Rabbi Richard A. Block Presents Address at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Convocation 2012 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Richard A. Block Presents Address at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Convocation 2012

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Rabbi Richard A. Block presented the Address at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Convocation on August 29, 2012 / 11 Elul 5772:


The story is told of a rabbi, a cantor, and a temple president travelling together who were kidnapped by terrorists. Their captors demanded a ransom of $10 million, but after an emergency meeting, the synagogue board refused to negotiate with terrorists. The terrorists said to their captives, “We didn’t intend to kill you, but now we have no choice. To show you we’re not inhumane, we will grant each of you a final request.” Turning to the rabbi they asked, “What is your request?” The rabbi replied, “Some years ago on Yom Kippur, I delivered my finest sermon. It was rather long, but if this is my last day on earth, I would like to deliver it one more time.” Next, they asked the cantor, “What is your request?” The cantor responded, “Since I was a child, I have loved the Shabbat synagogue liturgy. If it’s the last thing I do, I’d like to chant it through one more time. It takes some hours, but it would mean a lot to me.” Turning to the temple president, the terrorist asked, “What is your request?” To which the president replied, “Kill me first.”

If we can empathize with this beleaguered lay leader, how much the more might we feel the pain of our ancient ancestors who, according to the Torah, were on the receiving end of a series of sermonic discourses by Moses. At times harshly critical, boastful, and tinged with disillusionment and self-pity, these orations constitute almost the entirety of Deuteronomy. This week’s portion, Ki Tetze, will find us midway through the longest of the disquisitions.

The rabbis of old, as you know, claimed Moses as their own, seeing him as the paradigmatic rabbi and teacher, conferring the honorific title Moshe Rabbenu, and viewing him through the lens of their particular values, concerns, fears and aspirations, re-creating him, as it were, in their own rabbinic self-image. Let us imagine him, then, as a renowned rabbi, diminished by age and bitter disappointment, yet still vital and dynamic. On the verge of involuntary retirement, he attempts to summarize the highlights and distill the lessons of the past forty years. In that noble effort, Moses, our Rabbi wields the powerful tools of classical rhetoric - Logos, Mythos, Pathos and Ethos - reason, narrative, emotion, and his own credibility - hoping against hope, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that the People he has led and served might yet live up to their sacred covenantal obligations.

Since I, too, am much closer to the end of my rabbinate than the beginning, I feel for him. And though, God knows, I am no Moses, I want to share some lessons I’ve learned in the past three and a half decades, since I enrolled at HUC-JIR and embarked on my rabbinic journey, and to identify some of the challenges we face as Reform Jews in the early 21stcentury. As to the lessons, most of these, I didn’t and, truthfully, couldn’t have learned here, because they are the product of long experience, frequent trial and more than ample error. They are the fruit of an extended, deeply meaningful engagement with colleagues, congregants and lay leaders whom I have served, led, and taught, with whom I have partnered, and by whom I have been so richly and rewardingly instructed.

I am deeply grateful for the invitation to address you. This is an extraordinary institution in every sense and there is no one I admire more in Jewish life than its president, a dear friend, David Ellenson. And it is a delight to be present when two of my esteemed teachers, Ezra Spicehandler and Lowell McCoy are honored. I cannot conceive of a plausible explanation for the flourishing of Judaism in America over the past century and a half, nor could I envision a future for Reform Judaism, or American Jewry itself, without a thriving, robust, and adequately resourced College-Institute, and the rabbis, cantors, educators, non-profit leaders and scholars it produces. And in an increasingly diverse and polarized world, special mention needs to be made of the role of the College-Institute in training non-Jewish scholars who help build bridges between Judaism and Christianity and between Christians and Jews. All who enable this school to fulfill its essential mission deserve our utmost esteem and gratitude. On behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I salute especially the supporters of HUC-JIR here today. You are not merely “friends of the College-Institute” but friends of Reform Judaism, the Jewish heritage, the Jewish People, and interfaith understanding.

Indeed, one of the foremost lessons of my rabbinate is the indispensability of shared, collaborative leadership, among clergy, professionals and lay leaders, members, donors and volunteers. Without lay partners, those of us who devote careers to Judaism cannot secure the Jewish future. Nor can we alone foster the experiences of intrinsic community, meaning, and transcendence that sustain Jewish life and Jewish lives. We don’t have sufficient numbers, time, energy, ideas, wherewithal or bandwidth. We need each other.

The collaborative leadership model also finds support in Pirke Avot, which advises us, Aseh lecha rav. K’neh lecha chaver. Though often translated, “Get yourself a rabbi (or teacher) and a companion [with whom to study],” I suggest an alternative translation: “To make yourself a rabbi, get a partner.” As my rabbinate progressed and I gained more and more authority, I discovered that the best use of authority is to share it with others. I cannot remember the last time I decided a significant policy issue unilaterally, even though I had the power to do so. Instead, I’ve found that the more generously I share my authority, the more of it I have, but the less I need to use it.

The partnership model also pertains to our Movement institutions, especially its legacy organizations: The URJ, HUC-JIR, and CCAR. I marvel at the genius of Isaac Mayer Wise, who established the paradigm of a congregational collective, a seminary, and a rabbinic association, which became the model for denominational Jewish life in America. Given the challenges and opportunities of the contemporary period, it is critical that the leaders of our Reform institutions transcend the parochialism and competitiveness that have too often hampered our progress as a Movement. Even as we articulate and pursue the particular goals and purposes for which our individual entities exist, we need to think more expansively and creatively, finding new ways to work together in service of our common, sacred cause.

The Mishnah’s admonition to seek out both a rabbi or teacher and a study partner also reminds us that for rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and Judaic scholars, learning, torah in its broadest sense, is the sine qua non of our authenticity and integrity. It is the ever-flourishing tree of our spiritual and intellectual lives, and the “fount of living waters” from which we draw wisdom to guide, comfort, and inspire others, nourish and replenish ourselves, and experience God’s indwelling and sustaining presence.

Therefore, Shammai instructed us, “Make study a fixed habit…” And Hillel taught, “Don’t say, ‘When I have leisure, I’ll study.’ Perhaps you will never have leisure.” For all Jews, especially those of us who teach others, Jewish learning must be a lifelong endeavor. In practice, however, in the busy, pressure-filled lives that Jewish clergy and professionals lead, doing so requires extraordinary commitment. If you’re disciplined, you will find time to study. If you’re fortunate, you’ll receive a sabbatical from time to time. For the rabbis in formation, the Central Conference of American Rabbis will be there for you, providing placement and pension services, support, advocacy, chevruta and a plethora of opportunities for professional development and spiritual growth. But never again will you have a period of years in which learning is your principal activity. Even those who go into academic life, which provides more opportunity for study and research, will find much of your time and energy consumed by teaching what you already know, grading papers and exams, and performing various other duties. So, be grateful for, and take full advantage of, the privilege of studying here. Learn everything you can from the brilliant and inspiring faculty members who make this school such a unique institution. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Seize it!

Among the foremost things to learn here is the methodology of biblical criticism, which is embedded in the DNA of this great center of Judaic learning, and which some of today’s graduate students are destined to advance. As you know, modern scholars hold that Deuteronomy’s exhortations were not written by Moses, but attributed to him centuries later.  In their introduction to Deuteronomy in the URJ Torah commentary, Dudley Weinberg and Gunther Plaut, zichronam livracha, called that attribution a “fiction…[that] speaks its own truth,” one that “addressed itself to a real-life situation that existed during [a] later period…in terms of principles derived from then-ancient and transcendent traditions.” As Marianne Moore once said of poetry, Deuteronomy seeks “to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Addressing contemporary challenges in terms of sacred, enduring traditions is also an apt description of the animating spirit of Reform Judaism. Each of us has a role to play in that supremely important and ongoing project.

Authorship aside, calling Moses’ discourses “sermonic” is anachronistic, since they’re not sermons in the modern sense. Indeed, the contemporary sermon was one of Reform Judaism’s most impactful and enduring innovations. Sermons are precious opportunities to teach, challenge, advocate, uplift and inspire, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, shed light on pressing social issues, elevate ethical obligations, address existential concerns, illumine dark nights of the soul, and explore the mystery of the Divine. Sermons can open hearts, change minds, and transform lives. And beyond their specific content, the passion and conviction with which we deliver them conveys something of the power, majesty, and enduring relevance and resonance of the tradition in whose name we speak.

Nonetheless, I offer the radical proposition that sermons, though immensely valuable, are not quite as important as we rabbis sometimes think. Though some of my congregants recall what I spoke about on a high holy day or Shabbat past, many more of them, I think, are like the man who said, “Rabbi, I can’t remember what it was, but something you said left a deep and lasting impression.”

No matter how erudite, thought-provoking and informative a rabbi’s sermons, even our most regular service attendees will forget most of them. What they will never forget are thoughtful gestures and small acts of kindness – the time we sat by their bedside when they were ill or kept them company during a loved one’s risky surgery, our comforting presence when they suffered a heartbreaking loss, our warmth on an occasion of joy, the phone call to let them know they’re in our thoughts, our open door, listening ear, and helpful advice when they were uncertain, confused or troubled, our belief in them when they doubted themselves, our being there for them, fully present, as if they’re the most important person in the world to us at that moment. That is what they will remember. And it is moments like these that move people beyond, that enable them and us to transcend, the consumerist/transactional paradigm that is so predominant in synagogue life today and move to a relational/covenantal one. That’s why the pastoral and practical skills to be acquired here are so essential.

I was thirty when I told my parents, of blessed memory, that I intended to become a rabbi. Though they were strongly committed Jews – my father had been temple president – they were upset. They had scrimped and sacrificed so I could attend Penn’s Wharton School and Yale Law School and graduate debt-free. They didn’t want me to throw all that away and were concerned I might be making a terrible mistake. (My father used to say that I have the best education money can waste.) So they went to see our family rabbi. He did not try to dissuade me, but he posed a question. “Ricky,” he said, calling me by my childhood nickname, “Do you love people?” “Of course, I do!” I replied, but, candidly, I didn’t understand the full significance of his question until much later.

You may recall the Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy says to Linus, who had expressed interest in medicine, “You a doctor! Ha! That's a big laugh. You could never be a doctor! You know why? Because you don't love mankind, that's why!” Linus replies, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”  Most of us who choose a Jewish occupation do so because we’ve fallen in love with Judaism. It turns out, however, that to succeed and find fulfillment in such work, it’s not enough to love Judaism. We also have to love Jews! And that’s a different proposition.

Fortunately, most of the Jews I’ve encountered in the course of my rabbinate have been lovable, and as I learned to love myself, despite my flaws, it became easier to accept the shortcomings of others. As Chanan Brichto, z”l, who taught me Bible here, once said, “I accept one major and a thousand minor flaws in all my friends.” When I interact, as I do from time to time, with people whose values I find repellant, who are self-centered, unreasonable, or disrespectful, have an inflated sense of entitlement, are mean, rude or just plain unpleasant, I try to remind myself that they, too, were created in the image of God, that I, too, occasionally behave in that way, and that when one points an accusatory finger at another, three fingers are pointing back at oneself.

If Moses had kept that fact in mind, his sermons might have been more effective. In my view, they contain too much toch’echa, too much reproof and not enough nechemta, comforting encouragement. As Rabbi Levi of Berdichev remarked about a harsh rebuke by Moses in the book of Numbers, there are two types of criticism. One uplifts others. The other sort “attempts to shame them into fulfilling the… commandments.” Moses’ bitter criticism and dire warnings may have been fully justified but, in my experience, making people feel guilty, ashamed, and fearful, that they are failures, neither motivates nor inspires.

That is especially true in our era, in which, as Michael Meyer explicated so brilliantly in Response to Modernity, religious identification, affiliation and practice are optional and the communal sanctions that once compelled Jewish observance have dissolved, making every Jew a Jew by choice. Each day presents the choice to opt in or out. The job of all who care about the Jewish future is to motivate and enable people to make that choice again and yet again. It is to construct what sociologist, Peter Berger, calls “plausibility structures,” the frameworks and settings in which Jewish observance makes compelling sense and infuses people’s lives with purpose and meaning. The challenge of demonstrating the plausibility of Reform Judaism, of Judaism itself, and of the synagogue as a generative center of meaning and purpose, is the task that lies ahead of us. It is both a daunting and an exciting one.

I was born to two Jewish parents, a mother and a father, a homemaker and an accountant, who married in their early 20’s, in an era when Jewish professionals faced discrimination in employment and secular organizations welcomed neither Jews’ participation nor their philanthropy. There were few outlets for Jews’ talent, time, and treasure outside the Jewish community. Two generations later, nuclear Jewish families like mine are a minority. Jews who marry and have children do so much later than was once the case. In two adult households, the pair is as likely as not to be intermarried, a gay or lesbian couple, or a reconstituted family with children from former marriages. Single adult households, with and without children, whether by choice, chance, or divorce, are increasingly numerous. Yet, despite American Jewry’s growing demographic diversity, many synagogues remain plausible only to nuclear, intact, all-Jewish families. Synagogues that fail to become more inclusive, welcoming, creative, affordable, and multi-dimensional, will be the Palm Pilots and Blackberrys of the iPhone era.

Today’s synagogues also face unprecedented competitive pressures as Federations, other Jewish agencies, and civic and cultural organizations, including those that once spurned Jews, compete for their engagement and commitment. Jewish experiences that were once a near-monopoly of the synagogue – Jewish education, bar and bat mitzvah, high holy day services and more - are now widely available at the local Chabad or JCC or havurah, or on the Internet, free of charge or for far less than the cost of synagogue affiliation. And many who once turned to synagogues for a sense of community and belonging now seek it elsewhere, including social networks. A cursory glance at the Sunday New York Times style section reveals how many people, including Jews, are married by a relative or friend who purchased an instant clergy credential online, instead of a rabbi or minister. Accredited seminaries like ours face increasing competition from non-denominational rabbinic and cantorial programs, ranging from legitimate to marginal to “close cover before striking.” Some of them offer more flexible, less demanding curricula and produce graduates of varying degrees of competence who compete for jobs with our ordainees, even in some URJ congregations.

Much has been made, too much in my view, of so-called “post-denominational Judaism.” While it is true that fewer Jews have a strong ideological commitment, that is hardly a recent development. It has long been the case that a congregation’s Movement affiliation is less significant in people’s membership decisions than word of mouth, the rabbi, the education program and location. What should be more concerning to us is that even as the percentage of Jews self-identifying as Reform in Jewish population surveys has grown, synagogue affiliation rates have fallen, in some places, sharply.

In other words, our primary challenge is not persuading people to join Reform congregations, but to join and remain at any congregation at all. If they do, we’ll get an ample share, because of the quality of our congregations and clergy and because we affirm both tradition and innovation, champion diversity, egalitarianism, and inclusion, emphasize social justice, and offer a wide variety of approaches to spiritual expression and fulfillment and Jewish observance and living. Synagogues that re-imagine and reinvent themselves, aspire to excellence, are nimble, imaginative and dynamic, articulate a clear, compelling sense of mission, and focus like a laser on creating and sustaining meaningful relationships and engaging experiences of community, will thrive, and so will Jewish clergy, professionals, institutions and Movements that do the same.

In a world so utterly different from that inhabited by previous generations, with the rate of change accelerating rapidly, you and I have our work cut out for us. Fortunately, today’s students have time to prepare to face these challenges. So, as I’ve said, seek out teachers and partners. Devote yourselves to learning and to building relationships. Develop excellent homiletic skills, but don’t overestimate their importance in relation to interpersonal ones, and learn to challenge others and yourselves in ways that build up, encourage and empower, motivate and inspire.

And for Heaven’s sake, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Or more to the point, don’t be afraid to make mistakes l’shem shamayim, mistakes for Heaven’s sake. Mistakes are greatly underrated. In her book, Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz writes, “[T]he capacity to err is crucial to human cognition…[I]t is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage…[W]rongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and our ideas about the world…[H]owever disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”

If, somehow, we could avoid mistakes, if everything we do succeeds, we’re not trying hard enough. Embrace your mistakes. And don’t settle for timid little ones. Make what Paul Schoemaker calls “brilliant mistakes,” big, bold, brave ones that can lead to major insights and breakthroughs in your life.

In the 1979 Robert Aldrich film, The Frisco Kid. Avram, played by Gene Wilder, is a young rabbi on his way from Poland to San Francisco in 1850. After his train fare is stolen, Avram travels across country on horseback with Tommy, a lovable scoundrel played by Harrison Ford. Avram, who has lost his self-confidence, declares to Tommy, “I’m not a rabbi.” “But you’re a good man!” Tommy replies. “I am a good man. I am.” Avram says, but “I’m not a rabbi.” Tommy protests, “Don’t say that!” Avram: Tommy, I’m not a rabbi. Tommy: Don’t SAY that! You are a rabbi. I’m a bank robber. I’m a card player and a whoremonger. That’s what I am. YOU are a rabbi. You can fall in the mud, you can [fall] on your [backside], you can travel in the wrong direction. But even on your [backside], even in the mud, even if you go in the wrong direction for a little while, you’re STILL a rabbi! THAT’S WHAT YOU ARE!

Whether your path is that of a rabbi, cantor, educator, scholar, organizational leader or philanthropist, I pray that that will not just be what you do, but what you are, that your labors will be powered by a passionate sense of purpose, in service of a goal of surpassing significance, a deeply personal response to the most profound question of human existence: What is the meaning of my life? And as Viktor Frankl pointed out in Man’s Search for Meaning, the answer to that question is not something we discover, but the product of our choices. Those who devote our lives to Jewish life have chosen to serve something larger, more significant, and more enduring than our own mortal, transitory, sometimes lonely and confused selves. Whatever other choices you make in the course of your journey, I hope and pray you choose, above all, a summons to which you respond, “Here I am.” Hineni.

I conclude with a favorite story. Once, a rabbi was summoned before a gentile king. The king declared that the fate of the kingdom’s Jews would depend on the rabbi’s answer to a question he was about to pose. If the rabbi answered correctly, the Jews could remain. If not, they would be expelled. His hands behind his back, the king said, “I am holding a bird. Is it dead or alive?” The rabbi thought, “If I say the bird is alive, the king will crush it. If I say it is dead, he will let it go free.”  So, the rabbi replied, “Your Majesty, the answer is in your hands.” Each of us, you and I, holds the Jewish future in our hands. Together, with God’s help, let us help it take flight.

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