Rabbi David M. Posner Presents 2013 HUC-JIR/New York Ordination Address

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rabbi David M. Posner, Senior Rabbi, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/New York Ordination on Sunday, May 5, 2013, at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.  The text of Rabbi Posner’s address is below.

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Dearest Rabbinical & Cantorial Ordinees, faculties, families, and friends,

Mazal Tov to you all.

Forty years ago, when I was ordained in Cincinnati – it was a day for me that was bitter sweet.  I was leaving the place that I loved more than any other, and that was HUC-JIR in Cincinnati.  Trust me – had I been in New York or in California, I would have felt the same way – but Cincinnati then had something special.  And that was the old undergraduate program.

When I was in Cincinnati, many of us were students who had just come to HUC-JIR right out of high school.   We applied to both the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion simultaneously.  And to fill out the picture, when Isaac Mayer Wise first opened the doors of HUC in 1875, it was at first to high-school students in Cincinnati. They were admitted when they were 14, and they were ordained at the age of 22 or 23 and these were the ones who laid the foundations of Reform Judaism.  They were young kids in high school… Like Solomon Freehof, whose many volumes of response you have seen – and Julius Mark – who was the senior rabbi here at Emanu-El from 1948 until 1968 and whose daughter Peggy Heller is a member of HUC-JIR’s Eastern Region Board of Overseers.

Once we finished the combined HUC-UC program, most of us got married as soon as we could say Jack Robinson – and only then came the HUC-JIR graduate years.

The only thing I loved more than HUC-JIR was Sylvia – and she’s been with HUC-JIR forty years – our lives paralleled one another.  The teachers who are gone…she and I miss them more than we can express.

So before I well up with sentimentality, allow me to give you one piece of advice – specifically about the need for flexibility – and let me tell you two short stories.

Back in the late 19th- early 20th-century, there was a great Lithuanian Rabbi – Rabbi Israel Meyer Kagan – known as the Chofetz Chaim.  The Chofetz Chaim knew how to be flexible.  In his time – the days when Jews were being drafted into the Czar’s army for terms that were 10-20 years – the Jewish soldiers had special hardships.  There was once a particular unit of Jewish soldiers way up north – up in Siberia – and they couldn’t secure any kosher meat.  So they decided to write a letter to the Chofetz Chaim.  They wrote to him of the difficulties, the hardships, and most of all the impossibility of securing kosher meat – and they were starving.

So they wrote to him, and they asked, “What can we do – we can’t eat the meat…we’re starving.”  ”The Chofetz Chaim responded, “Okay,”  he said.  “Go ahead…You can eat the meat.  Just don’t lick the bones.”

Flexibility – and sechel!

I’ll tell you another story about flexibility.

Years ago, a dear friend of Sylvia’s – Orthodox – her mother died aleha ha-shalom.

And to make things more difficult, one of her daughters was to be married in a few months. 

Now, there is a halachah that says one cannot buy a new article of clothing – a dress or a suit…anything – during the period of avaylus -- of mourning -- true?  True. And quite naturally the mother of the bride had certainly hoped that she would be able to buy a new dress for her daughter’s wedding.  Quite natural.   What could she do?

Syl turned to her friend and said, “Why don’t you call your rabbi and ask him about a personal shopper?”

The friend immediately called the Rabbi and asked him, “Rabbi – what about a personal shopper?”  His answer:  “personal shopper?  No problem.”

The moral of the story?  A Yid find-sich an aytsa – a Jew finds a solution.  Remember that motto now and always – a yid find-sich an aytsa.

But now let us turn the page from the practical to the theoretical.  It was in the mid to late 1980’s – when I was taking a doctorate in Teachers College Columbia – a doctorate in music of all things… – it was at that time that I came to the realization that religion without revelation is nothing but a hobby , and there is no reason to take up Judaism as a hobby.  When I came to that conclusion, I told it immediately to Syl, and she said, “Exactly – if Judaism is nothing but a hobby, I’m telling our children to take another hobby…it wasn’t worth what my parents went through in the Holocaust for a hobby.

And so the challenge for me at that moment was to offer a proof that that revelation is and must be true, and that I had to create a taxonomy of epistemology – that would demonstrate the truth of revelation.   

So let me ask a question. What do we mean ….when we say “I know about something?”

What we most likely mean is that we have had an empirical experience.  One or more of our five senses has received some kind of information.  This is knowledge gained through empiricism.  Most of what we study throughout our entire educational lives is empirical knowledge.  All of our science, most of our math, all of our foreign languages, and all of our history is essentially the study and analysis of empirical knowledge.

But there are others kinds of knowledge.  There is rational knowledge – and this is the next way in which we know something to be true – either by induction, or by deduction. 

And there are still other ways of knowing.  There is such a thing as knowledge through intuition.  Intuition is the immediate act of knowing something without the conscious use of reason.  It has been called the sixth sense.  Some people have it, and other people don’t.  It can’t be learned in school.  And yet we all recognize that some people are blessed with a keen intuitive sense.  That’s why we used to read those Sherlock Holmes stories.  Intuition may be vague and mysterious – but we all recognize that some people are blessed with a lively intuitive sense.  Just read the Sherlock Homes stories and you’ll understand. 

But – is there another way of knowing – besides empiricism, rationalism, and intuitionalism –even more mysterious than intuitionalism?

There is….and this we may call inspirational knowledge – or knowledge by inspiration.  Inspiration knowledge is something that we can be taught ABOUT – but we probably won’t have it ourselves.  It is not knowledge of a THING.  Rather, it is a knowledge that is conveyed to us by a GREAT ARTIST – because that artist perceives and understands the world in ways that are beyond our immediate perception.

Let me give you an example.  All of us here know of William Shakespeare.  True?  True.  And many of you here are excellent writers.  No doubt about it.

I want to guarantee you something.  None of us here in this sanctuary – now or in the future – not one of us is going to become a William Shakespeare.  It’s not going to happen again…not in the English language.  This kind of understanding of human nature, coupled with the most perfect expression ever conveyed in the English language, is not happening again.  We can study about it, yes.  But none of us is going to do it again – not in that quantity, and not in that level of perfection. 

Or let me give you an even better example.  In a 150 year period in human history – not a long time – and in an area of the world that stretched from Paris to Vienna – not a large part of the world – this is what we had:  We had Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Dominico Scarlatti.  Dominico Scarlatti wrote over 500 short works for keyboard alone.  We had Antonio Vivaldi, the red-headed priest. He composed more than 750 concerti.  We had Johann Sebastian Bach, his older brother, and two of his sons.  It is estimated that Bach wrote 20 original pages of music for every day of his life.  Think about that…20 original pages of music for every day of his life… while you and I can’t write 20 twenty original pages of English to save our lives.  Twenty original pages of music a day – and that was while he was raising 24 children, teaching Latin 5 hours a day in his church school in Leipzig, and writing a new cantata for every Sunday Service for a period of 20 years.

You’ve heard of George Friedrich Handel who wrote the Messiah in two weeks?  Franz Joseph Hayden, with 104 symphonies, and much more?  Mozart, dead at 35, with over 600 compositions which he began writing when he was four; Beethoven, Schubert.  You have to remember that Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert all knew each other.  They all lived in Vienna at the same time.  Schubert – dead at 31.  In one year alone, he wrote over 150 songs.  They came to him so quickly that he had to write them down on napkins in cafes.  There was Felix Mendelssohn, a fully formed genius at the age of 16; Chopin, who never needed to develop past the age of 19 and who never took a piano lesson in his life;  Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Carl Maria von Weber, Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms.   I want to assure you of something.  When Beethoven walks through a forest or when he falls in love, he does it with an appreciation and an understanding much greater than ours.  Yes, we love.  But believe me – we cannot imagine love on the level of a Beethoven.  You don’t have to be a musician.  Just read his letters to the immortal beloved.  A Beethoven or a Mozart or any of them knew things and expressed things which still seem miraculous.

So – let’s ask ourselves: How did they do it?  How can we account for the enormous outburst of this kind of inspirational knowledge by so many people in this short period?

Well, we CAN’T account for it.  It is a mystery.  It is a great mystery.  But we cannot deny it is there.  It is there – and it is a mystery.

So far, we are thinking of knowledge on four levels – empirical, rational, intuitional, and inspirational.  Is there another kind of knowledge – even more mysterious than inspirational knowledge – as inspirational knowledge is more mysterious than intuition?

There is.  And this kind of knowledge has been the exclusive province of our people.  We Jews.

This kind of knowledge existed among our people for approximately 500 years – and it existed in a tiny piece of real estate – a thin strip of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.  Eretz Yisroel. This is revelation knowledge.  It is a knowledge of the will of God.  And it was to our ancient patriarchs and prophets to whom this knowledge was given, and they expressed it in the word that we call Torah.  Torah is revelation knowledge.  And we Jews believe that we were chosen to be the transmitters of Torah to the world.  God chose us for revelation.  We are the PEOPLE of revelation, and the land of Israel is the LAND of revelation.

Now of course, other people of others faiths believe that they are in possession of revelation knowledge which supersedes ours.  Here we have nothing but an issue of competing revelations.  But what is CRUCIAL to remember is that Christians and Muslims are also committed to the idea of revelation knowledge as the highest form of knowledge, and they also believe in the same GEOGRAPHY of revelation.

Why is revelation knowledge so important?  It is important because ONLY REVEALED RELIGIOUS MORALITY IS ULTIMATELY ABSOLUTE AND BINDING IN CONSCIENCE.  In this understanding of reality, murder is wrong not because it is unpleasant or deprives a family of a loved one or is against the law.  Murder is an act that disobeys the ethical will of the creator of the universe.  In this understanding of the world, we are not merely responsible to our own consciences… groyse g’dillah – big deal.  In the religious world, we are responsible to our own consciences which are in turn responsible to God.  Let me ask you a question:  whom would you rather trust?  Someone who feels responsible to himself or herself alone – or someone who feels responsible to the God who created us all?

Now, a very important question:  how do we know that the SPIRITUAL understanding of the universe – the religious Weltanschauung – how do we know it is true?  It is true…because it is revealed to us in our sacred texts – our Torah.  And then another question:  how do we know that these texts are true?  That’s an easy one.  They are true….because they are the greatest fiction…and any of our teachers could tell us that it is great fiction that is great truth.  Fiction is true, and non-fiction is always incomplete AT BEST or false at worst.  After all, what is non-fiction?  It is most often a pack of lies written about a deceitful world of phantoms and illusions, and that is why we throw away our newspapers every day.  GREAT FICTION, great truth, and that is why we read the Bible, and Homer, and the Canterbury tales, and Shakespeare, and all the rest.

Now, an important word which might be on the lips of many:  boredom, or boring.  Of the three major universal conceptions – scientism, agnosticism, and spiritualism, which is the least boring?  The spiritual, of course…and that is why religious people can never be bored.   The world of scientific materialism is essentially and intrinsically boring.  It is a world of necessity without change… and without the mystery personality. 

And it is also without ultimate hope.  Ultimate hope is not the wish that the market will rise 3,000 points in a year, or that the Yankees will win another series.  Ultimate hope in the words of Isaiah means that the time and the place exists where God is going to dry all of the tears that have been shed in this world.

For people of religion, there is hope, and there is justice.  In the immortal syllogism of the philosophers, IF THERE IS NO HELL, THERE IS NO JUSTICE.  

Some of us may be of the opinion that there is no heaven and no hell, and no ultimate reward and punishment. Fine and dandy.  But if we do accept this as a premise, then we MUST COME TO THE INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION THAT BOTH HITLER AND HIS VICTIMS MET THE SAME FATE – MERE OBLIVION.  What does THAT tell us about the ultimate significance of life and of death?

But there’s more.  For the religious person, there is the miracle and mystery of revelation – of trying to understand the will of a God who NEVER makes Himself completely known or understood.  In the religious world, there is a sense of universal and eternal moral urgency.  There is mitzvah, there is commandment, there is obligation.  There is the belief in life before this world, there is life in this world, and there is life after this world – Judaism believes in them all.  The spiritual universe is a lively universe.  There is revelation, there are miracles in days of old, there are angels – we sing to them every Friday night…right?

And so – and in conclusion – why then are religious rituals - for us Jewish rituals – important?  They are important because through our rituals, we give formal symbolic expression to this universal structure in which our lives are governed by God’s will.  Simply put, we SERVE God with ethics, and we RELATE to God through ritual. That is why rituals are important.

Beloved rabbonim, chazzonim, teachers, and friends – may the Holy One grant us the time and the will to study and to observe and to practice in this world, that all of us may merit Yeshivah shel Maalah – the academy on high… even as we loved and cherished our years at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Mazal Tov to you all.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation'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