Building for the Moment and Beyond

Monday, March 1, 1999

Richard S. Sarason, HUC-JIR '74

Founders Day Address
March 7, 1999
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati

 

 

 

President Zimmerman, Dean Ehrlich, Mr. Teller, Mr. Hess, cherished classmates and colleagues, beloved families and friends, and all my fellow students:

Katonti mikol hahasadim umikol ha'emet . . . (Gen. 32:11).

I am deeply honored to address you this morning as my classmates and I prepare to observe this June the twenty-fifth anniversary of our ordination by the College-Institute as rabbis in Israel. I am humbled to stand before you in this place where, in years past, our teachers transmitted to us divrei shalom ve'emet, words of wholeness and truth. Before adding my link to that chain, I feel that I must acknowledge those who came before me, and invoke in particular the memory of teachers now departed whose torah lives in and through us: Jacob Rader Marcus, who spoke of "the larger task" at our ordination service; Sheldon Blank, whose grandfather's sefer torah now resides in this ark; Alexander Guttmann; Sylvan Schwartzman; Samuel Sandmel; Jakob Petuchowski; Chanan Brichto; Werner Weinberg; and, most recently, Norman Mirsky. We stand on their shoulders, and, yibadlu l'hayyim, on the shoulders of our teachers who are with us today.

Our Torah portion this week, Vayakhel-Pikudei, is a particularly fitting text for Founders' Day, since it speaks of building and builders. Moses transmits to the people God's command to build Him a resting-place, where He may dwell among them; a meeting-place in which God and humans may encounter each other. The people enthusiastically bring their contributions and their labor, but by themselves they do not know how to fashion these resources into klei kodesh, artistic vessels of holiness. For this they need the guidance, the inspiration, the vision of skilled craftsmen, Bezalel ben Uri and Oholiab ben Ahisamach. The Torah views the artistic ability of these men as a gift from God: they are endowed with the divine spirit of knowledge and skill. Still more: not only do they know what to do and how to do it, but they also know how to teach--how to communicate their vision to others, how to inspire them. This, too, the Torah regards as a divinely bestowed gift. This morning we celebrate the work and the vision of our builders--of all those who have enabled us to inhabit this place of sacred learning and who thereby have enabled Torah to dwell within us. We especially celebrate our founders, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, each of them a visionary in his own time and place who perceived a need in the American Jewish community, who boldly dared to address that need, and who did not rest until his blueprint had been actualized.

The colorful Isaac Mayer Wise, whose centennial Yahrzeit will be observed a year from this month, was literally obsessed with the idea of establishing an American college under Jewish auspices, on the model of a German university, whose theological faculty would teach Judaism. Wise saw that the advancement of the American Jew would depend on education, and that his acceptance in America would depend on dispelling anti-Jewish prejudice through general enlightenment about Judaism. For over twenty years, Wise envisioned and re-visioned this project--pushing, pulling, wheedling, inspiring, cajoling--from his earliest manifestoes in the Israelite in 1854 on behalf of what would become the failed Zion College project to his successful founding of the Hebrew Union College in 1875.

At the time of its founding, the College was not just a graduate rabbinical seminary. Practically, it could not be--for there was no ready pool of qualified students to begin their studies at that level; indeed, there was no other place to acquire a higher Jewish education in America at that time. So the College began with a preparatory department for young boys and a collegiate, Hebrew classical department, which would provide the linguistic and textual background required for rabbinical studies. Sefton D. Temkin, in his 1992 biography of Wise, points out that "the provisions regarding the first two departments made it clear that the college was not intended for students of the ministry only. Here was a reflection of Wise's old plan for a Jewish university" (p. 265). So it was still not only the practical needs of the moment that were driving Wise, but his larger vision. Interestingly, it would take another seventy-three years--and tumultuous changes in the Jewish world--before Wise's original vision would finally be realized with the founding, in 1948, of Brandeis University, which, incidentally, is celebrating this year its own fiftieth anniversary.

It is this indefatigable visionary aspect of Wise on which I wish to focus this morning--if you will, his inspired madness. He began the Hebrew Union College, to be sure, with the institutionalized safety-net of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, but also--as you well know--with a shoestring budget, with a student body of fourteen unruly boys meeting in the basement of the Mound Street Temple, with a faculty of one (himself) and an underpaid assistant, with improvised textbooks, and a library that was locked up each night in a tin box so that the mice would not eat the books! Conventional wisdom would decree that such a precarious enterprise was doomed to fail, as had others before it. And yet, at the time of Wise's death a mere twenty-five years later--note, my friends: the very number of years elapsed since the time of our ordination--the Hebrew Union College had ordained over sixty rabbis, had its own building, a faculty of nine, and a growing library (Temkin, p. 282). Virtually all of this success was due to Wise's single-minded, energetic, near-maniacal devotion to his pet project.

So it is with visionaries--Moses; Bezalel; Amos; Isaiah; Yohanan b. Zakkai; Akiva; and in our age, the two Rabbis Wise who founded HUC and JIR; Eliezer ben Yehuda, who singlehandedly fashioned Hebrew as a modern language; Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, who gave birth to the modern Jewish state--divine madmen, all of them. Stubborn, opinionated, obsessed, driven, impatient, grandiose, mercurial, monomanical, even manic-depressive. But also incredibly lucid, indefatigably energetic, and often amazingly prescient.

According to recent research, what characterizes genius is primarily two things: the first is an intense focus, an almost demonic, ruthless single-mindedness in pursuing something. The second is an ability to draw things and ideas together in novel ways, to perceive patterns that no one else has ever seen or noticed before. Our tradition, in Mishnah Avot (2:9), knows this visionary characteristic and calls it by a special name,haro'eh et hanolad--literally, someone who is able to perceive and articulate that which is still a-borning, that which still hovers out there as inchoate potential. Such visionaries are able to seize the moment, but they are not bound by the moment. They are able to see beyond it. And when they formulate plans and build, they build not for the moment but for the far horizon.

From its founding, Hebrew Union College has been blessed with leaders who, in their best moments, have been able to break off the shackles of the moment, to perceive that far horizon, to build for it, and, by the force of persuasion and personality, to move others along with them. To be sure, when confronted with the unprecedented and tumultuous Jewish demographic and cultural upheavals of the last century and the social insecurities which they fostered, some reacted defensively at times, shoring up German Reform in the face of far different communal and cultural impulses, but consider on balance the full record:

It was Kaufmann Kohler who built up the College's faculty, library, and academic reputation to world-class standards of excellence. Julian Morgenstern made it his personal and institutional mission in the dark days of Nazism to save the legacy of European Jewish learning by rescuing scholars, teachers, and students. He also began what was to become the College's Graduate School. Stephen S. Wise, in founding the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1922, recognized the need for a liberal Jewish seminary that would also be devoted to the communal and Zionist aspirations of kelal yisrael without ideological boundaries. In yielding up the reins twenty-five years later, he perceived that the Institute's approach could now best be served by merger with the College which, too, was being transformed. Archaeologist Nelson Glueck perceived the importance of an institutional and academic beachhead for liberal Judaism in the State of Israel as well as the need to provide an institutional center in western Jerusalem for near eastern archaeologists from abroad. He it was who also transformed the American Reform rabbinate by mandating a year's study in Israel for every rabbinical student at HUC and by admitting women to the rabbinical school. Responding to postwar opportunities and needs in the American Jewish community, Glueck presided over the founding of other professional programs at the College: the Schools of Sacred Music and Jewish Education in New York, and the Schools of Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service in Los Angeles. The latter program was proposed originally by Alfred Gottschalk, who expanded, fortified, and differentiated the College-Institute's four sites, providing each with its own rationale and structural logic within the larger institutional system. He, too, raised the College-Institute's profile in Israel, perceiving the critical importance of more, not less, American Reform engagement there. And now Sheldon Zimmerman leads the College-Institute into the next century, determined that it will not become a leaner and meaner institution, but one expansively and religiously dedicated to its primary mission of talmud torah--of more study, more learning, more training, and more religious growth. Impassioned, visionary founders, leaders, and builders all, who have seized-- indeed transformed--the moment, but built for far beyond it.

You know, building in our tradition is not primarily about bricks and mortar. It is not even primarily about building institutions. But, as Isaac Mayer Wise recognized, institutions provide the framework, the wherewithal, for the much more difficult building that must go on within and through them: the building of community, the building of character, the building of mind and of heart and of spirit. And the primary building tool is talmud torah: the disciplined, daily study of sacred texts, the shared discourse and engagement with others in those texts, the thoughtful enactment of those texts and the values they embody in our daily personal and communal lives. This is our ultimate task, our ultimate job description, and certainly--as our musar teachers taught--the hardest one of all.

Classmates, what have we learned in the past quarter-century about ourselves, our fellow Jews, our tradition, and our life's work as rabbis in Israel? What kind of vision can we impart? What would we tell ourselves about preparing for the rabbinate if we could revisit our student selves entering this College thirty years ago? What wisdom can we share with those who are coming up after us, with those who are now students at the College-Institute and with those whom we will encourage to pursue rabbinical or academic or Jewish professional studies here in the future? (And I hope, by the way, that you will have or make the opportunity to speak with students while you are here--for if not now, when?) Each of us has his own unique torat hayyim to reflect on and to transmit, and I would not dare attempt to speak for any one of you here. But since I have been given the opportunity, let me seize the moment and speak a bit for myself.

Emblazoned in my memory is a conversation I had with a classmate shortly before our ordination. I've always kept it filed away for a moment like this one. "You know," he told me, "I wish I had taken the opportunity to learn more from Dr. So-and-so, but I was so put off by his manner in class that I never made the effort to go beyond it." This conversation saddened me as much as it did my classmate. Lesson Number One: Everyone has something to teach us. It's usually worth making the effort to get beyond their manner or defenses. And that's a hard one to learn.

All of us as students had our own personal sense of what at the College was relevant to our education and what wasn't. As a member of the faculty here now for twenty years, I can assure you that nothing's changed. But after having taught and learned and observed and grown, and after many conversations with rabbis out in the field for different intervals of time, I would urge our students to step out of themselves and take another look. I'm sure that I don't know what in your training is going to be irrelevant twenty-five years from now. I'm inclined to think that it will all be relevant at some moment with some person in some context. For that has been my experience. Learning for ourselves is one thing, but learning in order to teach and transmit to others is something else entirely. I may have more or less interest in a particular text, topic, or subject. But as a rabbi and a teacher of Jewish tradition I must take responsibility for all of it, since some day someone just might come to me who needs to know something about just that piece that I was less interested in thirty years ago--or I might even have to teach about it. As a rabbi or a teacher or a preacher, you never know in advance which words that you utter may enter someone else's heart. Similarly, as a student, you can never know in advance which words or ideas that you study now may come back to you at a crucial moment in your life to bring you insight or consolation or assistance with your own students or congregants. As Qohelet says, "Sow your seed in the morning, and don't hold back your hand in the evening, since you don't know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good" (Eccl. 11:6). Learn everything that comes your way--you never know when you'll be called upon to use it. As rabbis, we bring to our work our total selves and everything we've learned and experienced. How often must we improvise on the basis of underlying expertise, and how inadequate is the improvisation without the expertise! Lesson Number Two: Take every opportunity to learn something, even if you cannot now fathom its relevance. Mishnah Avot (5:15) distinguishes among four kinds of learners: a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve. Be like a sponge, and soak up everything.

The pace of life these days is fast and furious. There is never enough time to do everything that we need and want to do. People apply to rabbinical school because they want to be rabbis, but not always because they want to be students. They worry about what their resumes will look like when they have to apply for their first job, and how they'll stack up against the competition--their classmates. More and more of the College's applied curriculum is practice-based these days--and that's important. But just as important is taking the time to study and to reflect. That is what you're here for. Once you're out, it becomes harder and harder to do. A fairly recent ordinee came back to campus last year to interview seniors for an assistantship at his congregation. Greeting me after services, he said, "You know, I'd really rather be sitting in on classes here now." The grass is always greener? Lesson Number Three: For maximum learning efficiency while you're here, use the College for what it's best at, for what its purpose is: learning, studying, drilling, mastering skills, internalizing divrei torah. Work experience is there for the rest of your life; it won't go away. Make study a daily habit now so that it, too, will be there for the rest of your life.

American popular culture is constantly reinventing itself. It lives in and for the present, the fad of the moment, the fifteen minutes of fame. How quickly today's fashion becomes tomorrow's footnote! In Jewish culture, on the other hand, the past is always present. We pray to the God of our parents and grandparents and stand on their shoulders. We are commanded to remember. The past for us need not be a prison, but it should be a regulating restraint. To be sure, we must seize the teaching moment; we must utilize the timely analogy and illustration; but we must stand above all for the timeless, for the eternal issues of value and meaning, of decency and hope and reverence for life. Lesson Number Four: Never absolutize the present moment or your viewpoint in it. Fashion is fickle. Stick with what abides. That's what Jewish tradition and the rabbinate stand for.

And finally, a thought for all of us. My classmates and I know all too well that if you don't continue to grow, you die inside. If you don't continue to learn and to study, you dry up; you become an ineffective teacher and an ineffective rabbi. Rabbis and teachers are constantly giving; we must pay attention to our own need for replenishment as well. To stay vital, we must continue to learn, to study, to grow.

There is a thrist in the rabbinate today for study opportunities, for occasions to come together with colleagues and learn and discuss. That is why CCAR conventions in recent years have focussed on study. That is why the joint HUC-CCAR Commission on Sustaining Education in the Rabbinate is being revitalized. That is why in the future the College will provide its alumni with more opportunities for collegial study. Rabbinic education is not a five-year curriculum; it lasts a lifetime. Lekhakh notsarnu--for this were we formed and fashioned. And this is the essence of Isaac Mayer Wise's vision of a learned American rabbinate.

The last word this morning must not be mine, but must go to our teacher Jacob Rader Marcus, z"l, who left us with the following valedictory upon our ordination here twenty-five years ago:

Every rabbi has 3,000 years of intelligent ancestors. If you do not become increasingly more and more a learned rabbi, you betray the heritage of those who gave you birth. Without learning, there is no Judaism. Count that day lost in which you have not opened a Jewish book. If you do not learn, you cannot lead; if you do not study you are only a hireling.

Remember, a fad is ephemeral; the Torah is eternal. Your duty is to study, to know, to learn, to teach, to lead, to make every Jewish school a Zion and every child a messiah.

Ken yehi ratson!


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu