Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President, presented the Ordination Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles Ordination on Sunday, May 17, 2015 at Temple Israel of Hollywood:
On this sacred morning, amidst this remarkable and holy congregation, we are gathered together with family and friends, those who have walked the exciting path of recent years with our ordinees, with loyalty, energy, love and support; committed lay and professional leaders of our Reform movement and our Jewish community, those who have given of their time and resources to make this day possible; our faculty, extraordinary scholars and teachers, who have broadened our students’ minds and enriched their understanding; and our administration and partners, who, daily, exert themselves to build on our 140 year tradition at HUC-JIR, ensuring that we will continue to lead and build the best possible Jewish community, in the centuries ahead just as we did in the years behind.
When we participate in the sacred act of ordination, as we will in a few moments, we often speak of the results of this act as klei kodesh, “sacred vessels.” Our clergy Inhabit a special niche in the realm of Jewish religious leadership, in that they are considered dedicated to sacred purpose.
And yet, if one plumbs the misty depths of history, and considers the origin and meaning behind this Hebrew term klei kodesh, sacred vessels, there is much to consider that speaks to us at this important moment.
The origin of this term is not biblical, and it does not occur as regularly in the mainstream texts of our sacred heritage, as one might imagine. Further, its meaning transforms radically, over the centuries, finally alighting on the way we use it today only very recently. We first hear it in precisely this form, only in the Palestinian Talmud, a Jewish compendium completed in the 4th-5th century CE, in the land of Israel.
There and in the medieval texts that cite it and expand on it, the term refers only to sacred vessels used in the Temple in Jerusalem, physical objects that were used for prayer and sacrifice in service to worshipping God. These objects could not be used for other purposes, according to tradition, for they were dedicated to one singular and vital act: serving God in the central religious institution of our people.
As the centuries went by, the spectrum of possible meanings for this term expanded, and we begin to see its use in slightly more distant yet parallel ways: late medieval sources cite synagogue equipment, especially crowns and other accoutrements connected with the Torah, as klei kodesh for the first time.
One later responsum, a rabbinic legal opinion, uses the term klei kodesh, in referring to Jewish religious books, for they are certainly dedicated to holy purpose, and serve God by sharing ideas and prompting thoughts that align their readers with Judaism’s eternal message of holiness.
It is only as recently as 1911, in Holland, that we begin to see the emergence of the idea of klei kodesh as connected with human beings, rather than with actual physical objects or books. In Utrecht, Holland, southwest of Amsterdam, the existence of a group is recorded known as the hevreh klei kodesh, and these are not, as one might expect from today’s parlance, rabbis or cantors, but, instead, they are a group comprised of committed individuals, charged with responsibility for the upkeep of Torah mantles, crowns and other sacred objects in the shul.
It is through their role of caring for these objects, that they become a group that is designated holy. The first appearance, to my knowledge, of the term klei kodesh as we use it most often today, to refer to individuals who serve God, comes only as late as the 1960s, when it appears in a responsum by the Hungarian authority Rabbi Menashe Klein.
Rabbi Klein, a Hungarian authority who survived the Shoah, lived in a displaced person’s camp in France after the war, eventually settling in Brooklyn and leading the Ungvar community of Haredi Jews, also establishing Kiryat Ungvar in Israel before his death a few years ago.
In a responsum in his work Mishneh Halakhot, Rabbi Klein speaks of hiring individuals to teach and lead in Yeshivot, places of Jewish study.
In it, he calls those people klei kodesh, sacred vessels, who serve through teaching and through caring for the welfare of their students. It is only as late as this that this term comes into use referring to the individuals who serve God, as opposed to meaning simple physical objects of Divine service.
What can we, Reform Jews of the 58th or 21st century, standing on the cusp of ordination of our beloved students, take away from the progression of development of this term?
First, we note the transformative power of the notion, that sacredness does not inhere only in objects, but that Judaism, and, most especially, Reform Judaism, envisions the possibility – indeed the obligation – that the potential for holiness exists in each and every human being.
Our movement has, since its inception led the Jewish world in our clearsighted understanding of this. In our treatment of women as religious leaders, our acceptance of gays and lesbians, our welcome for transgender individuals, our respect for those of different races and religions, we have shown the world, and we continue to show the world, that Judaism stands for holiness that transcends alienating, divisive and dismissive characterizations of others who are different, and that a shared conception of all humanity as sacred is not a dream but an obligation.
Ordiness of 5775, I charge you today, as you become rabbis, take that obligation seriously, and work to make it a reality in all that you do in the years to come, as you lead our community ever higher in the service of God.
Secondly, note, as well, that access to the holy also dwells, in at least one view I’ve mentioned today, in Jewish books. The faculty at HUC-JIR, has worked diligently to ensure that you emerge from your studies as competent masters, Jewish leaders who are deeply educated in all the major areas of Jewish history, music, thought, language, law and literature.
As the documents you will receive in a few moments attest, each and every one of you can now responsibly answer your own students’ questions with depth, consider new ideas with appropriate context, and decide complex issues with integrity.
I ask simply this: remember that Jewish intellects require ongoing care and feeding. Never cease to engage with our tradition, be people of the book, always reading, always thinking, always learning, for if there is any one characteristic that defines a great rabbi, it is the ongoing, deep and inspiring engagement, with the breathtaking beauty of our tradition, and the ability to share that with others.
Finally, remember, every day of your life, that to be true klei kodesh, true vessels of the sacred, is to know in your hearts that you serve God, with dignity and respect, every day. Know that when you stand by those who suffer and those who celebrate; know that when you study with your chavruta, learn from our faculty in an alumni class, when you guide young children and when you stir the hearts of adults; know that whether you serve here, in Israel, or in any other community of Jews anywhere in the world; know that when you are energized and know that when life verges on the overwhelming.
For as klei kodesh, people will see you from this moment forward as a representatives of Judaism, and you have tremendous power in shaping what they think of our faith.
Know, also, that because we know you well, and because we on the faculty love you and care for you, that you will always be a part of our HUC-JIR family, and you will never walk alone, for we will walk with you, wherever you go from here.
May God continue to bless you as God has blessed you thus far, and may you, our newest klei kodesh, bring blessing to our people, indeed, to the entire world, for years and years to come.
Ken yehi ratson.
For further information about the 2015 Graduation and Ordination Ceremonies, click here >