Founders' Day Address
“Unity in Diversity: A Quest for Fairness
March 9, 2003
Associate Professor of Bible and Director of the Archaeology Center
La`asot simhah gedolah, "to generate great rejoicing"
- that is our purpose here this morning. In the Bible, Israel is
repeatedly summoned to rejoice in honor of occasions that call for
celebration. Even the inanimate creations of God, the earth and
sky, are roused in joy. And, just as the Psalmist bids God to rejoice
on account of his deeds: yismah 'adonai bema`asav (104:31), so too,
Kohelet beckons mortals to do likewise: yismah ha'adam bema`asav,
"let a person rejoice in his or her achievements"(3:22).
Honoring you, you the rabbis and Jewish professionals who have
devoted your lives to serving contemporary Jewish communities is
the source of our joy this Founder's Day 2003. We mark this your
25th year of service with celebration and retrospective thought.
I, who am not a rabbi, feel awed and humbled to address you. Comparatively
speaking I am a newcomer to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute
of Religion, having joined the faculty in Cincinnati less than five
years ago, and a newcomer as well to the Reform Movement of Judaism.
But although I speak to you as a novice, I do so from the heart.
At a time when our greater human family is struggling to balance
itself on a very wobbly planet and any notions of certitude that
we may have held about what tomorrow will bring are dimmed by uncertainty,
especially at this time I see us brightly glowing. Our unity of
purpose as educators, communal leaders, spiritual guides, and champions
of justice shines vividly. I suggest that our radiant energy is
composed of an array of different light sources, for even in unity
we as individuals are a diverse group. And that is precisely what
defines Liberal Judaism. The authors of the San Francisco Platform
of 1976 stated it plainly: "Reform Judaism more than tolerates
diversity; it engenders it."
The first-born center of learning of the Reform Movement, the
Cincinnati campus of the College-Institute, is indeed a diverse
community. Even after five years at the college, I am repeatedly
awed when I look around our chapel at worship services. I see bare
heads, heads donning kippot, a few faces barely visible beneath
their tallitot, and in recent years, some with tefillin affixed
to their foreheads. I never take that sight for granted because
it represents a kind of religious tolerance that is fairly new to
me. Sometimes I wonder how our founding Reform leaders would react
to this sight if they could speak from the netherworld -- Isaac
Mayer Wise, Kaufmann Kohler or countless others. Perhaps we are
fortunate that they cannot, or, perhaps they too would be awed at
the liberalism that this sight reflects.
Our community of learners in Cincinnati includes Jewish men and
women from North America and abroad who are training to serve as
liberal rabbis worldwide. Upon ordination they assume pulpits, direct
Jewish educational and organizational institutions, or pursue academic
endeavors in Jewish fields of study. What they bring to these teaching
and leadership positions exceeds the curricula of Classical and
Modern Hebrew Studies or even skills built through Professional
Development courses. For it includes the unique experience of having
studied at a rabbinical seminary that is also home to a multi-ethnic,
-religious, and -racial student community, that of the School of
Graduate Studies. Our current graduate student body -- both Christian
and Jewish -- reveals a global family: South Korea and the Republic
of China in the East; Argentina in the West; Nigeria, the Ukraine
and Romania in between. Our Christian students represent numerous
denominations and come from every educational background -- from
conservative Bible colleges and seminaries to secular state universities.
Yes, we are indeed a diverse community and we are certainly proud
of it. But can we claim to be a unified entity?
Certainly the personal goals of our rabbinical and graduate PhD
students differ on a number of levels, most obviously their professional
goals. But these distinctions actually serve to highlight the common
ground which the two groups share. First and foremost, they share
a learning environment, one I am proud to be a part of, one founded
on the principles of a progressive Judaism which promotes academic
excellence born of critical thinking, dialogue and argument. Second,
our learning environment is one where theological and ideological
distinctions are not blurred among our students, and faculty for
that matter. Quite the contrary, we urge our students and faculty
to engage in free expression of thought --even if -- and especially
if -- our thoughts may conflict with one another. And trust me they
do. As a community we make a conscious effort to practice tolerance.
That exercise alone is as valuable as the knowledge gained and critical
thinking developed from the ideas that are expressed. For tolerance,
the key to a just society, is a skill that requires constant practice,
ongoing renewal, and repeated exercise because it is far easier
to be judgmental and opinionated.
Our Christian and Jewish students leave this institution having
lived diversity. They have exposed their most precious traditions
to the scrutiny of "the other" -- as in the intimacy of
the classroom, where Hebrew Bible, the same Canon for Christians
and Jews, is interpreted and analyzed, and "meaning" is
shaken to the core. If we are all people of the Book, how can one
book read do differently? Seeing "the other" from their
vantage point, helps to actually see "the other." And
it is this recognition of diversity, its acceptance, and our commitment
to its value that unifies us, stimulates personal and communal growth,
and most importantly tolerance.
So... our newly ordained rabbis enter the outside world a bit
wiser, a bit more sensitized to interfaith matters, a bit more understanding
of the diversity among our own Reform Jews. But what will they discover
in the real world? In your world? They will discover what you have
learned during your years of service. Liberalism as a working reality
needs room to breathe. Sadly, at present, the crowded spaces of
our injured world are gagging with reactionary conservatism. In
politics and in religion, so many people speak with a stifling authoritarian
voice -- often in the guise of religious righteousness -- rather
than engaging in open dialogue. But progressive responses to critical
times are not new to Reform leaders. Reformers of the 19th century,
who saw Orthodox Judaism as suffocating for large numbers of Jews,
produced a movement that shifted and refocused priorities. Key among
those was their universalistic outlook, an attitude of inclusivity
rather than exclusivity. These were "improvements" as
Leo Frankel called them, not really reforms.
In his book Response to Modernity, Michael Meyer observes that
modernity is not static -- rather ever-moving -- therefore, Reform
too, must be ever-changing in its response. In recent decades Reform's
response has been to reclaim Jewish observances and traditions that
were rejected only a century ago. The last decade in particular
has seen a quest for spirituality and traditionalism manifest in
expressions of personal piety. This shift is evident among Conservative
and Orthodox Jews as well. In fact, it is part of a general shift
in religious thinking and practice. Indeed, the pendulum is swinging
to the right, when it comes to religion as well as politics. If
human history has taught us anything, it is that democratic ideals
are often in danger under such circumstances and that we need to
be especially vigilant in guarding those ideals. Certainly, that
is not to say that wearing a kippah, a tallit, or tefillin is dangerous.
Observance of Shabbat, the Haggim, and Kashrut is not a sign of
right wing radicalism and the abandonment of universalism. Rather,
the present reality promotes reflective thoughts concerning this
shift and how it affects the mission of Liberal Judaism. Tolerance
is easy among kindred spirits; but its real test is when confronted
by opposing ideas and actions. Reform Judaism still remains diverse,
comprised of individuals with conflicting opinions on theology,
religious practices, traditions, etc. Liberal congregations in North
America are struggling with decisions about new prayer books, style
of worship services, and other religious issues. I need not emphasize
that point for you.
I ardently believe that our diversity attests to our vitality.
In the five years here at the college I have developed a true appreciation
for the religious toleration that I see. But I also worry that the
foundation upon which it stands is somewhat shaky. A danger exists
that the ever-widening shift away from more Classical Reform ideology
and practice is creating a barrier, one that will marginalize those
Jews and congregations who hold to some of these traditions. Will
those who don kippot, tallitot, and tefillin in time flaunt their
observances as the "correct" Judaism? Such attitudes are
easily contagious. Religious liberalism goes hand in hand with democratic
idealism and the latter is endangered in today's world where a stand
of unity seems to preclude dissenting voices. Our liberalism in
general is threatened and its viability depends on the elasticity
of our capacity for tolerance in this atmosphere. In short, it depends
on our commitment to remain true to liberal ideals -- to remain
unified in our diversity.
The great thinker Leo Baeck addressed this very issue at the first
World Union Conference in Berlin in 1928 when he spoke of the mission
of Liberal Judaism in terms of its radical nature. He observed that
Judaism should not be kept current with the times but instead be
set against it. True Liberalism was an intensive Judaism, a religion
of piety that took itself seriously. As such it would always have
to set the messianic against the existent, the future against the
present, great unrealized ideas against the ways of the world (Meyer,
But is a messianism born of toleration of diversity even attainable?
According to the contemporary philosopher John Rawls it is -- absolutely.
In his major works: A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism
Rawls grapples with issues concerning the viability of liberalism
and fairness in modern society. He posits that intolerance is not
a condition of social order and stability. In fact, a stable and
just society of free and equal citizens can exist though they are
divided by reasonable philosophical, religious, and moral doctrines.
Rawls defines "reasonable," the key variable, as that
which has been accepted by members as fair in the course of social
cooperation -- a social contract of sorts. His vision of justice
as fairness underlies his system of universal political liberalism.
When we import Rawls' ideas into the realm of religious liberalism,
we actually end up with fundamental ideals of Liberal Judaism: liberalism
for a common good with the preservation of the individual's right
to choose without majority infringement, liberalism which demands
that the majority not simply tolerates dissent but encourages it.
Clearly, the society that Rawls envisions is still in the making.
It appears radical to some, yet viable to those like him who argue
that justice as fairness is compatible with human nature. The prophets
of the Bible saw justice as the foundation of human well-being.
It may very well be, and our well-being in our world may actually
depend on it.
I would like to conclude with a story, a true story, that although
it happened in what now seems like a distant past, it illustrates
my hope for our society in the future, an imminent future, beyamenu
(in our time), be`ezrat hashem (with God's help), but most of all,
with human good will. It happened in Israel in the summer of 2000.
That year at the Cincinnati campus we inaugurated our Graduate Summer-in-Israel
Program. The purpose of the program is to give our graduate students
an Israel experience -- a mini version of the Rabbinic Year-in-Israel
Program. The experience consists of participation in an archaeological
excavation, a Hebrew ulpan, and field-trips to ancient and modern
sites throughout the land of Israel. It was on one of these field-trips,
a tour of the Golan Heights, that I, and those in our group, became
part of a scene that left indelible marks on each of us. We stopped
at a lookout point not far from the Syrian border. David Ilan, our
archaeologist guide from the Gleuck School of Biblical Archaeology
was explaining the significance of the site in antiquity, which,
by the way I no longer remember. A few yards down the twisting road
we noticed a Syrian tank -- one of those abandoned in the 1967 war
when Israel acquired this territory. The tank now sat there harmlessly
beckoning us to come closer to examine it. As we drew near so did
another group, a family of Arabs, probably from a nearby village:
a grandfather garbed in traditional robes, what appeared to be his
daughter, and two young boys. The boys wasted no time climbing the
tank while their grandfather spoke to them in Arabic. A few of our
students also boarded the tank playfully as David and I looked on.
The three generations of Arabs and the Jews and Christians on and
around the tank were exchanging smiles and conversing with gestures.
The tank seemed so tiny with those on board. I felt tears well up
-- I couldn't help thinking of the messianic passages in Isaiah
and Micah: "and they will beat their swords into pruning hooks
and their spears into plowshares; nation will not lift sword against
nation nor will they know war anymore." This tank, a trophy
of war, had been transformed into a mere toy. I suppose its parts
could even have been converted into a field plow. Our small group
looked at each other. Perhaps we all shared the same thought. Although
we could not understand what the elder Arab was saying, it seemed
reassuring. That summer, the summer of 2000, it looked as if peace
was a viable alternative for this land pained with the blood of
millennia of zealots. But it was not to be. By the end of that summer,
hope and with it peace, lay shattered in thousands of tiny fragments.
Still, I cannot erase that vision which surrounded that tank on
that day on a high hill in the Golan.
I believe that all of us here today, honored rabbis and Jewish
professionals, dear friends of the college, colleagues and students,
share in the dedication to shalom as a social contract, one nourished
by toleration of diversity within Liberal Judaism and the greater
human family. What a fitting boon this is for the celebration of
Founder's Day at the College-Institute.
ken yehi ratson