Rabbi Sanford Ragins
Senior Rabbi, Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles
I want to express my gratitude to my buddy Lew Barth for giving me the koved, the challenge and the pleasure, of speaking to you this morning. In a few months, after some forty years, I will retire from the rabbinate, and I have been doing a lot of ruminating of late, reviewing those decades, looking back and ahead. So I hope you do not mind if at the outset I indulge myself in some reminiscing as I review some moments in the life of this institution which shaped me, even as it is now shaping you and the future of our Judaism in this country and this era.
Forty years. A nice round number, very Biblical. L’havdil, I feel a bit like Moses at the end of his trek through the desert, also 40 years in length. He never reached the promised land, but, just before he retired, he paused at the foot of Mt. Nebo and gave his last speech. Now this is not Mt. Nebo, and I am certainly not Moses, but you and I are indeed the children of Israel, and this is Founder’s Day, so here goes: some words from one who looks back as he approaches the end of his journey.
What do I recall? Two specific moments, both of which have I think some relevance to this occasion.
Here is the first.
In 1954 the Yamim Noraim came late, just as they will this coming year. Indeed, Rosh Hashanah fell on Tuesday, September 29. Just a couple of weeks later, during Sukkot the very first class of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, California School, convened in a borrowed classroom off a courtyard at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple (in those days there was only one Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and it was on Wilshire Boulevard). There was a lovely sukkah in the courtyard, and it was, as I recall, one of those dazzlingly bright sun-splashed days we are blessed with in Southern California. Eisenhower was in the White House, Richard Nixon at his side. Israel had not yet celebrated its first decade; the Sinai Campaign was a year away, and Jerusalem was a divided but peaceful city. Negroes could not get haircuts at the Blue and Gold barber shop in Westwood Village, and Adolph Eichmann was still at large in Argentina.
I think that those of us who gathered there that day had a dim sense we were participating an historic occasion. No, there were no brass bands or trumpets or cameras, just a handful of very young and very eager Jewish boys (patriarchy was still firmly entrenched at HUC), and a marvelous dedicated teacher, a melamed par excellence, Dov Bin Nun (alav hashalom) who insisted on speaking to us in Hebrew, and only Hebrew from day one. Unfortunately there also was no ritual or ceremony. We even forgot to say shecheyanu. That much Hebrew we knew, but no one thought of it on what we now see ought to been have been marked as a founder’s day.
Who were we? Jerry Goldstein, Art Abrams, Harvey Fields, and yours truly.
What happened to us? We learned Hebrew, and eventually more. We became rabbis. We did our rabbinic thing in one way or another, with varying degrees of alacrity and fulfillment. We made mistakes and sometimes learned from them. We had some lucious, memorable moments of exultation and other times when we stumbled and suffered and fell and somehow got up again and carried on. And once in a while, perhaps often, we thought back to this our alma mater which tried to give us the tools needed to ply our craft. Sometimes we looked back and qvetched: “Why didn’t they prepare me for this?!” But as we mellowed, we recalled with affection and gratitude our days here and the flawed but generally decent and humane and sometimes inspiring or even brilliant folk who were with us – our professors and classmates. Here is where we found soul-buddies and mentors and made life-long friends. A few of us met our life-partners here.
And now fast-forward some decades to my second reminiscence.
Of late, every other year in July, I have been going to Berlin with Lew Barth and Yehoyada Amir to teach in a program for Christian theology students. These young German men and women give up part of their summer vacation to study Judaism with Jewish teachers from the United States, Great Britain and Israel. On my last visit two years ago I was lodged in Bonhoeffer Haus, a hostel run by the Evangelical Church on a side street near the Humboldt University. It is named after a brave young Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was murdered by the Nazis for his role in the resistance to Hitler.
This place is literally around the corner from the building which once housed the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism, where Rabbi Leo Baeck taught until it was closed on July 19, 1942. At the end there were about a dozen students. Six months later Baeck was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Theresienstadt.
It does not look like much today: an old office building several stories high, drab and shabby like many pre-war buildings in East Berlin. The first woman rabbi in Jewish history once studied there and so did Franz Kafka, and also two from our own community, Alfred Wolf and Wolli Kaelter. When I returned to my room late in the afternoon after my classes, my route took me past the doorway through which Leo Baeck walked on his way to teach Judaism to the last generation of rabbis in Germany. Every day, I paused to meditate for a moment on the strange turning of history which had brought me, a rabbi in an American synagogue dedicated to Baeck’s memory, to teach in his city, indeed in his old neighborhood.
Today the facade of the building is undecorated, but I learned that one time it bore a Hebrew inscription: l'chochma v’layirah, for wisdom and for awe, or possibly toward wisdom and awe. I find that a rather remarkable motto, most fitting for a place where modern men and women came to confront the teachings of our ancient tradition in a new way and out of that confrontation to accept the challenge, much like our own, of defining a new Judaism worthy of affirmation and practice. These words, L'chochma v’layirah, for/toward wisdom and awe, I submit, are also a suggestive paradigm for American Reform Judaism and this institution at the beginning of the new millennium. This phrase constitutes the text for my remarks today.
Chochma is an ancient Hebrew word, usually translated as ‘wisdom.’ I sense the leaders of the Lehranstalt chose it to embellish the doorway of their institute in order to articulate the nature of what was to take place in that building and also to say something about the people who came to study and teach there. It was a declaration of self-definition, a conscious expression of who they were and who they were not. The Lehranstalt was not in any sense a Yeshivah, but a modern academic institution devoted to the scientific study of Judaism. It was a place where the texts and traditions of the Jewish past were seen through the lens of contemporary scholarly research. In its classrooms rational, critical inquiry was not only accepted but central. By using an old Biblical word they affirmed their connection to Jewish tradition and, at the same moment, their acceptance of modernity.
By the beginning of the twentieth century a rather considerable body of learning had been created. The scrutiny of texts using the latest tools of analysis, and the historical reconstructions which were attempted showed a new way of understanding the Jewish past. In retrospect we can see that these efforts were not as ‘scientific’ as they pretended to be, if by ‘scientific’ you mean objective and utterly free of bias. That scholarship, like ours, was shaped and limited by the blindspots that infect all human endeavors.
But the genie was now out of the bottle. The students and teachers in the Lehranstalt knew that it was not possible for Jews engaged with modernity to ignore what had now been learned about the Bible and the Talmud, the Midrash and the philosophical and mystical cultures of the Middle Ages. To be sure, out of academic study alone one could not create a new Judaism. But henceforth, for moderns to ignore the methods and understandings of Wissenschaft, what we now call Madaei Hayahadut, would be a sign of obscurantism. As Leon Wieseltier has noted: “The perdurability of the Jews has been owed to [our] absolute refusal ever to stop thinking, to the romance of brains….”
There is a strong and invaluable connection between Wissenschaft des Judentums and Reform Judaism. From it we have drawn five fundamental understandings which I believe have made it possible for our movement and the College-Institute to be dynamic, creative, and thoughtfully responsive to the changing needs of our people.
They are, briefly:
The quest for faith. Faith as a task rather than a given. That is what I witness as a synagogue rabbi in the souls of most of my congregants and in my own. Are the majority of the members of the CCAR clear and firm in their beliefs and free from religious doubt? I suspect that is not the case, despite the current pulpit fashion of speaking often and easily about God and what God wants us to do. I believe it is also not true of most of our people. In our community achieving religious faith is an arduous struggle.
Here’s Efraim Shmueli again. “The secret of [the Jewish people’s] endurance [he wrote] …lies…in its faith in redemption and its belief that history is not haplessly abandoned to the powers of evil.” But he added: “history unfolds within a sphere plagued by all the afflictions entailed in man’s mortality, a host of evils, foremost of which is the Angel of Death. Man journeys toward his end, to a place of worms and decay: all the benefits history brings with it are outweighed by the great calamity of [our] subjection to contingency and extinction.”
The reality of death. Our finitude and frailty. The human condition. Here every religion meets its greatest challenge. When the malach hamavet, the Angel of Death, stands before us –and sooner or later, he will -- we need a Judaism that will speak to us with coherence and power, that will assuage our suffering and give meaning to our vulnerability, which will bring consolation on the darkest of nights and hope in the hour of despair.
That, I submit is the central task of Judaism in our times: to transmute terror into awe; to hold out the hope of redemption; to help us deal with those agonizingly difficult questions religious seekers have always asked: "Who am I? Where am I going? What is expected of me? Why is it so that in a universe of such astonishing loveliness and majestic grandeur we are subject to dreadful forces we cannot understand or control? Why am I and all those I love and need destined to die? How must I live in this small hour granted to me, this ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’"
Human beings at all times desperately need comfort and sensitive wisdom in the search for meaning, especially in this era of broken symbols and failed gods. There is so much suffering, so much injustice, so much loneliness which pervade modern life, so much yearning for guidance in the struggle to live with depth, and so few resources in our culture for achieving transcendence.
As long as this is so --and it is likely to be so for as far as we can see-- there will always be a place for a Judaism like ours. What will that Judaism be like? Perhaps something like this.
It will be tension-filled and paradoxical, a post-Auschwitz Judaism which knows the limitations of reason, but refuses to join in the chorus of mindless irrationality;
--a Judaism which cultivates emotional intensity without anesthetizing our critical faculties; rich in symbolism and metaphor and myth, it will relish the power of ritual to move our spirits, but continue the romance of brains and never forget that the essence is the moral life;
--a Judaism which accepts our peoplehood as a given, but knows the dangers of untempered ethnic passion, and believes that Israel must have security, that the Palestinians must have a homeland, and that Jerusalem is big enough to be the capital for both;
--a Judaism which loves the tradition but is unafraid to say when necessary that our ancestors were fallible or limited by their times or just plain wrong;
--a Judaism that brings consolation when tragedy strikes, and hope in a time of despair;
--a Judaism which evokes in us awe and wonder before the mystery of existence, awe and wonder in the presence of the Infinite One, Unnamed and Unknowable.
We did not say Shehecheyanu on that first morning in the middle of the last century when we began to study in this institution. But perhaps it is not too late to say those hallowed words now. We look back with gratitude for what has been given to us by our founders, those who came before, and, in the same moment, suffused with trepidation and hope, we look ahead to the work that remains to be done.