Founders' Day Address March 9, 2003 HUC-JIR/Cincinnati

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

“Unity in Diversity: A Quest for Fairness and Tolerance”
Dr. Nili Fox
Associate Professor of Bible and Director of the Archaeology Center
HUC-JIR/Cincinnati

 

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, 336-7).

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


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading 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 Jacob Rader Marcus Center of 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