Themes and Variations, “The Gods Change, Prayers Remain the Same”
Ordination Address, May 2012 Tash’av, William Cutter
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles
Delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood
Thank you, Dr. Ellenson, and Dean Holo. Please know how much I appreciate your invitation, especially for this group of people who have already begun to add their inventions to modern Judaism. I want to celebrate them, but I have a touch of old fashioned reluctance to speak.
By God, I need an opening, and it won’t do to appropriate that biblical authority of the tired past--used by two other reluctant figures: Moses and Jeremiah. They could speak, finally, only because they carried God’s invitation. So I think about great openings in poems and novels I have known. I figure that, if these openings were good enough for Tolstoy or Chekhov or Charles Dickens, then they are certainly good enough for me.
Should I, thinking of your excellent pastoral training with Goor, Prince, Levy and Weber, imitate the narrator in Ana Karenina who pronounced that all happy families are uninteresting in the same way; might I capture the immigrant grit of Nobel Winner Saul Bellow’s Augie March and open with: “I am an American, Chicago born”; How about “Call me Ishmael” for the whalers among us! Dickens Tale of Two Cities provides a fine epigram: “It was the best of times and the worst of times” appropriate for today’s coarse poverty and bloated financial environment. My favorite, of course, is the recurring thought of that enchanting beagle, Snoopy, who –with paws on his typewriter as he pauses in writer’s block-- who begins every novel: “It was a dark and stormy night”. Your rabbinics professors could provide me with something more Talmudic as you step into “the sea of the Talmud,” which we call Zeraim—Seeds: Me-eimatai…How early can you begin the morning Shema. One of your speech-homiletics teachers pointed out that you should remember Chekhov’s device for building suspense: place a gun in the opening scene, so that your audience will anticipate that the gun will go off. I have no suspense, today, just my own thoughts about tradition. There, I have my opening, and I can now turn to address our ordinees.
YOU are the beginnings to your narratives. If a bunch of people are gathered and some are wearing regalia, you have a pretty good idea that someone’s going to graduate and in three hours or so, those robes are going to come off. If a prestigious scholar is among your fellow graduates, you can be pretty sure you are at the hip Hebrew Union College graduation, where everything—even graduation—is a surprise. For here, the teacher and student often change places, as they did last year as well. And we pride ourselves in this unconventional, law- defying, convention -challenging, argue- with- God environment. We need things to be a little topsy turvy in order to resolve American Jewish cultural pallor; breaking the conventions, the very means of delivering them, seems proper and opportune.
What does our world look like that calls upon us to do things differently? On the level of social values, you are setting out in times that are cruel to so many of our fellow citizens, and our people seem to care more about themselves than about the community. And the times have been a little tight economically even for Jewish leadership, so competition for jobs and job satisfaction is tougher. Old categories we trusted for generations don’t seem to fit the way people live; organizational initials have commandeered the alphabet. Someone has let the scorekeepers in, and our productivity has become increasingly quantified. And in the midst of these changes, more is expected of you. We even rank rabbis! How bad is that idea!? But rank we do—magazines rank schools and rabbis, whereas more appropriately one might expect schools or rabbis to rank the magazines. And then there is the organizational life that has yielded what own Sara Ben-Or has called “ episodic engagement” replacing the good old steady dues -paying loyalty- promoting steady hand- on the- tiller Judaism. Noblesse oblige—for the nobility only! And decorum? Why when I was at HUC-JIR, we wore coats and ties to synagogue, whereas today we wear flip flops. As Leon Wieseltier said recently in the New Republic: nothing lasts for very long. So what does last? Change.
I am going to focus this morning on what might last—on cultural continuity—one of your jobs as you step into an unprecedented dynamism which threatens to unravel the very institutions which you plan to serve. Our public is less denominational, more entrepreneurial, less obedient to institutional authority—and, yes, more episodic in its fidelity. There seems to be an electronic source for everything we need to know, and it yields instant expertise; we get more choices, the department stores we used to visit are in a little implement in the palm of our hands. There is a better restaurant, or a better garment or a better movie within reach of our fingertips. There is a better rabbi down the street. Look: she was ranked 43rd, while your rabbi didn’t even make the finals. But that changes too.
To quote the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier once again: The world does not care about anything forever. (If one is a little committed to old values), Some of us have had to learn to live with less external vindication; to thrive a little out of step. And of course to watch the gaudy parade of new thinking. There is a new and freer temperament in this world, and it has become a prison for many people even as some benefit from it. You will have to take advantage of this new prism—did I say prison-- and not be thwarted—but only if you learn to navigate it.
And you will navigate, because for every indication that the world is falling apart, or that the parade is, indeed, gaudy, there may be a reason that we are not only changing, but that we are re-organizing. Need I remind you that when elders slip into nostalgia about the good old days, they ignore the bad old things that characterized those good old days. How to give up the bad old things and maintain our balance? Can you make the worst of times give birth to –well, -- better times? Rabbis, it seems to me are responsible for determining where there may be some stability beneath all this dynamism. We are in undignified times, and you will have to remind people of their dignities. And you will have to follow the teaching of the Bratslaver who always thought hierarchically: you will have to have more dignity than the people for whom you provide dignity.
But dignity does not mean rigidity. Your Judaism will be—as mine has been-- a Judaism of variations on themes—and in that, you will be doing what Jews have done since Moses asked God what in the world Akiba was up to. But, remember: Moses knew Hebrew; and to be part of the conversation or in order to argue about the debate between the gaudy and the responsible, you have to know the themes. You have to know. You have to know! It is, in my view, the law of all cultural change, whether it’s music, or literature, or art, or organizational dynamics. You have to know!
Sure I sometimes think that the night is dark and stormy, but I hope that the morning light can bring us the leaders we need, and the songs we will sing as we follow those leaders: the Jacobs who will wrestle us into newness; The Dvoras who will lead us into Talmudic battle; with an orchestrated anthem composed by that mythic Dvora whom we lost just a little more than a year ago. There are Davids out there who help us slay the Phillistines; but remember, you have to aim the slingshot. So don’t be frightened of the morning, with its Shema prayers. You will try to develop that Shema with Jewish authenticity, not with cheap and passing fads and fazes; even though the truth is that we are grateful if our people say the Shema at all, and we shouldn’t care too much about the hour to pronounce it. And while you are singing Debbie, remember –as she did – that without the great cantorial tradition of such as Sharlin, she too would have lost out.
There is another first line, less known to your parents and friends in this gorgeous sanctuary, composed by the Israel laureate poet: Yehuda Amichai: Gods Change, But Prayers Remain the Same.
Don’t we usually say it the other way: Gods remain the same, but prayers change? Let us probe that ambiguity:
For as another and greater leader named Levy has said: Once we knew one truth, but now we know many truths. It’s a little thought that he smuggled into some of the many prayer books he has written. And adding to the complexity of Rabbi Levy’s simple truth, even his truth isn’t a pure truth any more. Whatever was clear and definite about what is Jewish, or about how we will convey that Judaism; whatever systems were in place to insure the continuity of our people, are not as reliable as they once were. Means and ends switch places, justifying Amichai’s ambiguity, to the point where we may feel assaulted by post modern lack of definition. I recall the startling lines of William Butler Yeats’ “Among School Children”: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” What, in other words, is the core thing in our lives, and who are the dancers who interpret that theme. You are the dancers, but beware lest you become the dance; You are the searchers for the themes, beware of becoming the themes and beware of not appreciating them. You have studied with us here at HUC, and you have learned the prayers and their themes, but your gods are already beginning to change. We are in those worst of times, to be sure; during which we interrogate the very meaning of meaning. On a recent morning, as I entered class, I noticed that my students all had books at their side on the learning table. The excellent social thinking of Wertheimer and Eisen, the history of Ellenson, the sociology of Ben Or and Phillips, the educational practice of Isa Aron. The best of times, for sure. I did not have those books when I was a student, and those disciplines were relegated to amateur and emerging hearsay. But, I thought of the good old days, when the books on my learning table were dictionaries and concordances and tractates. Is it that the dances are now electronic, and that the dancers have lost their books? And if they have still some books left, have they lost that bookcase which Bialik called “Aron haSefarim –the holy ark in which the important books are kept, literally, but by which he meant the set of books we all had to know. Some of us behave as if there is a gun hanging over that sacred bookcase restraining us from parting its faux velvet curtain.
The stability in Jewish culture is the stability of themes and their variations, for Jews—of texts and their commentaries, of primary ideas –even ideas that stand behind our gods—Some kind of Rock that guarantees our authenticity and ultimately our warrant for leadership. For we are not leaders because we have the best ideas, or the truest tradition, or the most noble values. We are not leaders because we eat a certain diet, though we must; or think twice about driving on Shabbat when we must. We are leaders of a culture that understands culture. We are, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase a Tradition with Individual Talents.
The gun on Chekhov’s wall is really a canon—but I spell it with only one “n”, and it sometimes seems that the canon has lost its aim—even though I believe that it supports everything we do: our passion for justice, our striving for God’s spirit, our pastoral impulses and the claims made upon us by every client for those tasks. As you help people find faith, or chastise them for their immunity to the pain of others, or comfort them in pain and sorrow, you are charged with the even more elusive task of making our culture endure. You have to be a critic of the very gaudy parade in which you are marching. Jewish tradition must endure for any of your work to take place at all. And that doesn’t mean that you must take any one action—this way or that way—for we have no law committee, and no excommunication; but we have communication, and you are it! The canon will change, but a sense of canon remains.
I take comfort from the op end essay of Nicholar Kristof in a New York times of a few weeks ago: The distinguished Mr. Kristof argues for a secular respect for the religious project, along with philosopher novelist Alain de Botton that:
Even an atheist has to be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.-
And I would add, the confusion of what you and I do about other religious folks who would pulverize the social agenda and distort values by trying to oppose dialogue. The Gods and their prayers, the dancers and their dances—but Jewish life has a trump card, which embraces all of that faith and spirit and social conscience with the cultural continuity that the great English novelist George Eliot described: “The eminence, the nobleness, of a people depends on its capability of being stirred by memories and of striving for what we call spiritual ends--ends which animate the collective body” Eliot, of all people, studied Judaism, as she believed that Jewish national consciousness addressed what was so feeble in her beloved England.
So, go with George Eliot who loved Jewish content, not T. S. eliot who did not. But remember them both for their understanding that the past must live in the present.
So I don’t care if it is Bible or Mishnah or Medieval philosophy; it matters not whether you choose a Hebrew poem or a rabbinic commentary; it matters that you continue to read and interpret and expand and—yes event reject elements within this great culture of which you are now the gatekeepers. All of the ammunition in the canon is interlocked, and you are the interlocuters.
You are called to serve those Americans, those unhappy and happy families, in the best of times and the worst of times, and to figure out the best time to say the Shema. There will be a lot of dark and stormy nights, and having a good beagle by your side will help.
And, yes, that gun is primed to go off—but it will not kill. In fact, it is just a starter’s gun in the race of life: The Ritsat haDorot, Yehuda Amichai called it, and there really is no trophy. And whether you finish first of 45th, you are at the starting line, so get started-- armed with the courage of now and the humility which your tradition demands.