Address Presented by Rabbi Arthur Green, Ph.D. at HUC-JIR/New York Graduation - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Address Presented by Rabbi Arthur Green, Ph.D. at HUC-JIR/New York Graduation

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Rabbi Arthur Green, Ph.D., Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion and Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, presented the Graduation address at HUC-JIR/New York's Graduation Ceremonies.

As a TaNaKH student in rabbinical school half a century ago, I learned (probably from the late Nahum Sarna, though I’m not certain) that there are two kinds of shepherds talked about in the Biblical text.  Some shepherds walk before their flock, leading them along the way.  This is the shepherd familiar to us from the imagery of the 23rd Psalm – yanheni be-ma’agley tsedek; “He leads me in righteous paths.”  So too Moses in the third chapter of Exodus: va-yinhag et ha-tson ahar ha-midbar – “he led the sheep in search of pasture.”  Amos tells us about the other sort of shepherd, the one who walks behind the flock, careful to round up strays as they wander:”  God took me from behind the sheep.”

In the course of a long career that has straddled university scholarship and rabbinic training, I have come to understand that there are similarly two sorts of talmidey hakhamim, Judaic scholars.  I was trained to walk behind the facts, events, and personalities, to study Judaism of past generations, to understand, analyze, and report on what had taken place.  This was the classic position of Wissenschaft des Judenthums, critical scholarship of Judaic sources.  But in mid-career I twice switched to being the sort of scholar who seeks to stand in front rather than at the rear, using knowledge and love of the Jewish past as a way to think about the future, to participate in leading the Jewish people in paths both pleasant and just, but especially in directions that will allow for our community’s creative growth and survival.

The danger in being out before the flock is that you bear awesome responsibility. You might lead them indeed into a desert, where there is no Torah-water to drink, or perhaps even over a precipice. When you walk behind the flock, there is another sort of danger as to where you step. Your shoes are likely to pick up, shall we say, all the worst traits of the generations that went before you.  In our case this has much to do with narrowness and exclusivism.  But that is of little concern to us here today, since you folks, rabbis, cantors, educators, ministers, have all made your choice.  Your life is about leadership; you stand in front.  Of course part of that leadership, that standing in front, is to know when not to stand in front, when to put others into that role, to share the sense of leadership with your community.  A good leader is one who empowers others to lead and rejoices in their accomplishments.

The image of rabbi as pastor tending a flock is not widespread in Jewish sources before the nineteenth century. Of course it is rooted in Scripture, the prophets as well as the Psalms.  But I suspect that this was a Biblical image that passed into Christian custody, and that we gained it back from Protestant (primarily Lutheran) usage in 19th century Germany. The American rabbi is a strange hybrid, a mix of rav, the classic authority figure representing tradition, rebbe, the spiritual guide so fully elaborated in Hasidism, and pastor, a giver of care and healing through the warmth of personal contact, a function happily reclaimed from our surrounding culture.

I want to say a few words about each of these as a way toward fleshing out our main topic, a vision of the Jewish future. I recognize that not all of you graduating and receiving honors today are rabbis, but I trust that all of you, including the Christian clergy receiving the Doctor of Ministry, will have something to learn from this discussion, which is, after all, all about spiritual leadership and community.

The role of rav as the classic embodiment of halakhic authority is, you might think, highly attenuated when it comes to the Reform rabbinate.  Normative halakhah is hardly the guiding principle in the lives of most Reform Jews. If there is, very occasionally, a question of praxis that arises, it is most often sent off to an expert, perhaps on this faculty or in Cincinnati, for an opinion that is hardly a firm ruling. Nevertheless, I would urge us not to underestimate the ways in which we still play this role. For many Jews and others, the rabbi is the only person they know whose life is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. How you live, what you practice, and where you take your stands – or don’t - (on moral as well as ritual questions) is very much seen and noted.  We rabbis, cantors, educators, do represent tradition, whatever that term means, for our communities, and we learn with the years that we bear responsibility to carry it nobly, however we understand it. We have chosen – despite both our obvious inadequacies and our sometimes deep personal ambivalence – to wear an ancient mantle. We need to wear it well.  This is especially true in an age like ours, when I believe the Jewish people is engaged in a deep struggle for the soul of our tradition. There are many out there who claim to be faithful custodians, even sole owners, of our rabbinic heritage, but who suffer from the limitation to which I alluded previously, common to those who walk behind the flock. If we are going to stake a claim for Judaism at its best, a Judaism that stands strongly for the universal morality and human values to which we are committed, we need assert our ownership of that tradition. We need to speak as serious bearers of its mantle and as teachers proceeding from within its deepest heart, rather than as outsiders who peek in now and then to find a quotation that backs up our liberal-democratic views.

The role of rebbe is one that I have spent as many decades trying to fathom as I have in fending off anyone who tried to cast me into it. The bold claim Hasidism made for spiritual leadership was based on a figure who sought to be fully at home as denizen of two worlds, de-ahid bi-shemaya uva-are’a, “holding fast to heaven and earth,” in the Aramaic formula widely found in the movement’s early sources.  To hold fast to heaven meant devekut, a mystical state of devotion to, sometimes absorption in, the oneness of God. Attachment to earth had two meanings. First, it meant taking the lower world seriously, recognizing that even the most lowly of material beings was the creation of God, filled to overflowing with divine sparks waiting to be raised up and redeemed.  But it also meant attachment to the souls of your disciples, caring enough to know them and love them so that you might carry them in your heart and prayers. As Martin Buber understood so well, the tsaddik or holy man became rebbe or spiritual master by dint of relationship, one in which he both gave and received a full cup of blessing. The rebbe teaches these disciples his Torah, passing on to them a living connection to the ancient text that feels like it is being received anew in each moment. The tradition to which the rav remains faithful takes on renewed spiritual vitality in the hands of the rebbe. The North American rabbinate is working hard these days to find its way toward an updated version of this role.

The pastoral role is related to that of the rebbe, but with some important shadings of difference. A rabbi may serve as a pastor to a broad community, including many with whom she or he does not have an intimate relationship. Nevertheless, there is a warmth and caring to be shared with congregants that in some mostly unspoken way represents God’s caring for them and their loved ones in times of both joy and need. The entry of women into the ranks of the rabbinate over the past several decades has greatly enriched the resources we have to offer in every way, but especially in this area. Here too we search for appropriate contemporary ways to carry out the pastoral function, aware that we stride a delicate line between increased professionalization and the spontaneous human meeting that lies at the heart of this interaction and must never be eclipsed.

But what is it that this rabbinate is seeking to build?  What is our vision for the future of American Jewish life?  If we are indeed here to lead as well as to serve, we must have a sense of where it is that we are going and hoping to take our community.  For the great majority of Jews in this country, we are now a full five generations beyond the great period of immigration that brought our ancestors to these shores. The Yiddish speech and pre-World War One shtetl memories my grandparents were still able to share with me have now deeply receded into history for those we teach.  Even the memory of the Holocaust, the struggle of the post-war survivors, and the great beacon of the new State of Israel are all learned from textbooks, with but a few left alive to tell the tale. The precipitous decline in anti-Semitism in this country, the acceptance of Jews as “white” in our nation’s race-defined imagination, and the great success of Jews as participants in every aspect of the American dream are all characteristics of the past half-century or more. The numerical decline of our community, due both to low birth rate and assimilation, in some cases spurred by intermarriage, is also a well-known feature of this era.

So where are we going?  Is there nothing left but a holding operation?  Are we just here to oversee the decline of a once-great legacy? What sort of life and role do we envision for our community half a century from now, when the youngest among you will be retiring, or even half a century beyond that, when some of your own disciples will pass on the mantle to their successors?  I want to offer several elements of such a vision.

First, we see ourselves as leaders of the Jewish people.  We believe in ‘am yisra’el, a historic community that proudly bears an ancient national identity, one expressed in culture, language, memory, and attachment to an ancient and now-renewed homeland.  Claims current in some post-Zionist circles that Jewish national identity is a nineteenth-century invention are as inaccurate as they are pernicious.  Anyone who has ever opened a Jewish prayerbook (and indeed that may exclude some who assert these claims) will realize that we have seen ourselves as yisra’el ‘amekha, “Your people Israel,” for a great many centuries.  Reform Judaism did well to rescind its demurral from that consensus many decades ago.  We bear a deep connection to Jews around the world, including the State of Israel, as we do to Jews of past and future generations.

This means that we want to survive as a distinct ethnic as well as religious community.  That will be an uphill struggle in this country, where non-racially defined minorities are unrecognized, where the price of white skin (that most of us still bear, though that is happily changing) has been an expectation of assimilation.  We are an open religious and ethnic community, gladly embracing converts, welcoming them and their children to share fully in our collective national identity.  This means language, text, culture, history, and all the rest, along with religion, the sacred calendar, and the Jewish life-cycle.  To this end I believe that every synagogue needs to become an active bet midrash, house of study, where basic Hebrew, Jewish texts in translation, and great Jewish books, films, and works of art are actively taught, shared, and discussed.  As a Jew deeply committed to prayer, I will nevertheless rejoice when the American synagogue comes to be known first as an active, bustling center of learning, where prayer services are also held on Shabbat, rather than as a temple for prayers on Shabbat, mostly closed on weekdays.  Think about this when you lie down and when you rise up, when you design buildings and when you hire staff.

Book clubs.  Why is there a synagogue anywhere in North America that does not have an active Great Jewish Books club?  Jews still love to read and talk about what they read, as the New York Times and others know so well.  Your book club should be reading and talking about the latest David Grossman novel (thus building the America/Israel connection in a natural way), along with American Jewish fiction, interesting works of scholarship, and Jewish thought – including my own books, needless to say.  Jews are the mostly highly educated sector of the American populace – in general education, of course.  We must be actively working to close the huge gap between general educational achievement and the level of Jewish knowledge.  Unless we do, assimilation to the higher culture will remain a foregone conclusion.  This has to be a first priority.  In areas like greater New York and other urban centers, culture clubs should exist alongside book clubs.  Trips to theatre, museum exhibits, and concerts of Jewish interest.  Everywhere, bet midrash: study, in pairs and small groups, of texts and sources.  Yes, teach Hebrew, but also allow the good translations now available to empower Jews to study and discuss sources on a high level.  The rabbi’s job is to make the sources available and make them exciting.  Hopefully the years here will have got you ready and inspired to do that.

In an age when travel – real travel but also SKYPE and other internet travel – is so readily available, we need to make use of it to bind and strengthen our worldwide community.  This means not only congregational trips to Israel, which I fully support, but also the building of real human connections.  Sister-communities made up of real people who visit back and forth, home hospitality, regular SKYPE connections that build a sense of expanded family with specific real-people Jews in Europe and Latin America or even small-town USA, along with Israel.  The all-too-weakened sense of ‘am yisra’el needs reinforcement in all these ways.  As leaders of the Jewish people, we need to help make all this happen.  This is all the work of the rav, steeped in learning and Jewish commitment, serving as a cultural ambassador from the depths of Jewish tradition to its future bearers, and community organizer to boot.

Of course I am a religious Jew and the rabbinate is committed to a specifically religious vision of the Jewish future.  In a recent book called Radical Judaism I have tried to share what a thinking 21st-century Jew might mean by that phrase.  Traditional religion fought two great battles against modernity over the course of the 20th-century.  One was against Darwin, including evolutionary biology, new cosmology, geology, physical anthropology, and all they said about the age and origins of the planet and the human race.  The second battle, to which Jews paid much greater attention, was against Biblical criticism, including the human authorship, editing, and evolution of the Scriptural text.  Religion decisively lost both of these battles.  Other than some mostly dysfunctional rearguard actions, these questions are settled.  And yet religion has hardly been defeated.  Faith plays a much greater role in human consciousness and in world affairs than anyone might have dreamed would be the case fifty years ago.  But this dissonance between educated views of religion and its actual influence cannot be allowed to stand.  Otherwise faith falls under the exclusive control of fundamentalists, and we are all in trouble.  So I urge you to work with me, to join in a collective effort to articulate and practice a Jewish faith that will work for thinking, openminded people of your generation. 

I am a neo-Hasidic Jew.  It is the teachings of Hasidism that have kept me at home, choosing to cultivate our Jewish spiritual garden rather than turning elsewhere for sustenance, like so many others of my generation.  Hasidism is a revival movement within Judaism, as distinct from a movement for religious reform.  Revivalists generally are not interested in changing the forms of religion.  It’s just that the spark has gone out of them and needs to be re-lit.  Jews are like knishes, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is quoted as saying.  The ingredients are all the same, but I prefer the hot ones.  Since you are New Yorkers, even the non-Jews among you know what a cold knish might taste like.  Reform movements dabbled with changing the forms – let’s start with organ music and sermons in proper German or English, for example.  Let’s all turn to page 23 and rise together.  But somewhere the fire began to go out.  Now we reformers and post-reformers are struggling toward revival.  Fortunately we have the legacy of Hasidism to help us.  I want to summarize the essence of a universalized Hasidic teaching as I would adapt it for today, using a few phrases taken directly from the sources, with just brief comment.

1)  Galut ve-ge’ulat ha-da’at.  The true exile is that of the mind.  Mindfulness, making ourselves aware of God’s presence within us and around us is the beginning of redemption.

2) ‘Avodat ha-shem be-khol ha-ofanim.  God needs to be served in every way.  Everything we do, see, encounter in life is an opportunity for serving God.  Do not restrict your Judaism to the synagogue or times of prayer and study.  Live in intimacy with nature, with family, with others you love.  Seek out work in which you find fulfillment; a life, not just a livelihood.  Help others to do the same. In all of these, see the divine presence flowing through and uniting them.  Raise up sparks through all you do.

3)     ‘Ivdu et ha-shem be-simhah. Serve God in joy.  The spiritual life requires wholeness, self-acceptance, freedom.  It must not become a burden or a source of oppression.  Avoid religion based on guilt.  Use spiritual awareness to help people become more free, to be liberated from their own inner forms of bondage.   Y-H-W-H  brought you forth from Egypt to become your God.  That process of becoming never ends, so you have to keep coming out of Egypt.  Make sure your faith is helping you do that, not holding you back from it.

4)     Dirshu et ha-nekudah ha-penimit. Seek out the innermost point.  Religion’s message is that every person can have an inner life.  This requires cultivation, toward which we use the tradition.  Shabbat, prayer, meditation, mitsvot, spiritual friendship and direction, are all tools toward this end.  There is more to life than our profane and over-commercialized surroundings tell us.  The addiction to “success,” the most prevalent drug within our community, can leave you as empty as any other addiction.  Get a life.  The mishkan or dwelling-place of God is there within your heart.  Just take the time and have the courage to open that door.  Always look deeper, beyond the surface – in yourself, in others, in the world, and in the Torah.

5)     Arbetn oif zikh. To be a hasid is to work on yourself.  We are imperfect beings.  That is the way we were made.  God was not happy just being praised by a chorus of angels.  Real flesh-and-blood humans, struggling with temptation, doubt, with the daily struggle to survive, with mortality and all the pain and loss along the way – if these creatures could sing to God, that would really be something!  It’s a beautiful goal, but not an easy one.  It requires work, including honest struggle, every day.  It demands tikkun ha-middot, improving all those qualities that make us human, the same ones that make us potentially God’s image on earth.  Each day we work on doing it a little better – or least not worse.

These are the teachings.  I say to you as I say to myself: Don’t be so afraid of being a rebbe that you avoid sharing them with those around you.  They need to hear them, and they need you to be their bearer.

The rabbi as pastor seeks to reach out with goodness la-rahok vela-karov, to those far away as well as those who have chosen to come close.  Reaching out is indeed much of what we want to do, not only as rabbis but as a whole community.  We reach out to alienated Jews, those who have felt excluded for whatever reason, and welcome them home.  We want to reach out to seekers, welcoming them to come close to Judaism if that is where their heart leads them.  From this pulpit I am happy to endorse that message once spoken for so clearly by the late Rabbi Schindler.  But it also means reaching out in a broader way, the Jewish people having a message of caring and pastoral concern that reaches far beyond our own ethnic borders.  We believe that the sort of community we have built, with our concern for education, for inclusiveness, for care of the needy, including the elderly, is a model worthy of export.  We are committed to helping others build such communities around the world.  The various new Jewish projects and organizations that express this value do us proud, giving voice to the very best within our shared legacy.  They also serve to remind us that Judaism, while no longer laying exclusive claim to religious truth, still has important gifts to give to the human community.  Our insistence that every person is a tselem elohim, a unique and vital image of God, is one that humanity still needs to absorb.  The presence of Jews in so many causes devoted to human rights and human dignity is a sign that we still bear this message.  All that is part of our “pastoral care program.”  In the dangerous times in which we live, when our planet itself is threatened, our reaching out has to extend even beyond the human community.  Religious leadership from every tradition is urgently called upon to help reshape our relationship to the environment to which we are wholly joined and to the resources we so need to help preserve.  The great sin of our age is the gluttony of our overconsumption, especially we of so-called “first world” societies.  It is part of our pastoral duty as clergy, as moral guides, to don the prophetic mantle and preach against it.

As a religious Jew, especially in this ‘omer season when we are on the road from Egypt to Sinai, I believe that we ever stand beneath that mountain, saying “Yes! We will do and listen!” to the voice that commands us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  That priesthood encompasses all Jews, old and young, married and single, gay and straight, families blended by re-marriage and families in mixed marriages but still striving to live as Jews, havurot and groups of friends, whole congregations and communities.  We are a people shaped by the shared memory of bondage and exodus, but formed under that mountain.  This means that we still believe we have something to offer, ever-renewing teachings that will be important to generations to come, among Jews and reaching beyond our borders.  Priests need seminaries in which to be trained.  All our congregations should be such places, academies where Jews are lovingly taught our best message and how to spread it.  You have been trained here li-lemod vele-lammed; you have studied in order to become teachers, to widen the circle of learning.  Rabbis, cantors, and educators thus stand at the vortex of the Jewish mission.

A “holy people” means that the life of our community, including our leadership and the way we treat one another, should exemplify the best of our ideals.  We have a long way to go in this area.  The Jewish people has been disgraced in recent years by the conduct of individuals, including chosen leaders, both here and in Israel.  We need to speak out about such things.  There has been frank bullying in our community, directed against rabbis and others, who dare to question the majority’s views on political questions that also have great moral import.  Sometimes this extends even to the leaders of great movements.  I am proud to be a fellow-member of the J Street rabbinic cabinet with Rick Jacobs, and I wish him great success.  Our avahat yisra’el, love for Jews and love for Israel, should not be questioned when we honestly confront difficult moral issues.  It is time to recall that our status as a “holy people” depends on how we treat each other.  Just as holy matrimony, even after all the proper rites, is sullied when there is abuse, the holy community we seek to build requires both mutual respect and mutual affection.  We have too much to give, too many sparks to raise up, to allow ourselves to be dragged downward by paranoia or sin’at hinam, baseless hatred.

The agenda I have put forward is a rich and diverse one.  Of course there is nothing new about it.  Indeed the Judaism to be created by rav, rebbe, and pastor can seamlessly be mapped onto the very oldest statement of the rabbinic program, the opening text of the tractate Principia, or Avot.  “The world stands on three things: Torah – passing on the tradition of learning, books, culture, the Jewish life of the mind; ‘Avodah – worship, the devotional life, renewed by thoughtful quest and old/new forms of practice; Gemilut Hasadim – building a community truly committed to bestowing kindnesses (note the plural), giving to and caring for multiple others in ever more diverse ways.  That treatise also tells us that it is not upon you to complete the work.  Never be discouraged by the fact that you can’t do it all.  Find your mitsvah, pick up your tools, and get to work.

Mazal tov and best wishes to you all.

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.