HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Graduation Address by Professor Sara S. Lee

Monday, June 25, 2012

I am humbled by the invitation to address you on this special day. Such an invitation inevitably leads to a reflection on what you care about deeply and want to share with others on such an occasion.  Looking back on 35 years of teaching and leading at the Los Angeles Jack Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR there are many ideas and causes that have engaged and inspired me, so the task of preparing this address seemed daunting.  Foremost in my mind however was the conviction that whatever I said should be addressed to the minds and hearts of our graduates and our honored alumni and would somehow reflect what has been at the core of what I have taught and advocated. We should start, however, by marking what a special moment this is for so many today. This afternoon, as we celebrate this ritual of graduation together; we mark as a community this time of transition, of remembering, and of celebration. For those who receive degrees today this is a moment of transition, whether you are going out into the Jewish world to serve our people or pursuing additional studies toward your next goal.  For our colleagues, who receive their alumni honorary doctorates today, it is a time to remember their days as students and what they have achieved through their service as professional leaders in Jewish life. For the families and friends of our graduates and alumni it is a time to celebrate, what your loved ones have accomplished and what they will contribute to the future. For those of us who are faculty it is this ceremony which is a time for saying good-bye to those who will be leaving this campus, for saying hello to those alumni we have had the privilege of teaching and for saying Mazel Tov to the families and friends who have supported the journeys of our students and alumni.

This moment is for me one I have approached with mixed feelings. On the one hand it is wonderful to celebrate the achievements of students and alumni for whom I have had the privilege of serving as teacher over these past decades.  At the same time it is hard for me to realize that I have taught my last class at HUC-JIR – yes friends this marks my real retirement as opposed to those previous attempts – and I now move on to a new phase in my life. In light of the weight of this moment for me and for many of you I have had to think hard about what message I could leave with you this day. 

Over the course of my career at HUC-JIR I have taught, thought about, and experimented with understandings of leadership and what kind of leadership really can meet the challenges we confront as Jews and members of the larger society, while making a difference in creating a vibrant Jewish future. Although my bookshelves have been filled with many books about leadership – many of them very helpful – I have often asked the question – what ideas from the Jewish experience can give us a new perspective on leadership that might inspire our work?  We have portraits of leaders and leadership like Moses from the texts of our tradition.  We have historical evidence, giving testimony to how Jewish leaders like Isaac Mayer Wise and David ben Gurion, have shaped the course of Jewish history. One of the most suggestive Jewish ideas for me about leadership has been the contribution of the 19th century philosopher and writer, Ahad Haam, as captured in his 1893 essay, “Priest and Prophet.”  So today I would like to spend a few minutes commenting on what these leadership types of priest and prophet, so much a part of our Jewish tradition, might mean for us today facing the challenges of building inspiring Jewish communities that embody the highest Jewish values, have a vision toward which they are striving, and touch the lives of individual Jews and reach out to repair a very fractured world.

Ahad Haam draws a very sharp distinction between the prophet and the priest.  For him the prophet is the ideal type and as a prominent thinker and writer about early Zionism, he believed the prophet embodied the Hebrew national spirit that was essential to building the Jewish nation.  In his essay he describes the prophet and I quote:

The Prophet is essentially a one-sided man …He can only see the world through the mirror of his idea…..His whole life is spent fighting for this ideal with all his strength; for its sake he lays waste his powers, unsparing of himself, regardless of the conditions of his life and the demands of general harmony. His gaze is fixed always on what ought to be in accordance with his own convictions. The prophet is thus a primal force.

Of the priest Ahad Haam states:

It is otherwise with the Priest.   He appears on the scene when Prophecy has already succeeded in hewing out a path for its Idea; when that Idea has already had a certain effect on the trend of society, and has brought about a new harmony or balance between the different forces at work.  The Priest also fosters the ideal and desires to perpetuate it. The Priest however takes a wider view of the relation between his Idea and the facts of life.  Not what ought to be, but what can be, is what he seeks.

I suspect that many experts and researchers on leadership and change would be quite suspicious of this sharp differentiation.  The Prophet, as described here, seems more like the overzealous leader who has a great idea and pushes ahead without regard for the conditions or people around her. Yet the Prophet would carve new significant paths for the society, if successful in inspiring people with her message.  The experts would say that at the same time the path of the Prophet might be a potential formula for failure, if not disaster because of its single-mindedness. These same experts might find the description of the Priest as characterizing a leader who is stuck with the current reality, has little imagination for what should be and would be unlikely to take the risks that the Prophet might take.  Yet the Priest might maintain a society where stability and sensitivity to people’s needs and welfare would be a core concern. What our experts might say is that leadership for excellence needs to be some kind of blend of these two types. I want for the time being to keep these types distinct in terms of how we might come to understand them in slightly different ways and see how each is a necessary component for visionary leadership for the Jewish future.

The Prophet is clearly an individual with a vision of what might be and should be.  Her starting point is not what works now and is generally accepted as possible.  She turns to deeply held values and commitments about what the world, or a particular institution or community, might be at its best with clarity about the direction which must be taken and the possible resistances to be overcome.  Our prophets of the Tanach held out a vision of the way society was supposed to be if it was to reflect God’s intention for humanity at its best – that is created in God’s image.  They challenged the people to set aside those ways that were barriers to achieving such a society.  The prophets did not shrink away from making the people uncomfortable by reminding them of how they had strayed from the values that were part of a God infused vision for society. As leaders  you will confront many challenges facing the Jewish people - be it our demographic realities, the sharp ideological divisions that are fracturing the Jewish people, the sense of alienation from Jewish communal life or the very low levels of Jewish learning and connection among Jews.  Your grounding in the ethical teachings of Judaism will also demand that you respond and inspire others to respond to the brokenness of the world in which we live – brokenness of hunger, poverty, hatred, inequity, and war, to name a few.  In the face of our task I want to suggest that we must be as prophets.  We will need clarity of vision as to what Jewish life as communities and individuals might be at its best and what our responsibility is to the world beyond our own people. That vision will need to be rooted in deeply held Jewish values and commitments we have as individual Jews and as professional Jewish leaders. That is to say that whatever theories and skills of leadership we bring to our work, they are necessary but not sufficient to make the kind of difference for the future of the Jewish People and humanity that we so sorely need.  It is an inspiring vision, a platform for your leadership, like that of the Ideal held by the Prophet, that will in the end enable you to answer the question – what has been the purpose of my leadership – in a way that will bring you a sense of fulfillment and change the worlds around you for the better.

What then is the priestly role in our leadership?  A vision for what should be cannot be sustained in the absence of a community of people dedicated to that vision and concrete ways to move toward the vision.  The great Ideal of the prophetic leader will lose its power if that leader must sustain it by himself or if the members of the community or society perceive no way to advance the vision so that it reshapes and renews their situation.  As a community undertakes those changes and transformations called for by the vision, sensitivity to current realities, the needs of members of the community and a respect for the history and traditions of the past are all essential.  Here the priestly role becomes essential.  The Priest must always balance what should be with what is possible in light of the current situation.  Visions seem unattainable.  Visions challenge us and can be uncomfortable because they demand changes in who we are and how we live our lives.  Visions represent an unknown future as opposed to the comfort of the present we know, even if it is far from the Ideal.  It is not too much of a stretch from Ahad Haam’s portrait of the Priest to suggest that the Priest must both challenge and support the people in her community.  He must be sensitive to the voices of fearfulness about the new direction in which the vision takes the community and the individuals in it; the voices of disappointment when the progress toward the vision seems blocked; and the voices demand that we turn back.  Pesach and the narrative of our redemption from Egypt and journey to become Am Yisrael, the people of the Covenant, are still fresh in our minds.  Our master narrative reflects all the things we have been talking about.  There is a new reality toward which the Israelites are progressing – a vision of their destiny.  Starting at the Sea of Reeds, through the journey in the desert, the events at Sinai and beyond, whenever the going gets tough, the people exhibit fear, disappointment and desire to return to their previous reality, however difficult that was.  Moses as leader is constantly moving back and forth between challenging them to move forward and at the same time defending and supporting them when they stray from the path they must take.   Moses is a Prophet, who must inspire his people as the representative and spokesperson for God’s plan.   Moses is also a Priest who must care for his people and guide them with understanding toward their destiny – the vision – to be a people in covenant with God, creating a society in the Land which God promised to their ancestors. 

The narrative about Moses suggests that leadership at its best is attention to both the Prophetic and the Priestly roles.  The challenge is to know when we must exercise each of these roles and to be aware of the dangers of neglecting either. 

To the graduates today I say with confidence that your education at HUC has provided you with many of the skills and much of the knowledge that will allow you to be an effective leader, and that is incredibly important and necessary.  To be the visionary leader, blending the roles of priest and prophet and exercising them as circumstances demand, these different kinds of leadership roles require more.  That kind of leadership, that takes on the challenges facing us heads on, that holds out a vision of what should and can be, that takes risks and yet responds to the needs of individuals and the reality of communities as they are, demands that you know where you stand on the core values and beliefs of Judaism, the practices that define a Jewish community, and the enduring aspirations we have as a Jewish People.  These are the commitments that will shape your vision of your own leadership and the impact you want to have on Jewish life and the Jewish future.  For our honored alumni my hope is that as you look back on your journey over these past 25 years you will recall those commitments and passions that animated your work and inspired those around you.  And to our faculty I say Yaasher Koach for the learning, guidance and inspiration you provided for our students present and past that helps them nurture their hopes and dreams for the future and their contributions to Jewish life.  To Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion and its leadership we say thank you for the opportunities and the learning community that you have provided. As you go forward to assume your new roles of leadership or continue the leadership you have provided in the first 25 years since you graduated, it is my sincerest belief that HUC-JIR will always be there to support your efforts, and to provide growth opportunities for your leadership.   May we go from strength to strength together to translate our dreams into reality.  Ken y’hi ratson!


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first 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 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 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 heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu