to Rabbi Leo Baeck was "the people's party" which fought against the privileged position and hereditary prerogatives of the priesthood and government. The Pharisees waged a relentless battle for the integrity of the individual and offered a deed oriented religion informed by study. This approach produced a truly revolutionary religious, social and educational institution called the synagogue with its three tier structure as a bet knesset, a town hall place of meeting, a bet tefillah, a house of prayer but primarily, it was to be a bet midrash, a house of study. Study then, "lernen" as our forbearers would have said was at the center of daily life. It was the compass that gave intellectual direction and meaning. Those who excelled in learning, were given a degree, so to speak. They were called talmidey hakamim, "disciples of the wise or scholars." They had authority because they had earned distinction as being knowledgeable in secular affairs as well as Torah. There were, according to the Talmud, scholars who were sailors, astronomers, sandalmakers, physicians, artisans, tradesmen and poets. They combined religious scholarship with other vocations and were, thereby, deemed fit to lead communities.
The effectiveness of this approach was demonstrated by the academy at Yavneh in Israel, a yeshivah founded by Yochanan ben Zakai at the time of Rome's destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. Yochanan determined that while the crowns of kingship and priesthood had fallen, the crown of Jewish learning would not. The sages of his academy were of a practical bent. They traveled throughout the diaspora establishing numerous small academies to perpetuate Jewish life through learning. These academies provided an intellectual homeland for the Jew who no longer had a physical homeland. Through study and the performance of mitzvot, the Jew could create a personal island of sanity within the sea of often senseless brutality and misfortune.
The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is a modern extension of ben Zakkai's yeshivah. Here in Cincinnati it has an even broader mission. In addition to the training of rabbis, scholars and teachers in its Rabbinic School, it features the School of Graduate Studies. New to our tradition is the invitation to non-Jewish scholars to come and study our texts together with us. We do so sitting together, Christian and Jew, and we hope one day Muslim as well, at the feet of our talmidey hakamim, our faculty. We appreciate today those teachers in the past who guided us in the various academies we have attended and who were an inspiration to us because of the human and intellectual qualities they possessed. Lately, too many of those lamdanim, scholars, have moved to the yeshiva shel ma' a lah, to "The Heavenly Academy." They abide, however, as a living memorial inside each of us. The most recent of them to ascend to that heavenly yeshivah was my own teacher, Professor Samson H. Levey, who died over a month ago. He was a talmudic scholar, a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California and a rabbi who served congregations for a quarter of a century and then devoted his life fulltime to the raising up of his own disciples. Samson Levey, a traditional, rational, and pietistic Jew was also a free thinker who was intrigued by the life of Elisha ben Abuyah who probed the parameters of Judaism and Christianity perhaps moving from one to the other in his own mind seeing only the divine flow and not the distinctions created by logic alone. The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg characterized Elisha as being like "a driven leaf." How many of us at times have not felt that way?
Today, I also remember several others who fit this magisterial category of talmidey hakamim now teaching in "The Heavenly Academy." My first Bible teacher in seminary was Theodore H. Gaster who commanded a host of ancient languages and who was intrigued by ritual and myth in the ancient Near East. Gaster countenanced no compromise in the rigorous pursuit of truth; Harry M. Orlinsky, brilliant scholar of the Septuagint with extraordinary discipline and training who taught us under-educated American university graduates the arcane sides of Greco-Roman religion and biblical criticism; John J. Tepfer, master of the rabbinic mind, careful teacher with unflagging respect for the integrity of the text; Samuel Sandmel whose scholarship straddled the Greco-Roman world and was the first to teach a formal course on New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the Hebrew Union College; Israel Bettan who grasped the brilliance of Midrashic commentary on Biblical text and who in his inimitable way was able to make us understand the nature of the midrashic mind; Samuel S. Cohon, theologian of the Jewish experience who believed in shilton ha sekhel, "the supremacy of reason" in systemizing and unravelling theological problems. Most of those I have mentioned attempted to objectify knowledge and place it within the context of its time through the study of comparative religion, cultures and languages. They took Jewish learning, so to speak, out of the four ells of the yeshivot which had shut themselves off from secular learning and investigated the past through the prism of historical and comparative studies.
There are also those who through the sheer passion and love of their subject left indelible imprints on our souls, not only our minds. I remember Aaron Giatt, who taught Hebrew language at our New York school and Dov Bin Nun, of our Los Angeles School. To have been around them was to have been in the presence of enthusiasts with a passion for the Hebrew language and its literature. I have mentioned only some of my teachers. There are many others who are happily in this world; who are still teaching me and others by what they write and lecture about and more importantly, by how they live their lives.
My generation didn't know of many women who were scholars of Judaica. They were rare and scattered throughout the universities and seminaries. One who taught here was Hildegard Lewy who together with her husband Julius, refugees from Nazi Germany, helped to found our Graduate School. They taught ancient Near Eastern languages and cultures. It was the absence of women, both in the rabbinate and in the academic world, that led us to pay special and close attention to both the training and placement of women in the rabbinate and cantorate and on our faculties, so that their perspective and learning could be appreciated, enriching our knowledge of the human condition.
There is clearly a new era of scholarship on the horizon as revolutionary in its import as anything I have alluded to or have forgotten to allude to. Cyperspace has beckoned the finest minds to use it to enhance the understanding of our world. The spring edition of the American Scholar features an article by Jonathan Rosen on "The Talmud and the Internet." What is unusual about this is not the article or that Jonathan Rosen penned it, but that it appeared in the American Scholar which gives us the clue that cyperspace learning is the new universalist approach to those previously tightly held disciplines of scholarship making them available now to thousands if not tens of thousands of new learners. Ben Bag Bag's admonition about the Torah, "to turn it over and turn it over again (in your mind) for everything is in it," (Avot 5:25) may well serve as the motto of this new age of cyperspace learning. Yet, at the end of the day, we are still haunted by Gamaliel's teaching of translating Torah or learning into life and of Yehoshua ben Perachya's plea, "Find a teacher," by which he meant a human voice-get a study partner-and interact-learn from one another.
I began my remarks by alluding to the Pharisaic revolution which indeed changed all of Jewish life, setting it apart from other ancient religions and cultures, because it held the hypothesis that study enhances faith; that it informs belief; that the life of the mind and the passions of the heart need somehow to come together and be unified to create a new kind of human being, one who is passionately attached to the enduring life affirming values of the past and yet is deeply involved in the life of the present. Whether we be Jews or those who hold to other faiths, the Pharisaic formula of joining learning to life is one that can serve us well. It will not be a panacea; it will not answer all questions for us, but it will give us a parameter for life and for learning. A talmid hakam is one who will strive to bring God's word into the present complexities and realities rich in the lore of the past and its experience, yet ready to face today's world with a fresh and curious look.
I will close my remarks with the teaching of E. M. Rilke who said about scholars and scholarship that in the end, "Be patient with all that is yet unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves! Perhaps that is the greatest power and the deepest source of self respect," and with Yehoshua who keeps prodding us,--"Get yourself a teacher, find a study companion and ...learn, learn, learn!"
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 21 Dec 1998