Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Ph.D., Addresses HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Ordination - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Ph.D., Addresses HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Ordination

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Ph.D.Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Ph.D., Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles Ceremonies on Sunday, May 12, 2019 at Stephen Wise Temple: 

Boker tov. The psalms have the words: “zeh ha-yom asa Adonai, nagillah ve’nismechah bo,” (Psalm 118:24). God has made this day, let us rejoice and be glad in it. But, all of you have also have made this day, by nurturing 12 remarkable “almost rabbis”. Thank you all for this time of rejoicing.

And special thanks to you who are about to be ordained rabbis in Israel. Thank you for taking up the sacred opportunity of becoming klei kodesh (holy vessels).

The world and Am Israel count on you, on your passion, your gifts, your commitment.

Do you remember the first time that you walked into HUC-JIR LA? I remember my first time. I came from Denver. It was December. The first thing I noticed were the flowers, red and pink primroses newly planted along the path from the parking lot to the entrance. It was December. Who plants flowers in December?!!!

The second thing was that HUC immediately felt like home. But the third thing I noticed was that classrooms had no windows. No windows! Why, I wondered?  Was it because seeing the outside world was a distraction, either by being too beautiful or by being too difficult to confront?

I soon learned that flowers and other living beings blossom at HUC regardless of season. I also learned that HUC-JIR/LA is really a home, not only to my Jewish, Israeli and American selves, but to others who share multiple identities, and who love learning and our people, and that even though there are no windows, HUC has many, many doors...and you know I don’t only mean physical doors.

The big complex world flows in through these doors, these gateways, and we go out transformed and transforming. And now these doors open up for you taking you from one corner of the country to the other, from Miami Beach to Seattle and the many wonderful places in between where you will serve as rabbis.  You have prepared yourselves well.

This is your lech lecha [“Go forth!” in masculine form; Genesis 12:1] moment to be a blessing. It is your lechi lach [Go forth” in feminine form; The Song of Songs 2:10] moment to flourish.

We know you. Wherever you go, you will be a blessing and you will continue to flourish. But the world has grown more fragile and more in need of healing since you first entered our doors.

To fulfill your sacred mission of being a blessing, do not try to go forward alone. Lo tov heyot ha adam levado. [“It is not good for a human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18)]. Even Moses realized that he couldn’t do that; he had to have Aaron. God was not enough.; even Abraham knew to bring his support team along with him. Find others to walk with you, in body or in spirit.

I know you’ll be taking along all those who now surround you today, your loving family and friends who have been part of your journey all along. And next to you are your classmates, with whom you have formed a remarkable collaborative team. I trust that you will continue together despite distance of time and space. And we, your teachers and those who lead this institution, also hope to be there for you and with you.

But, don’t forget to take along all of those you have met in our sacred texts. Let them be genuine partners in your work. Introduce them as living presences to your communities.

I know you will be taking Moses along. Who wouldn’t invite Moses? And the Torah. Besides, you have no choice.

Today, you may want to remember Moses’ own ordination at the burning bush. A passionate fighter on behalf of the downtrodden, he initially failed time and again attempting justice work. But he discovered with the burning bush a sustaining model: It is possible to burn with holy passion for justice without being consumed or consuming those around you. Keep that in mind.

And I know you will take Miriam the prophetess along, not only because she leads singing and dancing at the sea shore, but because she showed how taking a stand, even when you are among the most disadvantaged - and no one in the ancient world was more disempowered than a daughter who is also a slave - when you take a stand and act, you can start a revolution. Liberation from Egypt began not with Moses, but with Miriam. When she stationed herself by the river to care for one even more vulnerable than herself, she demonstrated the triumph of the spirit, the capacity to resist dehumanization. And when she dared to leap into action, and recruited someone from across the aisle: an Egyptian royal daughter, this triumph of the spirit, this resistance to dehumanization, THIS was when true liberation began.

You may have second thoughts about inviting Job for the journey because, let’s face it, he is a challenge, even to God. But take him along. Job has the courage to name the outrage and protest, even against the master of his universe. He can help you and your communities dare speak your truth to power. But, he does more. His anguish discloses the anguish of all those who suffer in body or spirit, who feel betrayed and who writhe in pain. You must not look away. Never look away. It is important to see and to listen to these outcries, these postcards from hell, in order to offer meaningful consolation.  Dare to invite Job to join you.

But, don’t forget to take along the lovers who stroll the pages and leap across hills in the Songs of Songs. Let them entice you to renew perpetually the joy of flourishing in relation.

Delight in the face of your beloved, and say to each other with the lovers in the Song:  “Rise up my friend my beautiful one and go forth” (Song 2:10). “Let me see your face, let me hear your voice” (2:14).

It is now time for you to blossom, to be seen, to be heard.

Don’t forget Ruth, a great travel companion who insists on hesed, generosity beyond the call of duty. Without hesed, you cannot build communities.

And don’t forget to take Huldah the prophetess and her husband along. Who is Huldah? someone may ask. But you remember Huldah, don’t you?? Not only because she happens to be the most influential woman in the Bible and maybe in Jewish history, and we feel her imprint whenever we read Deuteronomy in the Torah, but because Huldah and her husband can show your communities that couples who override stereotypes and gender expectations are deeply embedded in our tradition.

As you surely remember, Huldah haneviah held court as prophet in the public square 2700 years ago, while her husband was the keeper of the king’s wardrobe (2 Kings 22). He told the king what to wear. She told the king what to do.

The prophets. Yes, I especially hope you will take with you the prophets who not only protest but demand that we act in justice.

We of the Reform Movement have prided ourselves for being a prophetic voice within Judaism, with commitment to justice that does not stop at the borders of our communities.

Sadly, liberal Jewish preoccupation with tikkun haolam [mending the world] is now attacked from the left and from the right. Cynics deride it as self-deluding idealism, and some in our traditional Jewish world accuse it of corrupting Judaism and endangering Israel, the Israel that is so dear to our hearts. So we must reclaim that voice. And if you don’t, who will? If not now, when? Im lo achshav ematai?

The prophets not only can continue teach you applied justice, but healthy self-criticism and a capacity to act on the side of hope.

Long before John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah taught us to imagine, imagine a world transformed, “and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares.” Lo yareu ve-lo yashchito, “they shall not hurt and shall not destroy.” And the tools Isaiah taught are zedeq and emunah, justice and faithfulness. Not blind faith but faithfulness with zedeq. Dare to imagine like him, to have big dreams. Don’t let anyone take those away.

Let Isaiah’s resilience teach you how to keep the vision alive, as he did, decade after decade, even when one administration after another failed to deliver.

And Jeremiah. A cartoon on my door shows a party scene with the hostess saying to her husband. “Next time, please don’t invite Jeremiah; he is too depressing.” He did not endear himself when he stood at the temple’s gate and proclaimed: “Your are putting your trust in lies.“ (Jer 7) And he is not likely to endear himself when these, his words are proclaimed today against exploitative powers:

“See, you are relying on lies that are of no avail. . . .” (7:8). Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, … and follow other gods, and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “We are safe”? — [Safe] to do all these abhorrent things!’ (Jeremiah 7:8-10)

No wonder they tried to lynch him. But, Jeremiah also knew how to kindle hope in difficult times, He knew how to see and point beyond crisis to a time of re-planting.  He understood how to work for a time when joy will be restored.

Od yishama, he said, od yishma beharai Yehudah: “It will again be heard in Judah and Jerusalem, “ qol sasson ve qol simchah, “sounds of joy and sounds of gladness “– qol chatan v’qol kalah, “ [Jeremiah 33:11]- life and love will be renewed.

He bought real estate while everyone was escaping, putting his money where his mouth was; he became a living model for hope, a personal example.  As my friend Rabbi Stan Davids taught me: Never underestimate the power of personal example.

We are here because the promises Jeremiah made, the hope he instilled, empowered survivors to start again, to renew and to thrive. We are here today and we will be here long from this day, because of how YOU are now going to continue this precious legacy.

In an interview in 1972, which turned out to be his last public statement, Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked: "What would you tell young people?"

This was his answer: "'Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity, that every little deed counts, that every word has power -- and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all the absurdities, frustrations and disappointments. Remember that life is a celebration.”

We know you and know that you are more than ready to do your share. As with those flowers planted in December -- symbols of hope at a harsh season of the year -- we have planted our hopes in you.

Today as you pass through our doors and journey to new places, to blossom and bless those around you, we rejoice at who you are.

We rejoice as well at who we as Jews are becoming, thanks to you.

Beruchim tyhiu.  {May you be blessed}

Zeh ha-yom asa Adonai, nagillah ve’nismechah bo,” God has made this day. Let us rejoice and be glad (Psalm 118:24).

Mazal tov and let’s celebrate.

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Learn more about 2019 Graduation and Ordination in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York.

Watch Rabbi Eskenazi's Ordination address.


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 leaders to serve 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, museums, 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. www.huc.edu