May 20, 2001
ON THE THRESHOLD: RELIGION'S ROLE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Rabbi David Saperstein
71 years ago, my great uncle, Adolph Lasker, was ordained; 66 years ago, my father, Harold (along with his closest friend at the school, Rabbi Jerome Malino whose presence graces us here today); 55 years ago my uncle, Sanford; 29 years ago my brother Marc; and 28 years ago I stood where you do now. That same year, I began my rabbinic career as a rabbi, under the tutelage of the remarkable Rabbi Gunther Hirschberg and Cantor Ephraim Biran, here in this great synagogue where we are gathered - and in this same pulpit, just a few years ago, my father ended his 60 year active full-time rabbinate. So today, standing here again, honored to welcome you as colleagues, as new rabbis and cantors in Israel, including many who have participated in our programs at the Religious Action Center, the memories evoked make this occasion especially poignant and sweet.
"And these are the generations of Aaron and Moses," begins the third chapter of B'Midbar, our Parasha this week. Yet the second line:
names the sons of Aaron without mentioning those of Moses. Commenting on this in Sanhedrin 19b, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmoni says in the name of Rav Yonatan:
"From here we learn: When one teaches the child of his friend Torah, it is regarded as if he gave birth to that child. The children of Aaron are also part of the generation of Moses, because he was the one who taught them Torah." In preparing you to serve the Jewish people, this has been the role of your professors here at HUC-JIR, led by our distinguished Provost and acting President, Rabbi Norman Cohen. But for each of you there are others as well: your parents, your congregational rabbi or cantor, a Hillel rabbi, all of whom you honor today - those who inspired you and were midwives to your love of learning. So too it should be in your rabbinate and cantorate. [As you continue the shalshelet Hakabalah, that mystical chain of tradition binding together the generations,] now it is up to you to carry on that tradition of Moses, to inspire new generations to life long Jewish learning and Jewish living.
But there are those who all of us can claim in common as our spiritual progenitors. Foremost among them we remember Rabbi Alexander Schindler, z"l. We still mourn his loss and will forever cherish the blessing of his memory. His Jewishness burned with an inner flame that illumined his soul and ennobled our lives. He - and we - are blessed that his vision is being carried on in new and powerfully creative ways, by the current president of the Union - my classmate and friend Rabbi Eric Yoffie.
But it is another spiritual progenitor of our movement that I wish to invoke today as especially appropriate for this ordination and investiture: the founder of the New York school, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.
In our world of cynicism and informality, it is difficult to envision what a towering and visionary figure he was: Counselor to presidents and world leaders; an institution builder par excellence [from the NAACP to the ACLU, from the American Jewish Congress to the JIR]; one of American Jewry's leading Zionists; and, arguably, the most influential and prophetic preacher in American public life. His life's work speaks to us on this day, even as it speaks to our nation at this crossroads in our foreign and domestic policy.
As all American and American Jews knew, to Wise, Judaism's central purpose was to be a light to the nations; a moral goad to all humankind.
The implications of this prophetic task were, for him, simple but compelling.
In our time, the leaders of our Movement, led by Rabbi Yoffie, recognize that our Movement's short-term concern must be to build the pillars of study and spirituality in Reform Judaism so that they are as strong as the social justice pillar. You will be part of that effort, helping to ensure the Jewish continuity of the next generations. Yet these leaders also see with clarity the enduring message of Wise: that this could not be done in a manner that would diminish the essential role of tikkun olam. Those who suggest that any one of these pillars - study or spirituality or justice - must come at the expense of the others offer inauthentic answers to the challenges you will face. [For otherwise, we would have to answer unanswerable Jewish questions:
Which is more Jewish - wearing a tallis or clothing the naked?
Which is more urgent - to feed matzah to our children on Pesach or feed the starving children dying in Sudan?
Which is the more religious act? To welcome with joy the Sabbath Queen - or to welcome with love the refugee fleeing persecution? To pray with fervor, with kavanah, or to express our indignation in the face of injustice?]
For the heart of our Reform Jewish understanding is that we do not have to choose between these commitments. The core of our insight is that serious Jewish study inevitably leads to the soup kitchen; that sincere prayer is a way of preparing to do battle with injustice; that social justice without being grounded in text and ritual is ephemeral and unsustainable. [The heart of the argument is that there is no such thing as "social action" Judaism, that the thread of social justice is so authentically and intricately woven into the many-colored fabric we call Judaism that if you seek to pull that thread out, the entire fabric unravels, that the Judaism that results is distorted, is neutered, is rendered aimless.
Instead our goal - your goal - must be to weave Torah, Avodah, U-gemilut Hasadim together into a stronger tapestry - no, into a luminous tallit - of Jewish life.
Equally important for this day was Wise's recognition of the centrality of the rabbi in all of Jewish life as well as in this Jewish enterprise of social justice. I believe that the JIR was Wise's most lasting legacy: generations of rabbis, cantors, and educators who have served so nobly, and who have transformed the American Jewish community for the better. And note: This great institution builder and world leader never gave up his own congregational rabbinate. [It was to serve the synagogue, above all, that he built what was, for many years, this non-denominational Jewish seminary.] He cherished the synagogue as the essential institution of Jewish life and recognized the uniqueness of the job of the congregational clergy. Consider: There is simply no profession anywhere on this earth that allows one individual to touch the hearts and souls of so many others so directly: interacting with young and old; in good times and bad; sharing moments of joy and moments of sadness. You will not only share - but shape - their lives, challenging, motivating, and empowering our congregants to find their own unique Jewish vision that can illuminate their lives and stimulate the spirituality of their souls.
What an extraordinary profession; what a sanctified calling!
In that light, I believe Wise would be deeply alarmed by some in the laity today who would reduce the relation between the clergy and the synagogue into that of employee and employer. Such a change would transform the rabbinate and cantorate, from this sacred calling; it will, in the future, drive too many of the best and the brightest away, and would strip the synagogue of strong leadership at a time it is needed more than ever. [When he was challenged on such grounds in his own rabbinate, usually over some controversial social justice cause about which he felt compelled to speak, Wise could not have been clearer as to the rights and the obligations of the rabbi.
Throughout his career he demonstrated the power of rabbinic teaching and preaching to educate and inspire, to goad the conscience of the congregation and community.
Indeed, no one used this power more effectively. ] In an age when the formal sermon is falling into disuse, when some still argue that we should stick to religion, and not politics as though the role of the prophets in speaking truth to power were not a profoundly religious act. Wise's dedicated use of the pulpit to mobilize the Jewish community and to inspire the moral conscience of America, is a model we must not ignore.
He never held back from criticizing even the most powerful political or business figures when justice was at stake. Often citing the precedent of Nathan's confrontation of King David, Wise would unhesitatingly point the finger and declare: Eesh ata: "Thou art the man." When threatened with being fired in 1919 for supporting the striking workers of U.S. Steel, headed by Judge Gary, he said:
"There are two charges which have been made with respect to the word of this pulpit last Sunday to which I pause for a moment in order to make reply. The one is that I have spoken disrespectfully of Judge Gary. I have not willed to speak disrespectfully of him. I willed to speak truthfully of him...
"The charge is made that I am undermining the Jewish name, that I have hurt the Jewish position by what I have said and done in the steel and iron industrial situation..."
"If I am to be silent on every great moral issue because I am a Jew, if my lips are to be sealed when the truth and the conscience bid me speak lest I hurt the Jewish name, then I wish to live in some place, small or large, near or remote, where a man can live without wholly forfeiting his self-respect..."
"Were I persuaded that right or wrong, true or false my word would permanently and irremediably hurt my people, I would not be silent, but would instantly take myself out of the Jewish pulpit.
"But be it understood that within or without the pulpit I shall speak the truth as I see it; I shall be governed by my conscience; I shall be hindered by no fears; I shall consult no motives of selfishness. God help me and you alike to see and to do what is right in His eyes." They decided to keep him. Will we have such courage to speak the truth to power?
"The pulpit is charged with the responsibility of the prophetic memories and prophetic aspirations. . . . Be it understood that within or without the pulpit I shall speak the truth as I see it; I shall be governed by my conscience; I shall be hindered by no fears; I shall consult no motives of selfishness. God help me and you alike to see and to do what is right in His eyes."
What might he say today on some of the crucial issues that confront us all? Once, his words on racial justice and poverty, on women's rights and labor rights, on international peace and environmental concerns stirred the soul of a nation. They echo down to us, a moral legacy for you as you face the future, a light that can pierce the despair and darkness that often obscures our choices.
To those leaders, who [at the very moment in human history when we should see with clarity, wonder, and awe how precious is God's creation,] seem blind to the startling evidence of the Earth's peril, of damage already being wrought [:by our own hands, by our greed, and by our indifference, affecting all of us, indiscriminately]: global warming, ozone depletion, the escalating eradication of entire species of life, destruction of our rain forests and wilderness areas, runaway world populations, and the impact of environmental problems of human health, Wise 's words 80 years ago should be a warning. He said:
And Wise, who railed against racial and religious persecution, who more than any other rebuked the anti-Semitic poison of Father Coughlin would take great satisfaction in seeing his institution honor Morris Dees whose courage and vigilance has inspired all of us in the struggle against hate crimes in America. [An anti-semitic act or accusation, Wise recognized, "does not alone affect one Jew, but is a charge preferred against the whole Jewish race and its religion. It is a blow dealt at every individual Jew, whatever his citizenship and whatever the exact color of his religious conviction." For America, prejudice and hate crimes are crimes not only against the immediate victim, but crimes against our nation's values, its soul, its well being.] Against those who commit such crimes with the manifest intention of tearing at the already frayed threads of diversity and tolerance that bind us as communities and make us strong, we must respond as one nation - healing the victims and survivors, and rebuilding the kinds of coalitions of decency and justice that Wise created as bulwarks in ensuring that tolerance will prevail.
To those who would tear down the wall separating church and state, who would divide America along religious lines, [with religious groups competing over (inadequate) government funding, over whose religious symbols and whose 10 Commandments will be posted in government buildings and public school classrooms, over whose prayers will be said in the public arena, and whose religious truths will be taught in our science classes,] and to Cong. Bob Barr who asserted that if only the Ten Commandments had been hanging in Columbine High, the shootings never would have happened, Wise's warning of 1899 speaks directly:
In 1911, Wise said, "Let us not imagine that we can shift to the shoulders of overworked charity the burdens that can be borne only by the strength of under-worked justice. [Yes, the stricken ask not the occasional tonic of charity, but the daily meat and substance of justice."]
How resonant these words are today, as our nation has increasingly washed its hands of responsibility for the social safety net. [Where does that justice - the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mandate to protect the poor and the most vulnerable - enter into the deliberations, as the Senate votes on tax cuts for the next decade that will disproportionately favor the wealthiest, as it rates on a budget that will lead to substantial cuts in vital social programs: in health care, affordable housing, food stamps, day care, public transportation, and job training.] My friends, the budget of the United States is the great moral document of our nation. It reflects the values, priorities, and vision of the nation. We know what Wise would say about those values, what he would say for those who have no lobbies and no voice:
Wise would speak for them from the pulpit and in the public forums. Will we?
And, finally, the international arena.
There are voices today calling for America to withdraw from its obligations on the world scene. They should listen to Wise, who presciently recognized that Nazism was not just a local phenomenon threatening German Jews but a clear and present danger to the civilized world, to all humane values. After World War II, he wrote,
[Today, many nations are beset by wars without end, by ethnic and religious strife, by poverty and environmental degradation. America cannot afford, morally or pragmatically, to abandon the developing world, where half the world's population suffers from the preventable maladies of severe malnutrition, illness, and illiteracy; nor can it abandon the 50 democracies that, inspired by our example, emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War, many buffeted by economic, political, and ethnic strains that threaten their stability.]
If the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the sin of decent men and women sitting idly by when others are persecuted and destroyed, simply because of who they are. Can we who condemned the conscience of the world for remaining silent in the face of our tragedy, now remain silent while ten million, men, women, and mostly children die of starvation and related causes every year; while 40% of sub-Saharan Africa children will lose a parent to AIDS; when genocidal activity takes place in countries like Sudan and Rwanda?
In that light, let me focus on one problem that it has been my honor to address these past two years in my service as the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, created by a unanimous act of Congress two years ago: the worldwide scourge of religious persecution.
Today we Jews must mobilize around a common goal-simple, but profound: to stand up for people who suffer because of their religious faith - as we would ask them to do for us. Such people number in the millions. Around the globe, they live in fear, afraid to speak of what they believe. They worship "underground" in 21st century catacombs, lest new secular Inquisitions discover and punish their devotion to an authority beyond the state. They languish in prisons, and suffer torture, simply because they worship God in their own way.
They are Christian women and children in Sudan, stolen from their families, beaten, raped, sold into slavery and forced to convert to another faith. [(Sudan, a country in which more people have been killed and displaced in a genocidal war, than in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Chechnya combined.) They are Buddhist monks in Chinese "reeducation camps" and scores of thousands of Falun Gong in Chinese prisons. Jews in Iran imprisoned on trumped-up charges of "espionage." Muslims butchered for being the wrong kind of Muslims. They hail from every region, every race, every religion, and their cries reach out to us. Not for vengeance, but for help, and for redress.
Nor should we speak of human suffering merely in terms of numbers. Suffering has a face. My friend, Robert Seiple, former head of World Vision and our nation's First Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom has hanging on his wall a lovely watercolor painting of a house and garden. The painted scene is irenic, it is one of peace, which reflects the forgiveness in the artist's heart. But its origins are in hatred. The artist is a young Christian Lebanese woman named Mary, who at the age of 18 was fleeing her village after it was overrun by Muslim militia. Mary was caught by an armed militiaman, who demanded that she renounce her faith or die.
She refused and the militiaman pulled the trigger; the bullet severed her spinal cord. Today Mary paints her paintings of forgiveness with a brush braced in her right hand. Filled with physical suffering, she nevertheless forgives, and thereby points the way to an enduring answer to religious persecution: the way of reconciliation. Lest we forget the face of suffering, or of forgiveness, we should all take pride that our State Department dedicated the first U.S. Annual Report for International Religious Freedom to Mary.
The celebrated Israeli statesman Abba Eban once observed,
As we look out on the human condition, our consciences cannot be clean. If they are clean, then it is because we do not use them enough. It is not inevitable that we march in hostile and separate hosts into the common abyss. There is another possibility - of an ordered world, illuminated by reason, governed by law. If we cannot touch it with our hands, let us at least grasp it with our vision.
That, in the end, is your role as rabbis and cantors, to help this generation grasp Stephen S. Wise's vision of justice in the world, the vision of Jewish destiny and fulfillment; to forge in them the will to keep alive, for all generations to come, a way of life that has endured in grandeur through all the traumas history has hurled at this God intoxicated people; whose unique tale winds through all the recorded history of humankind and whose moral vision has graced the world, seeking relentlessly to keep humanity human.
If you can lead them to draw from the bottomless well of Torah to find the wisdom and strength to be righteous people in our generation; if through the work of tikkun olam, we can still be stirred to strive for something higher and nobler than ourselves; if in bettering the life of even a single child, we can still feel the religious self-transcendence that brings chills to the body and tears to the eyes; if we can still be impelled by the prophet's thunderous command to stand up for justice and denounce inhumanity, then indeed God will find these disciples of Wise worthy of our historic destiny: to be bearers of flames of justice, weavers of dreams of freedom, a light of peace and hope to all humankind. May that be the blessing of the generation you shall lead. May that be the blessing of your rabbinates and cantorates. And may God ever be with you b'chol y'mechem u'v'chol darkechem - in all your days and in all your ways. Amen