Dr. Samuel Greengus
Very often people come up to me and say: "how are things at the College?" Of course I want to reply but sometimes I wonder -- just how much should I tell them; what do they really want to know? Certainly, things are good at the College; here in Cincinnati, I teach a wonderful student body, rabbinic and graduate; I have learned faculty colleagues; I have access to a splendid library; and we who are at HUC are blessed with fond alumni, devoted lay supporters, and inspired administrative leadership. But the folks who ask me "how are things at the College?"don't want to hand around and wait for a lecture; they would like a short, to the point answer. So what should I say? I hear that in the New York garment district, they like to tell it like it is. They also employ gradations or degrees of praise and excellence. The lowest and first degree is "fantastic." Next highest is "sensational." But the highest degree of all -- the true superlative -- is when they tell you "not bad, not bad."
Founders' Day is an appropriate time, even for us who are within the College walls, to think about how things are going in our venerable school, now enjoying a 123rd year of life. And I can tell you honestly that things are really "not bad, not bad." But life continually confronts us with challenges; some are new but I believe that most of the challenges are not new but are perennial. These challenges sometimes arise out of the tensions and contradictions between what we proclaim we wish to do -- and what we find we must do or what we actually are able to do. I'm not speaking here today about morals and ethics but rather, about our professed attachment to learning and how we, as individuals and as a community, really act and perform in this area.
This is not just a Jewish problem. I read together with you in the papers that we are all living in an age of information; data and information have replaced industrial products as the basic materials for the coming age. We have only to hook ourselves up to the Internet and we can find out everything about anything we wish to learn and know. Information is the new, hot commodity of the future. At the same time I read in the papers that we are a generation who has less leisure time than every before; the higher you are in the organization and the more responsibility you carry, the more hours you work; every company and organization is striving to increase worker output and productivity; and every person in a household feels pressure to become a wage-earner and make a financial contribution to family income. So even if we value learning and the acquisition of knowledge, how do we find the time to do so when we face so many demands upon our energies and our time?
One of my daughters is married to a fine man who works as an executive in a large corporation. As part of corporate management raining, employees are given seminars on a variety of subjects including personal time management. Through my son-in-law, I became acquainted with the works of Dr. Stephen Covey, a highly regarded psychologist who writes and lectures on what ought to be the "habits of highly effective people". Covey presently not only addresses businesses; but recently has expanded his audience to families who are also struggling to manage their increasingly busy private lives.
In one exercise, Covey asks us to divide our activities into four groups, including the categories of urgent:non urgent and important: non-important. We all understand that we must respond to what is both urgent and important; the alarm bells, the crisis, the emergency. We also recognize that we can avoid what is both not urgent and not important; the junk mail and cleaning out the front closet. More difficult is the zone made up of those activities which are urgent but not important; these can be the phone call from someone intent upon wasting our time or selling us merchandise we really don't need to buy. But, according to Covey, true satisfaction and enduring happiness lies in maximizing those activities which are not urgent but which are important. Covey says that our life is more satisfying to the degree that we are able to spend more time involved in these not urgent but important activities. These non-urgent but important activities include many of the goals we profess we want to accomplish but fail to do so in our busy, busy lives. They are the kind of things we wish we had done more of. Our failure to do so tends to be as in of omission rather than of commission. These goals are such things as: the time we are going to spend with our children or loved one; the good book we bought but did not yet read; the studying we profess we believe in but which we have deferred for more pressing concerns of varying urgency and importance.
I would describe the overall goals and activities of the College-Institute as not urgent but certainly very important. HUC-JIR is about learning. We represent an oasis in the midst of the lives of our students, five years to study and become a rabbi, a or . Five years or sometimes more, to accomplish a Ph.D. in our graduate school. These are not always easy years for our students; after all, they, too, live with other urgent and important pressures: tuition, rent, groceries, car, insurance, personal relationships, family responsibilities. But our students are here, just as our honored alumni were here twenty-five and thirty or more years ago. Rabbinic students are here to study and to build a foundation of knowledge upon which they plant o build a life of service which includes teaching, preaching, writing, acting as counselor and mentor, community leadership, and administration. These career activities will of course take place after leaning school. Still, our present curriculum, more than ever before in the history of the College, recognizes the need for career skills and therefore offers our rabbinic students directed training in teaching, pulpit, liturgical, pastoral and interpersonal skills. And this is very appropriate. But to be honest, it is not disrespectful for me to assert that this is not the main reason why our students come to HUC. They come to HUC in order to become learned Jews, to study the Torah and all of the great writings that have emerged from the study of these five books from biblical times to the present day. Our students enter into conversation with the greatest thinkers of our past, whose written words have defined the spiritual and intellectual life of our people. Our students encounter the best of current thinking and ideas in our broad and sometimes deep course of study that enables them to encounter every phase of Jewish life and civilization from before Abraham to your current temple bulletins. It is a vast sea of learning, really too much for one brain to encompass, but it is oh so exhilarating to swim in this great body of knowledge, to immerse oneself into its currents and waves.
It has been so interesting for me, over the years, to talk with our rabbinic alumni about how they look back upon their years of study at HUC. After some years go by, alumni never complain about learning too much Tanakh, too many midrashim, too much Talmud, too many commentaries, too much research. Our graduates of course know very well that their identity as rabbis is founded upon the long years of study that enabled them to become a or .
The alumni response is so refreshingly different from what we often hear from some of our so-called outside experts who tell us to 'try and be more relevant, more timely, more current, more oriented to anticipated future trends." What I hear from our alumni, is the 'timeless' in the long run, is better than 'timely'. The great books we study stand on their own feet and become more dear to us because they contain content that is 'enduring'.
So we can say in truth that the years that our students spend her at HUC are an oasis where they can spend most of their time on what is not urgent but oh so important and therefore oh so satisfying and enduringly precious. It is a time when students are able to fulfill the divine commandment spoken to Joshua (Josh. 1:8): "Let not this book of Torah depart from your lips so that you study it day and night." And what of the time when we are no longer students? The rabbis recognized that one must also pursue a livelihood; . Yet study should never depart from our lives; what we do here hopefully sets a pattern for a lifetime; we must heed the admonition of Rabbi Tarfon (Mishna Avot 2:16) . . "you are not required to complete the task; still, you are not free to absent yourself from engaging in it."
I believe that we at times encounter difficulty explaining HUC to the rest of the world because so many have never known (or have forgotten) what it is to participate in a life of Talmud Torah. We are not a training school but a bet midrash, a place of seeking and searching, of reading, contemplation, of formulating ideas and transmitting them to others. We study religious principles and concepts; and we try to live our lives, individually and in community, in a dynamic interaction with our Jewish values and traditions. You can look around this campus and you see what we are: classrooms, synagogue, library, archives, study rooms. This is the heart of the Hebrew Union College and it will always be so.
We are a bet midrash but, as I see it, we are not just another yeshiva. HUC-JIR is a unique institution of higher Jewish learning because of its ability to combine two traditions of learning: the ancient and precious tradition of the yeshiva and the intellectually open tradition of the university. This combination is not what you find in traditional yeshivoth. I speak here out of personal experience, having spent nine years as a youth and as a young adult, studying in a traditional yeshiva. I loved (and still love) the study of sacred texts that I experienced there; but, eventually, I had to leave the yeshiva because of a great intellectual wall that was maintained there between religious knowledge and general knowledge. At its most benign level, the wall fosters silence or mental compartmentalization; in its worst form, it fosters hostility to the pursuit or even to the utility of outside knowledge.
As I see it, it should not be Torah versus other knowledge but, rather, Torah with other knowledge. Fortunately, intellectual bridges to exist her at HUC-JIR. We operate in the spirit of the university in that we engage in an honest search for truth and desire to share it with others. While the university is a secular institution, the search for truth does not recognize any boundary between the sacred and the secular. Universities, because they serve diverse constituencies, may refrain from supporting or engaging in a personally committed study of religious truth. Universities are agnostic by choice and as a matter of public policy. But HUC-JIR is a private, Jewish institution; we have no such barriers. We can operate freely in both worlds. Therefore, like all yeshivoth, we are committed to the study of sacred literatures; we seek to deepen our connection to religious faith and practice. At the same time, however, we also recognize and freely admit that fundamentally important knowledge and truth may be found in places outside of the texts of our tradition. If I would speak in terms of religious metaphor, I might say that, in addition to torah and sacred literature, God has also provided us with textbooks written into the natural and physical world around us: a textbook like DNA, that tells us how we came to be and our relationship to earlier appearing species of animals; or the textbook of astronomy, that attempts to recapture in the 'big bang' the beams of the primeval flash of light, which came forth when our universe began.
There is no intention for HUC-JIR to become a full-fledged university, offering programs in all areas. HUC-JIR does not aspire to build a department of cell biology, chemistry, or of astrophysics. But we have embraced and, I believe, greatly benefitted from these and other allegedly 'secular' disciplines like history, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, linguistics, and literature. HUC-JIR requires a college degree as pre-requisite for admission to our programs of religious studies. We are not threatened by new data and new facts; on the contrary we seek to integrate them into our study of traditional Jewish texts. For this reason we can, comfortably, be both a rabbinic school and a graduate school; there is no conflict that requires us to shut out one or the other.
I recognize that the pursuit of truth and knowledge is a long and arduous process that extends over centuries of time. So one should be both patient and humble, knowing that all human intellectual efforts are fallible and correctable. We know that scientific theories, over time, may be subject to correction and at times rejection. We now also recognize that our sacred texts contain flaws of human character: erroneous conceptions about the nature of the physical and biological world and even about reported historical events. It has taken hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years, to find all this out. But once we do know the truth, then I feel we are required to reform and reformulate our ancient teachings in the light of what we know today. For me, Reform Judaism is not just about sociological adjustment about intellectual adjustment. Reform is about the integration of knowledge and ideas and faith.
My position is really not so radical; I see myself standing, with many others, in a long tradition of teachers, who sought to defend Judaism against the cheapening effects of intellectual censorship and close-mindedness. I feel a spiritual kinship with the great liberal rabbinic seminaries that were obliterated by the Holocaust. The Jewish people suffered unimaginable personal losses during the Holocaust; we also suffered serious intellectual losses; the European liberal seminaries who were on the road towards integrating general and religious knowledge. The loss of such institutions is another reason why the mission of HUC-JIR is so unique and important for me. But the roots of liberal Judaism are centuries deep. Our colleague, Dr. Barry Kogan, pointed out to me a passage in Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari, written in the 11th century. Halevi says (I:67): "God forbid that there might be anything in the Torah to contradict what is empirically evident or demonstratively proved." There is no question but that the honor and credibility of the Torah is diminished if we teachers of Torah fail to adjust our interpretation of its sacred message to be in conformity with what is "empirically evident or demonstratively proved." So with Halevi and others like him, I remain confident that, in an honest discourse of truth, no religious person can really be spiritually harmed.
Is it easy to weave all of this together? I didn't say it was. I believe we can draw strength from the traditions of yeshivah; the study of Torah is a life-long pursuit and we cannot complete our study in a single lifetime. There is further comfort in what we study here: great religious writings which address our deep, human need to live our lives in closer connection with the Eternal and the transcendent -- in other words, with the Torah and mitzvot which we believe reflect the design and plan of the Sovereign God of the Universe. It is our bedrock belief that -- Talmud Torah has the power to bring peace and redemption to the world by teaching us to act as compassionate, responsible, and loving human beings.
So let us 'stay the course' and not be swayed by the surface waves which for only a moment look so big and important but then fall away and disappear forever into the sea. Let us remain steadfastly upon the 'timeless' course of study and learning that we know will bring us satisfaction and joy; we will never regret the time we give to Talmud Torah. Let us strive to find ways to enlarge our participation in this sphere of what is so important even if not so urgent and so postponable. Today, on Founders' Day, we celebrate learning and its application in life. We thank those who had the foresight to build and maintain this Hebrew Union College. Let it be said of us that in our time that we, too -- faculty, staff, students, cherished alumni and lay leaders -- also supported our school and promoted the ideals that are at the core of our beloved Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 21 Dec 1998