Remarks by Dr. Deborah Weissman, Recipient of the 2014 Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem Ordination and Academic Convocation

Saturday, November 15, 2014

HUC-JIR/Jerusalem Ordination and Academic Convocation took place on November 13, 2014 at Merkaz Shimshon Beit Shmuel.  The Doctor of Humane Letter, honoris causa, was presented to Dr. Deborah Weissman.

Dr. Weissman said:

Thank you so much to the entire Board of Governors, the faculty and staff of HUC-JIR, and, especially, to my friend, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of the College-Institute.

This is a great honor for me, especially as I am not from within the Movement, but I have been a sympathetic outsider for many years. I will come back to that in a moment. I just want to add that it’s also an honor to be here together with Ambassador Shapiro. I have had many wonderful Reform colleagues in my 2 careers: Jewish education, both formal and in-formal; and interreligious dialogue and education.

We may disagree on a number of issues, but we share three very important things in common:  1) Prophetic voice: religious values in the public sphere; 2) Enhancing the role of women within Judaism; 3) Prayer should be a meaningful experience intellectually, emotionally, and esthetically.

The rabbis taught that when you give a talk, you should begin with כבוד האכסניה — giving honor to the hosts, or the setting. You should then continue with ענייני דיומא, which could mean current events, but in their case, it meant the weekly Torah Portion.

So, if I may be permitted a short D’var Torah: I believe that the greatest challenge we face as Jews today isn’t the challenge of feminism or of Jewish pluralism or the environment, although these area all important religious challenges. The greatest challenge that we face, in my opinion, is to work out a way of living with the Other, in general, and with Arabs and Palestinians in particular. Who could have dreamt that this summer so many of us would become racists, both in Israel and abroad?

We are in a Sh’mittah, a Sabbatical, Year. The chapter in the Torah that speaks about the Sabbaticals and the Jubilee is Leviticus 25. There, we read, in verse 23, “God says to the children of Israel the following, "And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers (gerim) and residents (toshavim) with me." גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי This echoes an earlier passage, at the beginning of this coming Shabbat’s Parsha, (Genesis 23: 4) in which Abraham purchases a burial plot for Sarah from the children of Heth, saying, "I am a stranger and a resident among you…" גר ותושב אנוכי עמכם Here we have an unexpected turn-of-phrase— we see Israel (the people) referred to as the strangers!

More than 250 years ago, a Lithuanian commentator, called the Dubner Maggid said, in his commentary on the Torah, Ohel Ya’akov:

"Between Me and you," says the Holy One, "there is always a relationship of strangers and residents.  If you see yourselves as strangers in the world, remembering that your entire existence here is only temporary, as in a hallway leading to the next world, then I will reside among you and My Presence will always be within you. But if you see yourselves as permanent residents in the world –then I will be as a stranger in your midst. In any case, here we are—you and I—strangers and residents. Either you are strangers and I am a resident, or else you are residents and I am a stranger."

The recognition of ourselves as temporary residents in the world might even lead us to a different kind of ecological consciousness, including both humility and a sense of responsibility or stewardship for the integrity of God's creation. But in any case, it can provide a new perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Suppose we began to view both ourselves and the Palestinians as both strangers and residents in the same land. The Land belongs to God; we must not sell it in perpetuity for it is His. If we sincerely believed this, might we adopt a more humble approach, with more openness to the Other?

I hope and pray that, with God’s help, we may be able to educate towards what I have called in an article from a few years ago, Pride without Prejudice, a sense of pride in our particular Jewish identity without prejudice against others, respect for all human beings who were created in the Divine Image, and a hopeful future of peace and cooperation among us and our neighbors. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.

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.