It is a great honor for me to be here this morning, at an occasion that I had long planned to be at, though my initial expectation was not that I would be standing up here, but rather sitting down there with all of you. For among this year's class of rabbinic ordinees is my friend, Edie Mencher. The truth is, I wouldn't have missed her ordination for the world. It's a humbling experience speaking in the main sanctuary of Temple Emmanuel. And yet, when I received Aaron Panken's letter asking me to give this morning's address, I knew I couldn't say no. Not just because of my friendship with Aaron and Shelly Zimmerman and so many of my former colleagues and students still at HUC and not just because of the sense of personal connection I've long felt to the fifth year rabbinic class as a whole, because of Edie Mencher; but also because it's been five years since I last taught at HUC, and five years since those of you being ordained this morning began your rabbinic studies. Call it what you will -- "serendipity," "coincidence," "fate," "the hand of God" -- I have been given the opportunity to offer some advice and words of wisdom -- that is, to teach, however briefly -- those of you that I just missed having as students, and thus, am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Somehow it seems appropriate that in a week in which we, as Jews, will be marking the end of our ancestors' forty-nine day journey from Egypt to Sinai, so those of you who are being ordained as rabbis and invested as cantors this morning are marking the end of another long journey -- one that at times has perhaps felt more like forty years (the additional time it took the Israelites to enter Canaan) than it has five years, or four years, or the biblical forty-nine days. And just as we mark the end of our ancestors' journey to Sinai with a ritual celebration, so the culmination of your journey to investiture and ordination is also being marked by a ritual celebration -- as structured, as majestic, and as long, as the ritual celebration of the holiday of Shavuot.
Yet the similarity between these two journeys -- and the rituals that mark their completion -- is not as superficial as, perhaps, I've just suggested. First of all, both are journeys embarked upon by many, but orchestrated by a few. After the Israelites left Egypt, for example, there were many who would have preferred taking a different, shorter route to Sinai than the longer, and more dangerous one, decided upon by God. In fact, there were many who complained to Moses incessantly, and when times got particulary tough, voiced second thoughts about their having embarked upon the journey in the first place. "Do something!" they'd say to Moses. And, most of the time, Moses did what he could. But after all, it was God who had mapped out the itinerary, not he. The leadership roles entrusted to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, gave them the ability to make the Israelites' journey more enjoyable and more meaningful, but neither Moses nor his siblings had the necessary power, singlehandedly or together, to simply reroute them. And so, Miriam took out her tambourine and got the women, at least, to sing and dance with her. Aaron continued to help Moses with his notable organizational and oratorial skills. ) While Moses, at the suggestion of his father-in-law, Yitro, created a representative body of Israelites to serve as part-legislative group, part-grievance committee.
I suspect that many, if not most, of you being ordained as rabbis and invested as cantors this morning can in some way relate your experiences at the College-Institute to that which I've just described. Undoubtedly, some of you were known to complain on occasion, experienced periods of disappointment and frustration, and even had a second thought or two about completing your studies. But hopefully, there were moments when you also realized that there were faculty members and administrators who made a difference -- and did all that they could to make the past few years as enjoyable and meaningful as possible, actively encouraging and helping to develop your spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, this morning's celebration, like that of Shavuot, is less a looking back than a looking ahead. Shavuot is not a reliving of the journey from Egypt to Sinai, but rather a remembering of that moment when God and the Jewish people as a whole became covenantal partners. Hearing the Ten Commandments and listening to those biblical verses that describe both their revelation by God and their acceptance by the people, we acknowledge, and ritually celebrate, the receiving of Torah as responsibility and privilege. Similarly, those of us who are here this morning, are here neither to relive - nor rehash - the past four or five years that those of you being ordained as rabbis or invested as cantors have spent at HUC-JIR. Rather, we are here to acknowledge and join in, this ritual celebration of the privileges and responsibilities of cantonal investiture and rabbinic ordination.
Like the twelve chieftains, or in our parlance, community leaders, that Moses sends to "spy" or scout out the land of Canaan, many if not most of you, I imagine, have already had the opportunity to scout out the land. Perhaps you've had a student pulpit, a summer internship, or other work experience in or near New York City. Perhaps you've been to, or have been a member of, a congregation that at first glance seemed wonderful, exciting, innovative, tension-free, with money placed in various endowment funds flowing "like milk and honey." Like the biblical Joshua and Caleb, your experience left you brimming with enthusiasm and filled with thoughts of future possibilities. And then you got to know the congregation better. Relationships among the professionals and the lay leadership, or among the professionals themselves, were not as harmonious as they first seemed. Instituting change was not as easy as you'd initially imagined. Large donors had cut back on their yearly gifts, or eliminated them all together. Perhaps, sounding more like the other, more pessimistic spies, you came back and reported to your classmates: "Don't apply for a position at congregation x. It has a lot of problems," or, thinking of the terrific people you'd met and all that was positive about your experience, said: "Think about applying to congregation x. It has a lot of possibilities."
If we interpret this biblical story as a struggle between the optimists and the pessimists, Caleb and Joshua vs. the other ten spies or chieftains, as, in fact, some rabbinic commentators have maintained, the message to those of you who are pessimists seems harsh, yet clear: just as the pessimists among our biblical ancestors were deemed not worthy of entering the land, so those who enter the rabbinate or cantorate fearful of being confronted with nearly impossible expectations and demands, are not worthy of becoming communal leaders. And yet, as I suspect the pessimists among you will be happy to hear, I do not believe that this is, in fact, what the Torah tells us -- or at least, it is not what the Torah says to me.
Perhaps the biblical struggle is not so much one between the optimists and the pessimists -- those who see the jar as half full vs. those who see it as half empty, as it is one between those who can see the forest vs. those who only see the trees. Neither Caleb nor Joshua strike me as thorough-going optimists. They too recognize the difficulties that lie before them. They know that they will have to confront, and somehow conquer, hostile nations. Yet what sustains them is an ideal of the future grounded in their understanding of what it means to be members of a covenanted community. I would characterize Joshua and Caleb as visionaries or idealists, men unafraid to return to Canaan, despite all of its dangers, because sustained by a vision of the land, promised to them by God, as "exceedingly good" (Tova m'od, m'od) and confident that God will be with them as protector, they urge the people to abandon their fears and go forward. The other "scouts" possess no such vision. Indeed, it seems, they voice their fears and fall silent, leaving it up to the people to suggest the other "viable" alternatives -- continue wandering in the wilderness or return to Egypt and a life of slavery. What do the other ten scouts think is best? For that matter, what do Moses and Aaron think? All the Torah tells us is that they react to the cries of the Israelites with despair.
Yes, I suppose, one could label them "pessimists," but more appropriately, I think, one might label them "survivalists." If they exaggerate the size and strength of the inhabitants of Canaan, perhaps it's because they know how fool hearty visionaries can sometimes be. They don't want to rush into a battle they might well lose. They'd rather be slaves, it seems, or eternal nomads, than openly place themselves at risk. All they see of the land are the trees -- i.e., the specificities of the terrain, the weather, the soil condition, the number of inhabitants already living there and so on rather than the bigger picture, the forest. The truth is, they adequately fulfill their mission, for all that Moses asks of them is to "Go up into the Negev and into the hills and see what kind of country it is." Gunther Plaut suggests that Moses' and Aaron's despair "foreshadows their growing inability to exercise effective leadership." So, I would claim, does Moses' and Aaron's failure to ask the scouts or the people to actually envision what kind of country it might become.
The message here, as I understand it, is this: leadership requires vision. As Stephen Wise long ago maintained, in describing the rabbi as communal leader, a rabbiis not to represent the views of the congregation, but to proclaim the truth as he sees it . . . .Too great a dread there may be of secession on the part of some members of a congregation, for, after all, difference and disquiet, even schism at the worst, are not so much to be feared as that attitude of the pulpit which never provokes dissent because it is cautious rather than courageous, peace-loving rather than prophetic, time-serving rather than right-serving. The [rabbi] is not to be the spokesman of the congregation, not the message-bearer of the congregation, but the bearer of a message to the congregation."1
Hopefully, the last few years have helped those of you being ordained as rabbis or invested as cantors this morning to articulate many such messages and to ground them in both traditional and contemporary Jewish sources. Hopefully, you have come to view yourselves, as Jews and as religious leaders, within a larger historical and cultural context, one that includes an understanding of the many ways in which Judaism itself -- as a way of thinking and as a way of life -- has evolved over the last three thousand years. But hopefully, you have also learned how much more you need to know and how essential it is therefore, that somehow, amidst all of the many practical demands of the rabbinate, you not forget the importance of ongoing religious study.
Find a study partner or a local group of clergy in the community, attend summer institutes or the alumni kallot offered on the various campuses of HUC; engage in serious study on your own, or, as those of us who teach often do -- teach a course using at least some books that you haven't yet read or had the opportunity to delve into seriously. Think about continuing your formal education -- perhaps even pursing a graduate degree. Make it clear to your Temple Board how essential regular study time is for you and for them. Having taught rabbis ordained between five and thirty-five years ago (both in the College-Institute's Doctor of Ministry program in New York and at various conferences and kallot), I can attest to the great sense of intellectual inadequacy and spiritual inauthenticity that many of our religious leaders, particularly those who have not made time for serious study come to feel.
What's more -- and here, permit me for a moment to address myself directly to this year's class of rabbinic ordinees, as a highly educated lay person who has sat through more than one embarrassingly shallow sermon, I need not remind you that serious Jewish study is not the sole preserve of the rabbinate. Undoubtedly, you will have congregants who also have engaged in serious Jewish study; just as those of you going into the field of education are likely to have at least a handful of Judaically knowledgeable religious school parents like me. You will have congregants with an impressive, sophisticated knowledge of science, history, literature, world affairs and so on. Obviously, you can't be an expert in every field, nor should you try to be. But don't underestimate the intelligence of your congregants and don't preach on something about which you do not know. Yes -- it is important that a wide variety of issues be raised, but don't feel that you have to raise all of them yourself. Guest speakers, scholar-in- residence programs, informal discussion following services in place of a formal sermon, and weekend congregational retreats in which discussions are initiated both by knowledgeable laity and clergy are only some, possible alternatives.
I honestly believe that most congregants today neither expect nor want a "Father-Knows-Best" kind of rabbi. Most of us, I think, want someone who can teach us -- through words and through personal example -- about the great joy and sense of meaning that can be derived from studying Jewish texts and from living a Jewish life. We also, I think, want someone who can help us, and our families, celebrate or mourn significant life passages in a Jewish way; and similarly, we want someone who can offer us advice and comfort, grounding his or her words not in sociological or psychological language but in religious language (as Rabbi Bennett Miller and I repeatedly told the rabbis enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry seminar that we taught together: "If congregants were looking for psychological advice, they'd go to their therapists. They're coming to you because you're a rabbi").
Congregational expectations can only be met if one's rabbinate is authentic. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Reform rabbis and lay leaders frequently spoke about the importance of finding one's "calling." If, today, Reform Jews are hesitant to use that language, it is less, I think, because it strikes so many of us as Protestant-sounding than because it sounds so overtly religious. Yet as Jews -- and in particular, as Reform Jews who are part of a movement that has long insisted on the importance of "bearing witness to the reality of God, " we have an obligation, I believe, to open ourselves up to God's presence. This doesn't necessarily mean that we will find God, nor that finding God exempts one from religious doubt and struggle. As Yitz Greenberg has so powerfully written, post-Holocaust Jews may only be able to speak of "'moment-faiths,' moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of the burning children blot out faith -- though it flickers again." Indeed, as Greenberg maintains, "After Auschwitz, faith means there are times when faith is overcome."2
We may not, then, be able to speak about one's "calling" with either the same kind of optimism in human progress or the sureness of faith held by the earliest leaders of Reform. Yet we can, and indeed as religious persons I think we must, try to hear the voice of God: whether that voice is audible or silent; a voice separate from ours, or a "still, small voice" within us. Becoming a rabbi -- or a cantor-- doesn't preclude one from either having religious doubts or sharing those doubts with others. Like Abraham challenging God's decision to destroy the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, like Job demanding justice from God, we too need not be afraid to become God-wrestlers. As two of my rabbinic students concluded in a paper they wrote for me: "whatever the outcome, the wrestling itself is a holy pursuit."3
And yet, one might ask, can one really be both a visionary and a God-wrestler? In other words, doesn't having a vision necessitate silencing one's doubts, closing one's eyes and ears to the "nay-sayers," putting aside one's fears and moving confidently towards the future? Here again, I think, the Torah is instructive. While God tells Moses and Aaron that of those sent to scout out the land, only Caleb and Joshua will live to enter it, they too must endure forty years of wandering in the wilderness, perhaps suggesting that without the active support and assistance of others, personal visions either cannot or should not become a reality. To be most effective as leaders, and to avoid what we might identify as "professional burnout, " Joshua and Caleb not only need to share their visions with other members of the community but also need to find a way in which responsibilities can be shared.
At the same time, however, it may also be God's intention that Joshua and Caleb wander in the wilderness in order to spend more time with those that I would identify, not as pessimists, but as "survivalists. " While the limited vision of those scouts who saw the difficulties before them as insurmountable may have made them unworthy of leading the people, their concerns, which most of the Israelites share, do in fact have merit. As I suspect many of you have already discovered, it is hard to be a visionary in a congregation that is facing real financial problems and equally difficult to talk about what it means to create a meaningful Jewish existence to Jews who seem not to care. Perhaps, then, a second purpose to Caleb and Joshua's further wandering in the wilderness is to inject into their future visions a dose of reality. Yet this doesn't mean, or shouldn't mean, that Caleb and Joshua should forget their ongoing responsibilities as Jews and as communal leaders. Neither does it mean that they -- or we -- should abandon our future dreams. Nor, I think, does it mean that we must wait forty years, as Joshua and Caleb did, before we can spring into action.
1. Stephen S. Wise, Open Letter re: his declining the invitation of the Board of Trustees of Temple Emanu-El, NYC, to become their spiritual leader (1905). Cited in Gunther Plaut, ed., Growth of Reform Judaism (WUPJ, 1965), 331-332.
2. Irving Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity After the Holocaust," in Eva Flesichner, ed., Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (Ktav, 1977), 27.
3. Lisa Greene and Glynis Conyer, "Jewish Women's Spirituality as Expressed Through the Fiction of Jewish Women Authors," unpublished paper, May, 1994.
Most recent update 21 Apr 1998
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