Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z"l, delivered his final address at New York Graduation at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Thursday, May 3, 2018. The recording and text of his address are available below:
Tsohorayim tovim, Good afternoon. It is a distinct pleasure to welcome our Faculty, Administration, Board Members, Students, Alumni, and, most importantly, all our graduates and their friends and family to Graduation 2018/5778, which concludes this, the 143rd Academic Year at HUC-JIR.
Today, we rejoice as we celebrate the immense achievements of our graduating class.
We salute our graduates for their hours of study, the fine work they have already done in so many communities, the extraordinary sense of community and commitment they have shared within our walls, their assembled families and loved ones who have given so much to support them over their years of study, and, of course, the enormous potential they have shown and the ample achievements that lie ahead for each of them.
Our honorary degree recipients represent the best and the brightest of human capacity and of Jewish achievement. They have served as revered Jewish leaders, changing the Jewish world through remarkable innovation, through inspired teaching, through courageous leadership; and we celebrate with them all that they have made possible for the next generation of Jews in the Reform movement and far beyond, whether here, wherever Jewish communities thrive around the world, and, most especially, in our beloved Eretz Yisrael.
Our celebration comes, this year, amidst a particularly challenging and painful world, one that in many respects transcends anything I have seen in my lifetime. We now live in a world in which truth is distorted, basic institutions of American life like the press, the courts, the electoral system, the FBI, the beautiful mosaic of immigration that made this country what it is, the dignity and value of public leadership and civil service, egalitarianism and a woman’s right to choose, and so many others, are threatened in ways we simply could not have imagined a few years ago. We see countries long civilized and democratic reverting to policies of nationalism and tactics of scapegoating reminiscent of our darkest times. We labor under the challenges of privacy and the ability for noxious leaders to spread their message ever more broadly and more efficiently through warped use of social media, cynical and often violent supremacist protests, and through the abhorrent targeting of innocent immigrants as vicious criminals.
But here’s the thing: the Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived and built again and again and again. We are not a people of whiners, of those who say “this is the end and there is nothing we can do about it.” We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity. Even in the darkest of times, we have faced challenges and overcome them. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and our people forcibly deported to years of exile in Babylonia, yes, we mourned, but then we set about turning ourselves into the People of the Book, revising Judaism to make it portable and vibrant in a new setting. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, yes, we mourned; but then we built a new system of worship, study and leadership that has survived and made possible 2,000 years of robust Jewish life in an endless array of countries and situations, which continues in this room and will for generations to come. When Spain and Portugal expelled us, yes, we mourned, but we set about building new communities of Jewish life all over Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and far beyond. And when the fires of the Shoah annihilated nearly half our people, yes, of course, we mourned, but we learned to remember and we learned to rebuild. That is what it means to be part of our Jewish community: to mourn when we must and never to forget, but to build anew in brighter, ever more meaningful, ever more lasting ways.
This moment is surely challenging, but let’s also have some perspective. The world we live in today may have its darkness, but let us remember that there is so much light as well. We cannot equate the current state of the world with the extremes of the enormous tragedies that have befallen us. And yet, we are definitely hearing a wake-up call in no uncertain terms! The story of the Jewish people gives us insight and sensitivity to factors of destructive change in society. Guided by our history, we must engage in preemptive activism to prevent the ultimate consequences of intolerance and xenophobia.
For over 200 years, the Reform movement has stood for all that is right and good, unafraid, and our beloved graduates, I charge you to continue in your every waking moment to do that too. We stood with African-Americans as they crossed bridges in the South and as they wrote civil rights laws in Washington; we stood with women when we ordained the first woman rabbi and as we work for parity, respect and safety even today; we stood with LGBTQ individuals ignored and shunned by their religious communities and let them know that they are welcome and beloved in ours as members and as leaders; and we stood with and continue to stand with those of other faiths, races and ethnicities with respect and inquisitiveness, knowing that what we share and what we can learn from working together is far greater than what separates us.
There is beautiful light in the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel we are celebrating with joy and gladness, a place we love and struggle with, a place that we work on tirelessly, every day, to ensure that it lives up to its highest ideals. This past November, I ordained our 100th Israeli Reform Rabbi, and these dedicated individuals now serve in 55 congregations in every corner of Medinat Yisrael. This year, for the first time ever, we have now tripled the number of applicants to our Israeli Rabbinical Program, so it will not be long before we have 200 Israeli Reform Rabbis and many more to come. We have doubled the number of students in our newly reformulated Rikmah program, which brings together Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Secular Israelis to help develop a culture of pluralism and respect across deep ideological divides. The 140 Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers who have now enrolled or completed our Teachers Room program come from all across the city of Jerusalem, and they work to teach their young students how they too can live in an Israel that transcends hate and inspires hope. And this coming year we will welcome our largest class in nearly a decade to our Year-in-Israel program for students from North America and around the world, future rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators, students of wonderful caliber and commitment, the best and the brightest, who will carry on our work for decades to come all around the world.
And light abounds in North America, where the work of our alumni continues to make an enormous difference in our world. When tragedy strikes, in Parkland and Houston, in the Caribbean and Charlottesville, in Los Angeles and Santa Rosa, our alumni are there. Welcoming Syrian and Iraqi immigrants; lobbying in congressional offices for sensible gun safety, counseling in hospitals and teaching in classrooms, developing more innovative synagogues and entrepreneurial new communities everywhere, our alumni are there. There is nothing in the world that makes me prouder, and nothing can make me more certain of the extraordinary Jewish future we have ahead of us, than knowing who they are and what they are doing, and watching with pride as they produce the next generation of committed, learned Jews, through their hard work and their wisdom.
In the Book of Leviticus we find one of the most important sections in the Torah, known to scholars as the Holiness Code, known to all of our graduates this afternoon. Its beginning is one of the most memorable and oft-quoted statements in the Torah, the famous words: kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem, “Be Holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”
There then follows a long and detailed list of laws describing what one must do to be holy: honoring fathers and mothers, leaving the corners of our fields for the poor and indigent, never swearing falsely, treating others with honesty and integrity, never standing idly by while your neighbor bleeds, and so on for three chapters of laws that cover every aspect of life with others and with God. This most ancient part of the Torah, in the end, touches every part of human life, guiding and describing what it means to be holy in life that we do.
At the very end of the Holiness Code, in a lesser-known passage, we find the concluding words of the Holiness Code, something that extends the arc of holiness in a further way:
(Lev 22:31-33 TNK)
31 וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ מִצְוֹתַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
32 וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֙קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃
31 You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am Adonai.
32 You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people -- I Adonai who sanctify you.
Our beloved graduates. As you stand here today, you have worked hard to be holy, despite a world that did not always make it easy; you have learned and labored, you have pondered and experimented, you have given your lives over to making this world a place more filled with the presence of God and holiness. Remember, as we celebrate all your achievements, that your task henceforth is not only about doing what the Holiness Code demands; but also about the fact that you are now a symbol of God in the world, with all the responsibilities and the joys that carries. May your lives, from this wonderful day forward, be filled with the joy of holiness, service to God; not just for yourself, but as a model so that you may fulfill the closing words of the Holiness Code:
V’nikdashti betoch Bnai Yisrael, so that, in all you do, God may be sanctified among the people of Israel, here and everywhere. Mazal tov!