Cincinnati Ordination Address
June 1, 2002/21 Sivan 5752
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati
It is a great honor to be asked to address you today. After all, I am not a rabbi, nor do I play one on TV. When I speak to groups of Jews, my portfolio is that of a writer - recently, as a novelist, but for many years before that, as a non-fiction writer of Jewish life-cycle books. In that role, I have always seen myself as a journalist, an anthropologist of sorts, describing the choices that American Jews are making for themselves and for their families.
Today, speaking to a very special audience, to a congregation of new rabbis, I wondered what I could offer as you begin your sacred work as teachers and leaders in the Jewish community. And I decided to speak to you as a member of your congregation - who happens to be a writer.
When Rabbi Dan Plotkin sent me an email with the parasha for this Shabbat, I smiled. Truly, there are no "coincidences." This week's portion appears in my second novel, Good Harbor, as the basis for a sermon.
It is the sermon of a young rabbi, barely a year out of school, in a fictional congregation in Gloucester, MA. Rabbi Michelle Hertz, in her first pulpit, prints out the portion and distributes it to the people who have come to Friday night service.
Though the rabbi plays a pivotal role, she is a minor character in the book. The novel is told from the perspective of two women who happen to hear this sermon. Joyce and Kathleen.
Kathleen Levine is a long-standing member of the congregation but not a regular at services; she comes this particular Friday night because she felt the need to sit give thanks for receiving good medical news. As her name suggests, she is a convert to Judaism.
Rabbi Hertz describes Aaron's reaction:
"Let's assume for a moment that Aaron isn't a bad guy," she said. "He doesn't run off congratulating himself on his good luck while Miriam's skin turns white and she goes to solitary confinement for seven days. Aaron is horrified by what happened to his sister and, he suffers for her.
"What does Aaron think of the God they've been chasing around in the desert? A God who would do such a terrible thing to his kid sister, the only one in the family who can sing, who composes beautiful songs in praise of Adonai?
"What kind of deity am I serving, he thinks. What kind of God punishes Miriam and not me?
"Maybe Aaron wonders if he could have protected his sister. Maybe he's thinking, 'Why didn't I challenge God and ask why she got zapped and I didn't?' Maybe Aaron suffers over what he perceives is his own cowardice."
Kathleen is listening to all of this and reacts:
"Kathleen's cheeks burned. She felt as if the rabbi were speaking directly to her and almost looked around to make sure no one was staring at her. But everyone seemed intent on the rabbi's story. Even Ida, notorious for fixing her lipstick during sermons, was listening.
Kathleen struggled with the rabbi's words. Why didn't I argue with God about my cancer? She had been frightened and worried, but she'd borne her cross (hah!) without complaint, like some Catholic martyr.
But she knew why she didn't argue. She believed her cancer was a punishment.
Of course, the rabbi in my novel has no idea what's going on in Kathleen's mind. The two of them meet for the first time after the service ends. And yet, Kathleen feels Rabbi Hertz has spoken directly to her. The rabbi's words have helped set her on a path that unwinds throughout the rest of the book, the rest of her life.
What I want to talk to you about today, rabbis, is the ineffable, unknowable, profound power of your words. From this day forth, your words can change hearts, minds, and the destiny of the world. It is a great power.
You are like a whole class of Spidermen and Spiderwomen. Because as those of you who have seen the movie or read the text know (as it is written), "with great power comes great responsibility."
Unlike Spidey, your new power comes of your own choosing. No genetically altered arachnids were involved in your transformation. No one forced you to become rabbis. And yet, this new super-power that you have clearly brings with it many responsibilities.
All teachers wield this kind of power. Teachers have no idea which student will respond to their lessons. In my fictional sermon, Rabbi Hertz certainly wasn't speaking directly to Kathleen, and yet, the potential of opening a heart as she did, is in your mouth, from now on.
The words of a rabbi are more heavily freighted than the words of an unordained teacher. You are not your congregants' parents, and yet, your role has parental resonance regardless of your chronological age. You do become, metaphorically, fathers and mothers for members of your congregations (and by "congregations," I include Hillels, classrooms, community groups, as well as synagogue communities - wherever your rabbinate takes you).
And while you should all be pretty clear by now that you are not, individually, God, it's pointless to fight the fact that you speak with God's voice.
Rationally, we congregants know better. We don't really think that that you are, literally, God's mouthpiece. The more democratically you run your shul (or community group, or school) the more approachable the rabbi, the more humble, the more a teacher than a priest, the better.
Secretly, unconsciously, we do believe that the rabbi is God's stand-in. That's why the addition of a soprano voice on the bimah was such a revolutionary development in Jewish history. The reason the woman's voice from the pulpit was such a threatening prospect, and why it's been such a healing sound, too, is because the voice of women shattered a supposition about God's maleness.
The female voice of the rabbi demonstrates that God is neither female nor male. God is God. The diversity of the rabbinate - the mixed chorus of rabbi's voices - is a lesson in the universality of God, and also the underlying Oneness of God.
I think everyone is most aware of the rabbi's voice during sermons. This is certainly where the rabbi's language is most self-conscious, and usually, most formal. A sermon is a performance, after all. It's where you get judged for succeeding or failing at moving the heart, touching the soul, rousing the spirit.
It's not fair that sermons are so much like final exams, especially those dreaded high holiday sermons. (Some of you are already working on them, aren't you?)
It's such a tiny fraction of all the words you will speak in a year, and yet those are often the only words upon which all those twice-a-year members will make their determination of your intellect, humor, talent.
But you do speak in God's voice when you sermonize from the bimah. And so does the baby wailing away in the back of the sanctuary just as you reach for your most subtle and sublime insight.
God is often eloquent when given voice by pre-school children. But God also may be heard in ungracious criticism by the most obstreperous person on your board of directors.
Maybe this is the reason why our sages paid such enormous attention to the transgressions of lashen hara. According to Psalm 24, the whole world is full of God. Since our voices are part of that world, using God's voice to harm another human being becomes an unspeakable sin.
A rabbi's greatest challenge is to discern God's voice in the people around her. And then to show all of those voices the respect that God is due. And also to teach us, your congregants, that we have a responsibility to listen for God in each other's voices.
I became a serious Jew because of the words of an alumnus of this institution. My first contact with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner was over the phone, doing an interview for the Boston Phoenix about why unaffiliated Jews feel the need to go to services at the high holidays.
Rabbi Kushner was most gracious with his time. (Free advice: Always talk to the press. It expands your pulpit and you never know who might be listening.)
A couple of years after that first conversation with Rabbi Kushner, while I was preparing for my wedding, I asked him what I should read about Jewish marriage ceremonies. And he said: You should write a book about Jewish weddings because the books out there are lousy.
And he changed my life. Given that The New Jewish Wedding is still in print, and rabbis tell me that they're still recommending it to couples 20 years later, his words changed a lot of other lives, too.
I am the daughter of Rabbi Kushner's words in so many ways, and I will always be grateful to him. And standing here, knowing that my words are reaching some of his teachers, I must acknowledge my debt to my grandfathers on the faculty.
Not every sermon touches the heart. Not every suggestion made to a congregant in the rabbi's study will lead to the publication of a book. But you'll never know.
Words are over-determined in our tradition. God creates by speaking. We pray daily that the words of our mouths are acceptable, we pray to keep our tongues from evil.
When I learned that the Hebrew word davar means both word and thing, I felt that I had learned a foundational truth about Judaism and about how Jews function, create, do business, even dream. We Jews are obsessed with the word, and thus with speech, the tongue, the voice.
No surprise then that there are so many examples in our texts and in our traditions about language, lips, words, voices. One of the best-known of these, and one of the happiest, is the seventh wedding blessing, which enumerates seven voices: The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bride and the voice of the groom, the rapturous voices of the wedded from their bridal chambers, and of young people feasting and singing. (Rachel Adler translation)
The rabbi speaks in seven voices, too.
Not all of the rabbi's voices can be joyful, but all of them count. The rabbi's voice can heal and challenge, can soothe and provoke, can build and honor.
The seven voices of the rabbi include the voice of celebration, and the voice of consolation. The voice of hilarity, and the voice of exhortation. The voice of the teacher, and the voice of imagination. And finally, the rabbi's own voice, his authentic voice, her authentic voice.
The voice of celebration.
One of the great pleasures of being a rabbi is helping people shape their joy. The joy of weddings, births, bar/bat mitzvah. The joy of the holidays, of welcoming converts to Judaism, of marking time with delight.
One of the most fundamental religious impulses, one of the reasons we seek out rabbis, is to help us name our deepest happiness, our most profound gratitude. The rabbi helps us give shape to joy, which has no shape, with ritual and words both ancient and contemporary. Convening far-flung families to gather and to say yes to life, the rabbi gives us permission to weep in delight and to sing with happiness.
This is the icing on your cake as rabbis. This is what gets you through rough times and reminds you why you love being a rabbi. This is all about opening doors into Jewish life and meaning.
Oh rabbis, don't be shy with your words on joyful occasions. Take a lesson from the seventh wedding blessing, which is an embarrassment of riches. Given the economy of most rabbinic language, the ten synonyms for happiness are a kind of word-orgy; a mantra of the varieties of human joy. The enumeration of good feeling that ends the ceremony is a kind of incitement for the guests to live up to their responsibility to entertain and rejoice with the bride and groom.
Of course, even in its excess the blessing is only a few lines long. So be brief and succinct and be specific. Don't flinch from naming the source of our happiness, which is not in the heavens but here on earth; the body, the heart, the passion, the new, the real. Davar means thing as well as word.
I wish you an abundance of joyful tidings, rabbis. And don't forget to dance.
The voice of consolation is the other side of the coin, the mirror image of the voice of celebration. The consoling voice of the rabbi is the other fundamental reason many people find their way back to the synagogue, back into Jewish community. Where else can we find words for the unspeakable pain that is part of life, too. The rabbi's voice can help to express the lowest ebb of life's emotional range.
The rabbi gives a name to heartbreak. But even more, the rabbi is there to hear the voice of the bereaved, to witness the shattered heart, to hold the racking sob without shattering himself and thus be a model of survival, patience, and faith.
Through illness, disappointment, divorce, family crisis, death, people will come to you and ask you to explain. And you should say as little as possible, actually.
In the home of the broken heart, the rabbi listens a lot and whispers a little. The rabbi's presence is very often the only eloquence required. What you say will be far less important than the fact that you showed up.
I remember nothing of what anyone said to me the week after my father died. Including the comments of my very eloquent rabbi. We sat the kitchen table. We took a walk around the block together.
The rabbi's voice is the voice that intones the consolation of Kaddish. And there it is more the mere sound of your voice, not the words very much, the sound of Kaddish, that matters most.
The comforts of the mourner's Kaddish are rooted in preverbal ways of knowing. Like a mother's heartbeat against the infant ear, Kaddish makes an elemental sound -- natural as rain on a wooden roof but also as human as a lullaby.
It is your privilege to lead mourners through this lullaby. And if you are honest as well as gentle with your words, with your voice, you will never experience more profound gratitude.
The voice of hilarity?
There are funny people, and people who can't tell a joke to save their lives, but you rabbis, you are required to master the voice of hilarity. It's in the fine print of your contract, found in the tractates devoted to the celebration of Purim.
Purim may be your greatest challenge. As soon as Simchat Torah is over, it's not too soon to start planning your Purim costume, finding the right mask, the loudest noisemaker. I'm not kidding, and I'm not talking about the kids either.
Purim has become the premiere pediatric Jewish observance. The little ones are undeniably adorable parading around the synagogue in their costumes. But Purim did not start as a kiddie holiday. The Book of Esther is a bawdy burlesque that should get an R-rating for its depiction of drunkenness, harem sexuality, and violence. And then there's the fact that we're supposed to get falling-down, drooling stupid drunk on Purim.
Purim has room for children, but it requires that grown ups act the fool, and sing "Adon Olam" to the tune of "I've been Working on the Railroad." You rabbis, you need to read Mad Magazine from the bimah and teach the jokes in the Talmud.
This foolishness is the stuff of religious devotion. Once a year, Purim comes along to tell us stop posing as a nation of priests, to wipe the smirk off our collective faces and replace it with an idiotic grin. Get down and boogie with You-Know-Who, Who certainly loves to laugh. I have no other way to explain the belief that Purim will be the only holiday celebrated after the messiah arrives and redeems the world.
I've often wondered whether redemption might be kind of boring. God must know we need to keep laughing at ourselves, no matter what. Maybe the world to come will turn out to be a friendly asylum staffed by the Marx brothers, assisted by the likes of Molly Picon, Henny Youngman, and Lenny Bruce -- whose collective memory is a riot.
This is serious nonsense! If you rabbis don't deliver a creditable sermon on Yom Kippur, you will probably get the boot from your congregation. If you don't do something really outrageous on Yom haKippurim, you ought to get the hook.
You have to teach this lesson to your Jews.
It is your sacred responsibility to remind us that laughter is holy. That hilarity belongs in shul. That we are not Episcopalians, all due respect to those of you celebrating with us today. And the only way to teach this lesson is by being funny, by treating the small adversities of life with a light touch, by laughing out loud as often and as loud as possible. On Purim in particular, but not only then. I'm perfectly serious.
Take my tsuris. Please.
The voice of exhortation. Laughter shakes us out of our normal way of breathing. And there are times, rabbis, you need to knock the wind out of us and make us catch our breath. There are times you need to thunder from the bimah and make us really uncomfortable.
You have to do more than merely quote Isaiah: you must become him:
"Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue business as usual and oppress your workers. Behold you fast only to quarrel and to fight, to deal wicked blows.
Is this the fast that I have chosen? Is this the affliction of the soul? Is it to droop your head like a bulrush, to grovel in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fast, a fast that the Lord would accept?" (Isaiah 57-58)
You need to challenge us in class, too. And in your study. And in your meetings with the teachers you supervise.
The voice of exhortation is not always an easy voice for liberal rabbis to use. The authority of the clergy is, in most places, no longer an absolute. This is a good thing. Autocrats and dictators make bad rabbis.
But it is not a good thing for a congregation or any organization to be leaderless, or to be led by a person without a strong sense of right and wrong, better and worse.
Historically, the role of the rabbi had a lot to do with declaring things kosher or not kosher: This chicken is okay. This bottle of wine is trafe. You can't marry her. You have to do business with him.
But this is an American rabbinate that you enter, with American Jews in the pews. Mostly, people don't care if you think their choices are kosher or trafe. And yet, it would be truly awful for us as Jews, and for Judaism as a whole, if you were to become nothing more than our spiritual/religious chauffeurs, taking us only where we want to go, avoiding any turn that drives through the slums, ignoring the pain we create in our own families through pettiness or arrogance or neglect.
Yours is the task of asking parents whether it's more important to them that their kids grow up to be life-long soccer players or life-long Jewish learners.
Yours is the task of chastising your community about being complacent in the face of public education that is excellent in the suburbs but substandard in the city.
Your job includes demanding that the Jewish Federations of your community help pay for special education for kids enrolled in religious schools and day schools. And that everyone in your congregation registers and votes, and donates blood.
It goes on and on.
I'm not talking about wheedling or nagging, or guilt-tripping. Those noises come from throats choked by insecurity and doubt. The voice of exhortation may be angry sometimes, but it is never petty and it is grounded in the most basic values of Torah:
That which is abhorrent to you, don't do it to your neighbors. Remember you were a stranger. Teach your children. Remember Shabbat. Do not forget that we are only the custodians of this planet, of these bodies.
The voice of exhortation, the prophetic voice, speaks truth to power. This is not easy. But if you don't get into hot water from time to time, rabbis, you're not doing your job.
The voice of the teacher. Teaching is an art and a mystery. I am in awe of great teachers and I wouldn't dare tell you how to do it. You will each find your own pedagogy, your own style of instruction.
But I will encourage you to teach what you love. And I hope that you will teach, most of all, what you are excited about learning yourself.
As you assume the voice of the teacher, remember that the best teachers reveal themselves as serious students. (Serious here does not mean pompous or elite; it includes getting down on the floor and playing with the alef bet blocks with the preschoolers, it means being goofy with the high school kids.)
With the title of Rabbi, your status as a teacher is a given. But if you can be a role model as a student of Judaism, as a fellow-traveler on the unending pathway through Jewish life, as an acolyte rather than as a master, you will give the Jewish community a great gift.
The voice of the teacher-who-is-still-a-student retains the enthusiasm of the beginner. It is a voice still able to ask naive questions, and it is a voice that is sometimes wracked by doubt.
The voice of this kind of teacher is humble because serious Jewish students know that there is no end to study, no end to mitzvot, no end to tikkun olam.
This is a relatively insecure voice. This is the voice in the wilderness. This is the voice of someone who knows how little she knows, how little he knows. This is the voice that longs for God, that struggles with the notion of the sacred and reveals how his/her mind grapples with unanswerable questions.
Teach as a student, and they will come to study with you, not only to gather the pearls of wisdom from your lips, but to watch the way you tie your shoes.
The voice of imagination.
This is the voice of liberal Judaism in general, of Reform Judaism in particular. Yours is the voice of 21st century Judaism, and we need rabbis who can dream out loud, to dare great things within your own rabbinate, and to challenge those that you will reach and teach to do great things as Jews and as human beings.
The voice of your imagination can lead us to experiment with liturgy and ritual, music and silence, governance and organization. From you we expect not only books, but vision and passion wedded together in new Jewish formulations.
You are not required to complete the tasks you imagine. But you are required to inspire imagination in others. To keep your eyes peeled for commitment and nurture it. To seek out talent and foster its Jewish expression.
What do I mean? I mean .. Ask one of the non-Jewish members of your synagogue, the one who has served on a dozen committees and closes his eyes for the Shema; ask that person, "Can you imagine yourself as a Jew yet?"
I mean ask high school students .. "Have you ever imagined yourself as a rabbi, a cantor, a Jewish educator?"
I mean, challenging the wealthy people you encounter to think about their money in Hillel's terms: "All a person truly possesses for eternity is the money he gives away."
To ask the people in your pews to think about living in the service of something more meaningful and sustaining than material success alone.
You are in a great historical moment for this voice, rabbis. The Jewish imagination is alive and well. In the arts, in publishing, in theology. There is energy to reinvent our institutions. There is self-confidence for creating new rituals, new gateways to meaning.
You new rabbis must cultivate this growing edge of our people's souls by speaking with the voice of possibility, of youth, of hope, of risk-taking. The voice of imagination will help keep us alive into the 22nd century and beyond. We are counting on your voices.
Finally, the seventh voice, the rabbi's own voice. The phrase, "finding your own voice" is much in vogue.
"Finding one's own voice" means not being derivative or plagiarizing. It means surpassing your sources, your teachers, your mentors sources - even as you cite your sources and teachers.
But finding your own voice isn't so much about being "original," as it as about being true to yourself and trusting the notion that we are all created in God's image.
This doesn't require talking about yourself all the time. The confessional sermon, like the confessional memoir, has its limits. Referring to your own experience as a starting point is a good thing in a sermon. But boundaries are good, too. And reaching beyond the self is essential.
The parasha this week has something to teach us about the rabbi's authentic voice. In the aftermath of God's judgment upon Miriam, we have three examples of "rabbinic" voices in response.
First Aaron; the priest. Aaron addresses Moses, not God. Aaron says:
"Please, my lord,
do not, pray, impose on us guilt-for-a-sin
by which we were foolish, by which we sinned!
Do not, pray, let her be like a dead child
Who, when it comes out of its mother's womb
Is eaten up in half its flesh!
(Everett Fox translation)
This entreaty comes right after God has chastised Aaron and Miriam for daring to speak against Moses for his marriage to a Cushite woman. (A sin of speech, which they share with the rest of the Jews.)
Aaron does not speak to God directly, but beseeches his brother on his sister's behalf and on his own. It is a heart-felt plea, but I think you can hear, just behind his concern for Miriam, something self-defensive. Aaron implicitly asks Moses to tell God "Don't strike me down with leprosy, too." He is almost whining. He is terribly afraid.
Next we have Miriam's voice, which is to say, we have Miriam's silence. As is the case in so many places in our texts, the voice of the woman is missing. Miriam, the prophet who sang by the sea, sings nothing here.
She suffers, ultimately she is separated from the community for a week, she takes the fall for Aaron and pays for her own indiscretion. If she spoke at this moment, it was not recorded. It is left to us to imagine her tears, her entreaties, her mortification(?), her accusation(?) her prayer.
Or perhaps we are meant to listen to her silence as an answer: an admission (?) an acceptance of responsibility(?) Her silence remains an open question, a mystery here.
Then there is Moses, who offers a striking contrast to Aaron's fear-filled speech. Moses' voice comes up several times in the Torah. He complains that he is slow of speech; commentators have speculated that perhaps he even had some kind of impediment. He complains to God that the people don't heed his voice, even when is taking God's words directly to them.
Moshe cried out to YHVH, saying:
O God, pray, heal her, pray.
This is Everett Fox translation again, and the note gives the transliteration; El na rafa na la. Fox writes. "I could not find a way to reflect the sound of the Hebrew.
El, God. Na, please. Rafa heal, Na. Please. Her. La.
So simple. So economical. So musical. So heart-felt. So simply human.
Rabbis, this is your challenge, too. To find your voice - on the bimah and off - and to speak as honestly as Moses.
In classrooms and in living rooms. At town meeting and at congressional hearings. In pastoral counseling and in conversation with people of different faiths, in consultation with our brothers and sisters in Israel and in the letters to the editor of your local paper.
As rabbis, what you say will have significance in ways you never intend. Maybe you've already had a sense of this in your student pulpits, when a congregant quotes you back to yourself, or when a parent effuses about some random compliment you paid his child.
The power of your words is staggering. You can make terrible mistakes. In fact, you will make terrible mistakes. You will make a joke that will be taken the wrong way. You will use a word that will be misheard. You will say something hurtful, something insensitive, something unintentionally cruel. How could it be otherwise? You will be talking so much, and your words are so over-determined.
I don't mean to scare you. I pray you will not parse or over-think every syllable you utter. The voices of imagination and exhortation must be brave.
So when you do mess up, clean up after yourself right away. When you are misunderstood, or if you misspeak, apologize. Immediately. In person, and then in writing. Do it in public, in front of the whole community, if necessary. And then put your mistake behind you.
Because it is crucial for you all to take risks with your words. We cannot afford a timid rabbinate. We need rabbis who are willing to jump off tall buildings, hanging by the strong threads which were woven for us by our ancestors and our teachers, and which will only become stronger through your courage in testing their limits.
You must be able to speak openly and joyfully about sex. You must talk about grief and doubt and agony, in tears perhaps, but without flinching. You've got to dress up as the Energizer bunny and make yourself laughable. You have to challenge Jews to be Jews. You have to stick out your neck and speak truth to all the powers that confront you to your board of directors, to the mayor of your city, to the leaders of our movement, to the prime minister of Israel.
Every single sound you make alters the universe forever. The vibration of your vocal chords sets off a chain of physical events that reverberate until the end of time. And that is nothing compared to the effect you'll have on the hearts, and minds, and souls around you.
Be careful with your voices, rabbis. But be reckless. Be humble, rabbis. Be confident. And fear not.
Unlike Spiderman, you will always be working with a net. You have all us with you, around you, under you, above you. Rooting for you, waiting for you, loving you.
Mazal tov to you and to your families. Mazal tov to all of us Jews, for whom you will be our rabbis. I look forward to hearing from each one of you.