Rabbi Richard Levy, Rabbi of the HUC-JIR Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Jack H. Skirball Campus/Los Angeles Ordination on Sunday, May 18, 2014, at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. The text and video of Rabbi Levy's address is below.
Out of the Wilderness: A Call to New Rabbis
by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, 18 Iyar 5774 / May 18, 2014
Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai, the poet of Psalm 118 proclaims, “This is the day Adonai has made”--nagilah v’nism’chah vo-- Let us delight and rejoice in it!”
You who are being ordained—delight! You who have worked and sacrificed and prayed that they might be ordained—rejoice!
Early in your rabbinic studies you would have looked at that verse and exclaimed (to the mystification of your friends and family): nagilah—a cohortative verb! An ayin/yud verb! Cohortatives/ ayin-yuds/peh-nuns/vav ha-hipuch/perfect tense/imperfect tense—what a wilderness you had happened upon—a wilderness of form and structure and binyan and gizrah—when would you reach the Promised Land of—content? Of kavanah, of meaning? Of holiness? (Your families wondered that too.)
Other kinds of wilderness—a little less mystifying—have also enmeshed you: transference/countertransference; backwards design; show, don’t tell, symbolic exemplar, non-anxious presence. When would you reach the Promised Land of—clarity, of authenticity—of rabbi?
And over the past two years you—and all of us here today—have become entrapped in another wilderness— the Pew study, with its tangled branches of pessimism and despair and depressing statistics and apocalyptic analysis—when would we all reach the Promised Land of—optimism about the Jewish future, about the future of Reform Judaism in North America?
Rashi offers an interesting take on the Pew Study. Contemplating Bemidbar, the Torah portion of the week that begins today (which means “in the wilderness”), Rashi notes that it opens with the latest in a series of census-takings (“lifting up the head of the congregation”, in the Torah’s words). Why does God need to count Israel so much, he asks: when they went out of Egypt, God counted them; when they sinned with the Golden Calf, God counted them; when God rested the Shechina upon them through the Tabernacle, God counted them; on the first day of Nisan and the first of Iyar, God counted them. Why so many countings? Why? Rashi asks—because God loved us so much. Because we are so dear to God, God loves to count us—cherishing each one of us, each statistic of us—in the National Jewish Population Study almost every ten years, and now in the Pew study. If the wilderness is a place of countings, Rashi suggests that means the wilderness is also a place of love. The prophet Hosea in next Shabbat’s Haftarah says the same thing: v’holachtiha ha-midbar, “I shall lead her into the wilderness”, v‘dibarti al libahh, “and I shall speak to her heart.” (2:16) Verastich-li l’olam, “I will betrothe you to Me forever.” Now I can see your grammarian ears perk up: Is there a connection between midbar and dibarti, between the wilderness and speech? The Song of Songs seems to believe so: umidbarech na’vah, the lover remarks in chapter 2, “your mouth, your organ of speech, is beautiful.” The wilderness is a place where God, our betrothed, speaks to us: don’t be afraid of all the surveys, the God of the wilderness tells us: your mouth is beautiful; if you speak beautiful things with your mouth, you can lift your head up before all those who analyze you; if you speak beautiful things, your heart will hear me speaking to you—and the Jews you worry about will listen to you.
If you speak beautiful things, the Jews you worry about will listen to you.
What can that mean for brand-new rabbis? You have been to enough sermon discussions to know that speaking beautifully can sometimes paper over a lack of content, a lack of structure, an emphasis on telling rather than showing. And the studies God loves to commission over the decades have indicated that all is not beautiful—the Reform Movement is doing better than some others, but only 34% of our members currently belong to a synagogue, and fewer than 20% attend worship even once a month. We have opened our arms to non-Jews who marry Jews, we have embraced Jews whose fathers but not mothers are Jewish—yet despite the fact that that embrace has brought some outstanding Jewish students to be ordained and graduated from the Hebrew Union College, the overall results in terms of Jewish involvement have been disappointing. The studies that God loves to commission suggest that we are entangled in the other kind of wilderness that Hosea describes:
V’samtiha k’midbar v’shatiha k’eretz tziyah—I shall set her like a wilderness and place her like a parched land; I shall hedge her way with thorns.” (2:5,8). How shall we get out of that wilderness?
But today, Ordination Day, I think that is the wrong question. Today the question is: How will you new rabbis get us out? What nourishment will you offer the parched lips of so many who are trapped on a path of thorns—thorns of Jewish ignorance, of shame for that ignorance, of entanglement in a society that like a diet of only verb forms, is so often devoid of meaning—and passion?
But that’s not fair, you will argue. If you—our teachers and mentors and peers, led us into the wilderness, why should it be upon us to lead youout?
The answer is simple—but poignant. We didn’t know it would be a wilderness. When we shrunk traditional halachic observance 150 and more years ago, we thought we were liberating you; when we streamlined worship, we thought we were freeing kavanah from the bonds of keva, formal structures; when we reclaimed the prevailing diet and dress of the Westerners we lived among, we thought we were allowing you to sample more of the bounties of God’s creation; and when we said that the most important thing for a Jew was to deliver the oppressed, we thought we were being true to our prophetic roots.
We underestimated how strong were the roots of the society we lived in, how they would invade the spaces laid fallow by our radical changes in worship and dress and diet and Torah, and hedge our way with the thorns of materialism; the thorns of longing to be like our neighbors, the thorns of the American distaste for diversity. We have tried to cut back all these thorns, we have planted new flowers—more Hebrew in worship, more emphasis on study, a new appreciation of dietary practice, promoting social justice from a foundation of Torah. We have tried to lay down a path to the Promised Land of a life guided by Torah—but the thorns keep threatening that beautiful path.
And so—we are ordaining you today to continue the work, to speed it up, to give it new fire—that before God gets the idea to commission another study, we can show that we are on the right path. We are ordaining you today to speak—and realize—the beautiful words that will dry up the thorns and let the roses bloom.
What are those beautiful words?
One of them is ahavah, the kind of love we are asked to show to God and to our neighbors. Do you love God? Do you feel God’s love for you? Can you speak about your love? Can you talk about the times you have felt in God’s presence, when you have felt the hand of God leading you? And if you cannot speak those words, if you have not felt that presence, are you willing to try? To look for opportunities to encounter God, to experience God’s love—to articulate the possibility that some of your feelings may indeed be your love for God? Are you willing to look for God’s presence in other human beings—in difficult Board members, in ideological opponents? Are you willing to stand up against cynicism, and identify it for what it is: the thorns of the wilderness, and cut it back? Not that you cannot be skeptical sometimes—you should be skeptical sometimes; and you should be critical sometimes—but you also need to be affirmative: this is what I believe! This is what I love! This is what I have experienced— I’d like to help you experience that too. Show your people—those who have come here to celebrate you and those you will be leading in a few weeks—show them by your actions how your beliefs fire up your life. Show them that you are a y’rei Elohim, a person who reveres God—in the full diversity of that beautiful word. There are people longing to get out of the wilderness, whom the Pew study identified, who are waiting for those words, spoken directly, lovingly, passionately, to them.
Another beautiful word is Torah. Not Bible merely, not rabbinic literature merely, not Maimonides merely—but Torah. You know the Bible, you have studied a lot of Gemara and commentaries—but you need to turn those literary, scientific studies into Torah. Torah means a way of life—a way out of the wilderness. How does each week’s parasha call to you? Do you let it call to you—letting it suggest interpretations for the meaning of your life that week? Are you willing to show your people how the parasha can illumine their life that week? Are you willing to commit time to study the parasha and some commentaries so you can help others make connections there? Are you willing to read the newspaper in the light of the week’s parasha? Can you turn this gemara and that one, this Levinas passage and that Heschel selection into texts that shape your life? And can you push beyond identifying the cohortative verb to rejoicing in it? Don’t misunderstand me—if you don’t know it’s a cohortative you won’t know that it is calling you to rejoice! Everything you’ve learned at HUC and elsewhere is a brick on the path out of the wilderness to the Promised Land. But unless you can put together what you’ve learned as Torah, as a guide for your life, you have merely amassed a pile of beautifully sculpted bricks.
Another beautiful word is mitzvah. As I don’t need to tell you, it means commandment—and it reminds us that God has called us to commit to Shabbat and Torah study and welcoming the stranger and prayer and dietary discipline; they are obligations for us. If you have been counting the Omer since Pesach you know that this is the 33rd day, a joyous day in the Jewish calendar, when, tradition has it, the plague was lifted from Akiba and his students and they went out into the woods to shoot arrows—and study Torah, and celebrate the lifting of the plague with bonfires. You and your loved ones will be celebrating in your own way when Ordination is done—but beyond the bonfires and the arrows is the reminder that there are still 17 days to go until Shavuot, when God will call us to accept Torah once again and we will say, Naaseh—we will do it—v’nishma—and we will try to understand it. We, all of us here who are members of the am segulah, this precious people, all of us made a pledge at Sinai—“we will do it”—and our presence here can signify that we are ready to pledge ourselves in 17 days more to fulfill the mitzvot, the beautiful commands of the Torah.
You don’t like the idea of commandment? My wife Carol has an alternative for you. It is true that when speaking lovingly to each other, husbands to their husbands, wives to their wives, wives to their husbands, they don’t say “I command you”, but rather, “This is something very important to me that you do.” I’ll accept that definition of mitzvah. Shabbat, God will remind us in 17 days, “is something very important to Me that you do.” “Torah study, God will remind us, “is something very important to Me that you do”. Prayer “is something very important to Me that you do.” “Creatively expanding the boundaries of halacha is something very important to Me that you Reform Jews do.” Working from 8 am to 8 pm is “NOT something that is very important to Me that you do”. Fulfilling your obligations to your spouse, your children, your parents, your close friends—is also something that is very important to Me that you do. Our people lost in the wilderness of the Pew need mitzvot to help them out of the wilderness. That you give them a sense of mitzvah is very important to God that you do.
There are many other beautiful words you can come up with. I would like to suggest one more: tzedek. Justice. The prophets called on us to bring about justice in the world; the Torah calls on us to end the thorny shame that the poor will always be with us and instead to work for the time when poverty will be no more. You have learned this year from Reform CA how our tradition can help us take steps to bring those visions into being. All the paths of Torah, we say every time we read from it in the synagogue—all the paths of Torah, are peace. Are you committed to peace—between your neighbors, between Israelis and Palestinians through a state for each of them; peace—between—everybody? The Torah says, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Amos says, “Let justice well up like water and righteousness like a mighty stream”. And if your Board president says the rabbi should not say that—how can you help her hear the words of Torah and the prophets as you can? How can you open yourself to hear the words of Torah and prophets as she does? How can you work with your laypeople to come to a mutual understanding of what the tradition requires of us? And if, after much listening on both your parts, and much discussion, your president still wants you to be silent out of fear of what someone else might say if you speak, I hope you will be able to say, “We both need to listen for what God’s words are telling us, not what our fears are telling us.” You all know the words of Rabbi Nachman’s song: kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od: The world is a very narrow bridge—people can throw you off of it at any time; but the Jewish principle is: lo l’fached klal: do not fear at all. Rather—be bold.
We have not always taught you that message in your years with us—we have too often said, “Be careful”. And of course you should be careful—of people’s feelings, of their sensitivities, of their wounds. As a rabbi you are committed to caring for their wounds. As the Musarniks teach us, we need to act with anavah, humility, and gaavah, authority. It is possible—it is crucial—to embrace them both. There are times for softness—and there are times to be bold. The way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land is by being bold. Ours is not to say, “there are giants in the land, and we feel like grasshoppers before them”—that is not humility; that is self-debasement. You have thorns to clear away—and you need to be bold in clearing them, bold enough to know you may get scratched sometimes, but the Promised Land is worth a scratch. Smell the flowers you are planting, and the scratch will not hurt so much. Watch the sun on the leaves, the dew and the even the driving rain on the petals—and the scratch (as the Emperor’s glass cutter told him) will go away.
Be bold. Act with humility—but act boldly. Love boldly. Do God’s commands boldly. Expand Jewish tradition boldly. Do justice boldly. And if you do, if you speak the beautiful words God has taught us out of love, and if you act with courage and sensitivity and conviction, you will lead this people and this Movement into the Promised Land—the Land of passion, of meaning, of holiness, of authenticity—of living by Torah in the presence of God, of living out the Torah-based prophetic tradition that is the Reform Movement in its glory. And because you will have led us out of the wilderness, perhaps God, following Rashi, will find other ways to show us love than by studies—because the Promised Land will be a place for us and all our cohorts to rejoice. Enjoy this day, rabbanei segulah, precious rabbis—and may God light a bonfire in each one of your hearts.