2022 North American Graduation Remarks by President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.

Good afternoon everyone and thank you for joining us…

Graduation season
most often falls
right between Passover and Shavuot,
during the counting of the Omer.

The Omer, of course, was a unit of grain,
The counting an agricultural practice to connect us with the land of Israel
And spring’s renewal.

But the period we are now in
Between Passover and Shavuot
Provides an important framing for our celebration today.

Passover marked our Exodus from Egypt
Shavuot marks our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai
The covenant that would form the Jewish People as a political entity
And set forth the beginning of Judaism that we know today.

We are now
at this this “in-between” moment of the Omer
As we enumerate the days
between our negative and positive freedom.

Negative freedom FROM
the oppression of slavery in Egypt
Heading towards an expression of positive Freedom at Sinai
Where we freely choose to accept the responsibilities of covenant
Binding ourselves to the Divine and one another
To become the Jewish People.
And so here we stand
Celebrating your negative freedom from
course requirements,
Hopefully not as onerous as slavery was in Egypt!
Recognizing the significant work, effort, grin, inspiration and determination
That has gotten you to this point

And we celebrate this moment,
Just as the Israelites did with Miriam at the shores of the sea
Not yet fully formed
As you approach your own future Sinai
Where, as professionals, you will take on obligations and responsibilities

Sustaining communities of meaning and purpose
Teaching and pastoring to those in need
Raising up the great good purposes of our tradition
For the sake of our own community, and our world around us.

We are celebrating today not only the completion of this phase of your study
We also recognize the achievements of those who came before you
Dozens of graduates here receiving their honorary degrees
Celebrating what they made of their positive freedom
For the last 25 years (or thanks to Covid, 26 and 27 years as well!).

You all chose to study at Hebrew Union College
A founding institution of the Reform Movement

And so it is worth noting the importance of
positive and negative freedom
to Reform Judaism.

Following the discoveries of the Enlightenment
Or the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment
Reform Judaism Embraced a Judaism in which reason and autonomy
would guide our engagement with religious life

“No longer,”
said the early reformers
“Would we look to others to determine
Our moral and religious commitments.
Instead each of us
Created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine
Would be equally and individually responsible
For the moral and religious choices we make.”

Elevating our freedom from earlier forms of traditional religious authority
Our Movement’s manta became
“Choice through knowledge.”
Our choices.
Our knowledge.

We embraced the potential
To be the authors of our own moral and religious lives.

Choice through knowledge requires
A commitment to do what each of you has already done
Learn and continue to learn
So that your choices can be steeped in understanding and wisdom
Drawn from our tradition.

The Freedom that our Movement has embraced
is morally praiseworthy.
But celebrating our freedom from the arbitrary authority of others
Cannot be enough.

When we celebrate our negative freedom
We may be tempted to resist accepting obligations
necessary to forming meaningful Jewish lives.
When we celebrate our negative freedom, we say, “don’t tell me what to do it is my choice!”
And then we can become stuck, not making any choice at all

We remain Israelites
perpetually dancing by the shores of the sea
Without recognizing that
Miriam has already put down her timbrel
And is standing again, waiting for us, at Sinai.

Over the last 150 years
Reform Judaism as a philosophy
has re-formed Jewish life in North America
Now the vast majority of Jews
Whether or not they identify as “Reform,”
Accept the discoveries of the Enlightenment and the Haskalah.
The vast majority of North American Jews
Recognize that we are each free to make our own choices.
That each of us can choose our own version of Sinai to accept

The denominations of North American Judaism today
The Movements of Reconstructing and Conservative Judaism, many expressions of Modern Orthodoxy, and our own Reform Movement
Are now differentiated far more by what we have done with our freedom
And no longer by the fact that each individual recognizes
That we are each responsible for our own choices.

And here our Reform Movement
Has some room to grow.
Often it seems we remain
At the shores of the sea
Not yet noticing Miriam’s absence.

If we do not spend as much time exercising our positive freedom
By taking on obligations for ourselves,
The fact of choice can itself become its own dangerous idol
These Obligations included commitments we make to deepen our Jewish engagement, including:

Torah: Obligations to study and deepen our understanding of the wisdom of our texts.
Avodah: Obligations to practice a meaningful ritual that bring discipline to our lives and beauty to our world.
Kahal: Obligations to join congregations of shared practice and support, bringing comfort to us in times of sorrow and joy to us at times of celebration;
Klal Yisrael: Obligations to prioritize the needs of the Jewish People without prejudice to others, much as we prioritize our own families without prejudice to others.

And while we struggle sometimes to commit to Jewish obligations to study, engage in ritual, join a congregation or community, and even recognize our collective obligations toward our own People, we have done an exemplary job embracing our obligations towards justice and ethics.

Tzadok: Obligations to invest our time and resources to work towards justice for all, including ensuring that our communities are truly welcoming and inclusive for all who choose to join with us, a central and welcome feature of the URJ’s own leadership for our Movement.

And G’milut Chasadim: Obligations to ethical standards of conduct, that thanks to the determination of our boards this past year, our Movement is fully addressing.  (With thanks to URJ leadership: Board chair Jen Kaufman and URJ President, Rabbis Rick Jacobs; CCAR Leadership; President Rabbi Lewis Kamrass and CCAR CEO Hara Person; and HUC’s board chair Sue Neuman Hochberg and chair-elect David Edelson; along with Rabbi Mary Zamore with us today as a recipient of her honorary doctorate, for her advocacy as the executive director of the Women’s Rabbinical Network—Mary thank you and your board for your partnership, collaboration and your leadership in our collective efforts).

And that is why today
We celebrate not only the significant achievements marking the completion of your studies,
We celebrate what you will choose to do with your freedom,
Going forward
Helping your communities
To make moral and religious commitments
That will strengthen them
Just as the dozens of alumni we celebrate today have done
Over the last 25 (…26…27!) years.

Whether you are completing this phase of your study or this phase of your career
You have all distinguished yourselves mightily.
We are so proud of those achievements.
And so during this season of the Omer
Lechu Lechem v’Lechen
Go forth from the shores of these seas
Following Miriam in putting down her timbrel
And celebrating the commitments you will make towards the universal and the particular
That will Strengthen the Jewish People and bring Justice to our world
At your own Sinai in the years ahead.