Dr. Martin A. Cohen, Professor of Jewish History
For me personally this is a day of special joy. My joy derives incrementally
from many factors: from Rabbi Zimmerman's gracious invitation for this occasion
extended around the time last month when I reached my seventieth birthday; --
I can't believe it was my seventieth, because I really do not feel a day older
than sixty-nine; from the fact that this is the third time through the years
that I have been privileged to be the Founder' Day speaker as a member of the
faculty of this distinguished yeshiva; from the fact that the three invitations
came from three successive presidents of this College-Institute; but more than
anything else, from the fact that the first of these presidents, Rabbi Nelson
It is further a great privilege for me, an ordinee of our Cincinnati School and a consequent beneficiary of the legacy of Isaac Mayer Wise, to be asked to speak during the seventy-fifth anniversary year of Stephen Samuel Wise's founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion, now the New York school of our College-Institute, at which I have happily spent most of my teaching career. I have also been privileged to serve as the rabbi, albeit on an interim basis for a year, at the the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, the mother of our New York school, during which time I repeatedly tested that synagogue's vaunted claim of a completely free pulpit, and found that claim to be invulnerable even to my most outrageous fulminations.
The downside for anyone choosing to preach rather than lecture on Founders'
Day, is that you have a good chance of drawing this week's Torah portion, Vayakhel,
in the Book of Exodus, with its description, while the ancient Israelites were
still in the wilderness, of the construction of their glorious Sanctuary, in
great detail, and more detail, and more detail, and yet more detail and still
more detail. But then again, perhaps through divine Providence or simple serendipity
the parasha seems to be most appropriate for Founders' Day, for the founders
of our yeshiva, in their vision and creativity, appear to be reincarnations
of two giant architects of the wilderness construction:: the one Bezaleel, whom
we know as Betsalel in Hebrew, and the other Aholiab, whom our Hebrew text calls
Aholiav? For like their counterparts in the biblical wilderness, did not Isaac
Mayer Wise and Stephen Samuel Wise, each in his own day, face a community irreparably
divided, where many delusively hankering for a romanticized past, where others
cowered before an inscrutable future, while most of the community was enfeebled
with hunger and with thirst,
If this wilderness community in search of God survived and later thrived to
unanticipated renewal, was this not because its provident leadership took God's
word seriously? For, in apparent remedy for the people's wilderness malaise,
God had previously directed Moses, saying
And it was this sanctuary -- tabernacle, ark, and all the rest -- whose construction Moses entrusted to Bezaleel and Aholiab,-- who are described in the our Torah portion as wise, skilled and understanding, at the top of their profession as it were, which means that in all likelihood they had served with distinction in their respective capacities for at least twenty-five years.
Yet how could Bezaleel and Aholiab build a sanctuary in the desert? They were
commanded to fashion the sanctuary from precious fabrics, luminous metals and
iridescent stones, but how could these be obtained amidst the arid sands of
their wilderness, especially after so many of the people had expended all their
hoarded treasures on their idolatrous Golden Calf? Clearly, as history would
confirm, the sanctuary that Bezaleel and Aholiab were planning did not arise
until centuries later on Zion's hill. But would the later materialization of
this sanctuary have been possible had not Bezaleel and Aholiab laid its foundations
long before, with the concretized ideals of their people's
highest aspirations? Only so could they fulfill the divine directive
What faith it must have taken for Bezaleel and Aholiab to build their sanctuary,
tabernacle, ark and all the rest, -- for unborn generations, for uncharted territory
and for unknown challenges! And what courage it must have taken so to innovate
amidst their surrounding disorientation! For surely Bezaleel and Aholiab could
not have failed to realize that with the progress of their plans their retrogressive
coreligionists would choose sectarianism and while those who despaired of the
future would drift toward assimilation. Yet they drove on. They drove on, saddened
by their inevitable losses, yet in optimistic anticipation of demographic no
less than spiritual growth, adamantly determined to comply with God's directive
And if through our people's labyrinthine odyssey we, the children of Israel, have managed to maintain an identity that binds us to our matriarchs and our patriarchs, and makes all Israel kith and kin, is it not because in each epoch and each generation, in every continent and in every locale, there have arisen Bezalels and Aholiabs, Isaac Mayers and Stephen Samuels? Amidst the challenges of our successive surroundings, to our knowledge, our mores, our values and our faith, these inspired leaders of our people have conceived new sanctuaries of healing and sanctuaries of idealism, which have relevantly and cogently expressed the eternal verities of our Sacred Tradition in the common idiom of their day.
How similar is the task of all Bezaleels and Aholiabs today, all of you and all of us, who have been blessed to reach or pass the putative pinnacle of our professional service. How well we know of the disorientation in our contemporary Jewish life. It is a disorientation the like of whose intensity we Jews, inured though we are to change, have not experienced since the days of the Greco-Roman world. It is a disorientation brought on in no small measure by our age of enveloping globalism, which is profoundly challenging the ways of life and values of previous generations, which has been turning the world into a computerized village, and which is transforming all world Jewry, in Israel, America and other communities small and large, as never before, into a single universal entity, whose components can be in as close communication with one another as were the ancient Israelites in the Wilderness.
And in this strange world of kaleidoscopic transformation, do we not ache at the now all too familiar effect of wilderness malaise upon our people, so many of whom are obsessed with the golden calf of their self-imposed sectarianism, so many of whom grasp at the elusive mirage of seamless assimilation, and nearly all of whom are caught in the hunger and thirst of a debilitating divisiveness where God's presence cannot possibly be expected to dwell? In such a world, with full recognition that, as throughout the past, there must inevitably be losses, is it not incumbent upon us, the heirs of the evolving, adaptive and responsive liberal tradition which we believe to have been the marrow and life of our faith throughout the ages,...is it not incumbent upon us, who would be worthy of the founders of our yeshiva, in contemplation of the endless possibilities for spiritual and demographic growth that the future appears to open before us,...is it not incumbent upon us, to begin to build the sanctuary for our future, like Bezaleel and Aholiab,... not with the arid sands of the contemporary wilderness of Jewish religious life, but with the concretized ideals of our Sacred Tradition's noblest aspirations:
And above all, Not with malevolence, but with compassion?
And when we so build, would it not do well for us to bear in mind, the example
of Moses, who according to our Tradition, exercised a certain
In today's liberal Jewish world where the priorities of our sanctuaries are all too often woefully misguided, where egregiously secular pursuits are all too often lavishly promoted while Torah learning and Torah living are all too often shamelessly trivialized, and where the expressive vocabulary of our general environment is all too often harnessed not to illuminate but to obfuscate the distinctiveness of our Jewish faith, which is Torah, is it not the sacred obligation of all of us, who willy-nilly must bear responsibility for the sanctuary of the future,..... for the sake of the survival of our faith, at every opportunity, to declare and demonstrate:
That our covenant is Torah;
That our commitment is Torah;
That our spirituality is Torah;
That our banner is Torah;
That our cachet is Torah;
That our signature is Torah;
That our heritage is Torah;
That our identity is Torah;
That our mission is Torah;
That our message is Torah;
That our program is Torah;
That our objective is Torah;
That our fulfillment is Torah;.
And that our only legacy worth leaving can only be Torah,...
Torah, of course, not in its constricted definition of five biblical books endlessly dissectible by academic scalpels, but Torah in its comprehensive connotation as the sublime oasis for all who thirst and all who hunger in the wilderness of spiritual life, fountainhead and granary of our Sacred Tradition, supple, flexible, evolving, and perennially contemporary in its cogent engagement of the exigencies of every unanticipated moment with the eternal ideals of our Jewish faith, ideals whose golden essence, was never better expressed that by our sage Hillel who in the vernacular of his day declared: Do no harm.
What you do not want done to you do not do to another.
Friends and colleagues who have served so nobly in the present sanctuaries
of our faith and thereby acquired the responsibility for the sanctuary of the
future in the wilderness of our contemporary life, if we would be truly worthy
of Bezaleel and Aholiab, if we would be truly worthy of Isaac Mayer and Stephen
Samuel, if we would truly be talmidei hahamim, disciples
of the Wise, let us begin to build our glorious sanctuary for the inscrutable
Copyright © 1999 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 8 Jun 1999