Words at Israel Rabbinical Program Ordination
Jerusalem, November 14, 2008
Dr. Michael A. Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History, HUC-JIR/Cincinnati
It was a few months after the Six-Day War, more than forty years ago, that the president of our rabbinical seminary, the archaeologist Nelson Glueck, first suggested to the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College that the time is coming to to establish a program for "the training of Israelis in Israel for the Reform rabbinate." By then almost a decade had passed since the establishment of the first still existing Reform congregation in Israel, Har El, and there were hopes that with native-born Israelis the number of congregations would multiply. But it would take another thirteen years until the first Israeli rabbi would be ordained here in Jerusalem in the year 1980. At first there were very few students and much discussion about what an Israeli Reform rabbi in Israel should be required to know. The program remained largely ad hoc, tailored to the academic needs of each student. But gradually it became more structured, the number of students increased. Women as well as men were ordained, native Israelis as well as immigrants from the diaspora. At the conclusion of these ceremonies, the Jerusalem campus will have ordained 59 rabbis. Among them will be our son, Daniel
As a long-standing member of the HUC faculty in Cincinnati, but also one of the teachers of these ordinees, I have been given privilege of addressing a few words to the new rabbis. In part they are applicable, as well, to the graduates of the Mezorim program. I do so by drawing upon sources from our tradition, which I believe can serve to guide their course in the Israeli rabbinate. Some may already be familiar to you from your studies.
My first text comes from Yoma 72b. Said Rava: "Every sage who is not the same on the inside as on the outside is not a sage." How difficult it is to achieve such congruity! How much easier to be deceptive, to appear to the world as a person of spirit while hiding within a concern only for the material things of the world! And yet if you would claim the title of talmid chakham then knowledge is not sufficient for spiritual leadership. It must be paired with personal integrity.
Take to heart also the familiar text from Sanhedrin 14a: "When they ordained Rabbi Zeira, they sang to him, as to a bride, 'Neither eye shadow, nor rouge, nor other make-up, yet full of charm'." External adornments such as your certificate of ordination, the honors you will receive during your rabbinate, the respect that will come to you from those who approach you for advice--will be like cosmetics that improve your appearance, but genuine beauty eschews honor and dwells in humility.
Because you are rabbis, your conduct will be scrutinized more carefully than that of other men and women. Because you are religious leaders your actions reflect not only upon yourselves, but also upon Judaism in general and Reform Judaism in particular. This thought was conveyed effectively by the Rambam at the end of chapter five of Hilkhot Yesodei Torah, and these are his words: "There are other actions that profane God's name. For example, when one does them who is great in the Torah and known for his good deeds . . . . And although they are not sins they constitute a profanation of God's name."
Your knowledge and your status expose you to measurement by a higher standard. In the words of the Rambam: "It is all according to the stature of the scholar: he must be severe with himself and go beyond what the law requires."
Finally, a less well known text that has come down to us from the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the year 1820, the Posen Maskil David Caro published a short volume entitled Brit Emet whose second part was entitled "The Covenant of the Priesthood or the Qualities of the Rabbis." The rabbinate in Caro's day was in decline. Rabbis banned one another; the centralized state had taken away their power to render binding legal decisions. Rabbis were fearful that modernization would further reduce their authority and spell the end of Judaism. Some of the earlier Reformers believed that the rabbinate had become religiously insignificant and could not lead the Jewish people into the modern age. But David Caro was convinced that out of the medieval rabbinate there could emerge a modern rabbinate that would be in touch with the currents of the age without sacrificing the essentials of Judaism. But that would require new sort of rabbi, whom he described in the following words: "The rabbi must walk a straight path. Let him act morally himself if he desires to make others moral, for a single example will make more of an impression on the crowd than a thousand sermons. As the Prophet Ezekiel said, 'I have set you as an example to the House of Israel'." Caro understood that the actions of the rabbi matter more than his sermons. And likewise the Israeli public will measure both the rabbi and the Reform movement by the actions of its rabbis.
And so I stand before you as your teacher--and in one case also as your father. My message is that you take to heart these words of our sages, ancient, medieval and modern. Strive to make your rabbinate one in which your outside behavior will not differ from your internal feelings; in which genuine not artificial beauty will shine from within you; in which you will always be aware of the higher standard imposed upon you as rabbis; and in which you will strive to be personal exemplars of how a Progressive Judaism can enhance the religious and moral life of this state of Israel and of the Jewish people.
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest 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 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 history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.