Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Senior Vice President, Union for Reform Judaism, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Cincinnati Ordination on Saturday, June 8, 2013, at Plum Street Temple. The text of Rabbi Pesner’s address is below.
Listen to Rabbi Pesner's address:
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What an honor to offer the ordination sermon in the very spot where Isaac Mayer Wise preached. All the more historic as we recognize the tremendous tenure of Rabbi David Ellenson. Thank you to the leadership, faculty, students and staff of HUC-JIR, Distinguished clergy and congregational leadership, Cincinnati community, thank you. Most important - thank you to the ordinees. Rabbis!
You invited me to speak to you today, I am humbled and grateful and hope to prove worthy of your welcome. As you prepare to enter the rabbinate I would like to reflect with you on the particular challenges of this moment. In North American Jewish history and what it will mean for your rabbinate and the kind of leader that we need you to be - and we need you now!
Let me frame my comments with a story. And though the context was a congregation where I served as a rabbi, this story could be about any one of you!
Cindy and Andrew joined our Reform congregation. She was raised Orthodox, and he conservative. But they wanted to enroll their two year old daughter in our early childhood center. Within a year, they started participating fully in our temple: Attending Shabbat, festivals and high holidays and in various family learning experiences. They were amazed by how joyful the tefilot were how creative the Jewish learning was and they felt engaged by the other members and the clergy.
Why was this family willing to adjust to different modes of prayer, new customs, music and rituals? Because there they found meaning. Their experience of Judaism was relevant in their lives. They discovered what you know, and I know: That Reform Judaism continues to be the dynamic, vibrant approach to Jewish life that resonates with most North American Jews. Reform Judaism accesses Jewish meaning for them. But even more than meaning, Andrew and Cindy found a real, sacred community.
Fast forward several years. Andrew called one Shabbat afternoon. After a few minutes of chit chat, He told me the reason for his call; their middle daughter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I raced to sit at their kitchen table and weep with them.
But as we all know, real community transcends one rabbi's pastoral care. For years later, to this day and beyond, other members of the congregation have supported this family by taking care of their other kids during chemo treatments, cooking them meals, and raising literally millions of dollars for brain tumor research.
Cindy and Andrew are not unique. For so many others, for those of us gathered here today, Reform Judaism inspires us with purpose and brings us into relationship with others with whom we find meaning as we engage in prayer, study, and sacred deeds.
Take a moment. Think about why you are a Reform Jew. Reflect on the value it adds to your life; Think of the other people with whom you connect. Think of a moment when Judaism touched your soul. Who was there with you? Were you observing a sacred ritual? Studying a text? Mourning a loss or celebrating a joy? Were you fighting an injustice? Or acting with compassion?
Stand up! Look around the room! Look into the eyes of the family and friends with whom you found deep meaning and connection through Reform Jewish life.
Now multiply your stories across generations of Reform Jews throughout North America, in Israel and the wider world. These are the countless narratives that join to tell the magnificent master-story of Reform Jewish life. Isaac Mayer Wise could never have imagined how broad our reach would be!
And yet we live in a time of enormous challenges. You have heard many voices claim that denominations have outlived their usefulness That rates of non-affiliation put the very institution of the synagogue at risk You have heard the statistics: 80 % of the young people who become b'nei mitzvah in our Reform congregations are disengaged by 12th grade. You know that many young adults are choosing not to join congregations at all. The categories we grew up with: membership, affiliation, dues are all slipping away.
We know the largest denomination of Jews Is the "unaffiliated." Across North America synagogues (and most churches as well!) are wrestling with enormous challenges brought on by secularism, consumerism, and religious apathy.
Many argue that we live in a secular, post-denominational era in which Reform Judaism is no longer relevant. The stress secular culture is placing on our synagogues is rooted in consumerism, as joining out of obligation has given way to "fee-for-service."
And yet here you are ready to be the next generation of the American rabbis that Isaac Mayer Wise dreamed of and fought for.
Here you are ready to be the leaders of our Movement who like those before you are ready to rise to the challenges of the day to bring Reform Judaism to another generation.
Think about WHY you are here.
Think back to Cindy and Andrew. Think back to your own memories. Each tells the story of a person discovering Jewish meaning in the context of community.
In "Man's Search for Meaning" Victor Frankl sought to understand why some people were able to survive the Shoah as he did. He posited that it was some source of meaning for which their lives continued to have purpose. He wrote: "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state But rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him."
I would argue that successful Jewish communities do precisely what Frankl calls for: provide a community in which individuals can strive and struggle, to discover the purpose of their lives.
I believe Reform Judaism will be more than relevant in the next era; indeed I think we will be at the forefront of Jewish creativity because of our dual commitment to autonomy and ongoing reform, which uniquely positions us to create sacred communities of meaning a purpose.
In elevating autonomy, Reform Judaism acknowledged the ability of the rational human person to challenge the authority of traditional halacha by making individual decisions about God's will.
Autonomy has made Jewish practice accessible to millions of Jews who choose to live largely secular lives but seek meaning in Jewish life and connection to the Jewish people.
That said, autonomy is problematic. It opens both the door for entry, But also the exit from the bonds of Jewish communal obligation.
Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan has argued in the Jewish daily Forward that autonomy is our obstacle rather than our strength. He writes "The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation. Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a proscribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the Movement's dominant ethos." I respectfully suggest that Rabbi Kaplan misses the point.
It is in no way a given that absent a theology based on the compulsion of an omnipotent God, consumerism MUST be our dominant ethos. There is no causal relationship between autonomy and consumerism. Voluntarism yes; consumerism no. Reform Jewish life by definition is voluntary. It has only become consumerist because we allowed it be so. But it need not be so.
Remember the words of Frankl who argued against "The discharge of tension at any cost" The embodiment of consumerism Is the discharge of tension for a cost! Pay a fee, get a service, meet a need, and all is well. Not in Jewish history. Not in Jewish tradition. And certainly not in the Reform Jewish future we can create together. Not in the synagogues you will lead, not in the institutions you will build.
Using Frankl's paradigm, Reform Judaism creates a community in which individuals "Strive and struggle for a worthy goal;" together we heed the "call of potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled."
A critical Synagogue3000 study showed that Jews are becoming increasingly spiritual despite the forces against affiliation! That should reassure us: many Jews are searching for meaning! Many are engaged in Frankl's striving! We are Am Yisrael, those who struggle with God, and the centrality of autonomy within Reform Judaism positions us perfectly to be the outlet for the search.
In fact, here is a statistic that should inspire all of us: of the tens of thousands of young people who return from Birthright Israel ready to engage in Jewish life, forty percent described themselves as Reform Jews in exit surveys. These young adults could have said Just Jewish, or nothing, Yet the single biggest plurality by a long shot called themselves Reform! Re-inspired to explore their Jewish identity they know that in our approach is a path to meaning.
That said, Kaplan raises a great challenge: Lacking an omnipotent deity, how will we withstand the forces of secular society? The answer lies with Reform Judaism's ongoing commitment to the verb: re-form. We are constantly reforming, renewing, reimagining a Jewish future that is at the same time: authentic and relevant.
We must once again re-form Reform Judaism to overcome the consumerist ethos I believe we must renew our commitment to the centrality of covenantal relationships.
Rabbi Richard Address writes: "Relationships and community are the vehicles through which we find meaning. It does not make much difference if you are driving that fancy car or moving into that fantastic new home if you are alone and without a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It is not theology which binds us. rather, it is relationships,"
Rabbi Address's compelling reflection is the direct response to Rabbi Kaplan; in a voluntary religious framework the antidote to consumerism isn't a theology of a commanding God; rather it is the discovery of God's presence in the sacred context of human beings in covenantal relationship with one another.
Perhaps the great Martin Buber was the first to recognize the corrective nature of relationships on the excesses of autonomy; our own Reform Jewish theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz Explains that Buber's notion of the "I - thou relationship" leads to the "revolutionary thesis that our highest human duty is to transmute society into community."
The antidote to consumerism, the solution to secularism, and the way to remain "denominational" in an allegedly "post-denominational" world is covenantal relationship.
The real challenge we face is not theological; rather it is institutional. Many of our congregations and institutions are not organized in service of creating sacred relationship; too often they focus on programs rather than people; in the name of autonomy they perpetuate the consumerist culture rather than challenge it.
In the next chapter of Reform Judaism we must disorganize and reorganize our congregations and institutions to re-form Judaism once again to complement the core value of autonomy with a rigorous practice of building covenantal community.
As you ascend to your positions of leadership in our movement I would challenge you to strive to overcome the gravitational pull of secular consumerism by judging everything you do by one, simple criteria:
Will it effectively transform your congregation or institutions into a truly sacred community in which relationships transcend program?
Ask yourself daily: "Am I building new relationships?" More important, "Am I fostering new relationships that deepen this community?" Rather than, "Did I create a new program? Did I publish a new brochure?"
The days are over when the rabbi would simply lead services teach Torah and offer sermons, Let alone to run programs and publish calendars. Today we are called to be community builders, and network weavers. We are called to meet seekers where they are physically and spiritually and invite them into relationship with others with whom they will discover meaning and purpose.
We have examples. In the last several years nearly a dozen progressive congregations have experimented by abandoning dues and are focused on engaging people first. Synagogues across North America are experimenting with relationship-based approaches as described in books like Relational Judaism and Sacred Strategies.
We even have remarkable examples of congregations who keep nearly one hundred percent of teens engaged throughout their high school years. These communities have developed multiple creative methods to keep every teen in relationship with one another and adults in the congregation.
If you do this, if we do this, Reform Judaism will be more than simply relevant; we will be a vibrant community of purpose. We will reform, renew, and revitalize our institutions and congregations to train our leaders, energize our youth, and foster new relationships as individuals join together and discover new meaning in the beauty of Torah, worship and deeds.
Don't take my word. Think back to the moment you recalled at the beginning of this sermon… Ultimately, what made it memorable? Who was there with you? What meaning did you discover?
Eloheinu V'elohei Avoteinu v'imoteinu God of our mothers and God of our fathers, Bless these new rabbis. Inspire them and guide them to bring Your sacred presence into their communities and congregations as together we bring meaning and purpose to the lives of all those who would come under the wings of your sheltering presence.