President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., spoke at the 2022 Ordination and Graduation ceremonies as HUC-JIR bestowed degrees on the Class of 2022’s cadre of new professional leaders for the Reform Movement, the Jewish people, and the larger world. Read his addresses below.
“Speech, Reason, and Judgment”
2022 North American Ordination Remarks
In just a moment Each of you will ascend the stairs behind me To participate in a ritual Reflecting the judgment of our faculty and Board That you have met the requirements To merit the distinction of being Rabbis In service to God and the Jewish People.
We have authorized our Provost Through the ritual of ordination To pass the authority given to her as Rabbi years ago To you In an unbroken chain from Moses. And in an era in which we like to celebrate complexity and “the Gray” Here there will be no ambiguity. You go up as one entity And you come down as another.
The ritual separates who you are now From who you are about to be And in doing so, the ritual seeks to emulate the actions of the Divine In creating our very world.
“V’yomeir Elohim, y’hi or v’y’hi or” And God said “let there be light” And there was light. God created not merely through speech But through the exercise of reason and thought, That requires us to separate one thing from another. Making clear distinctions to understand our world God made sense of the chaos Separating day from night, heaven from earth, beasts that fly from those that swim, creatures that roam the earth from people with speech, reason, and judgment to rule over them. Just as our ritual separates who you are now From who you are about to become.
Like all founding myths, The story of Genesis tells us much about ourselves. Building on the work of Leo Strauss, Leon Kass has noted, “Creation is the bringing of order out of chaos through acts of separation, division, and distinction. 1” In these very first words We are shown what it means to create in God’s image Instead of it remaining a formless, undifferentiated void.
Just as God made sense of the chaos By separating one thing from another Our ritual separates who you are now From who you are about to become. The power of speech, reason, and judgment.
I know it’s not popular to speak about separation and division Yet, distinctions are necessary to help us make sense of our world They are the foundation of science that save millions of lives. And they shape our own identities, That help us fit into an otherwise chaotic world.
For identity formation requires us to ask What features of ourselves are most important to us So we say to the world “Hineini!” “Here I am! “Count me as member of this group or these groups, recognize me as having this identity or these identities; “Do not confuse me as a member of that group or those groups, or someone who has that other identity.” It is through those very distinctions that we bind ourselves to one another And build distinct community Along shared identities that strengthen the Jewish people And allow us to live our fullest lives.
But there is of course a dark side to acts of separation For distinctions are most often not arbitrary But reflect judgments of who belongs For every distinction that forms our identity and status Like being Rabbis Has the power to exclude2 and harm.
Today we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand as the first female-identified individual The first woman Ordained rabbi in North America. In celebrating this moment we explicitly draw on the distinction of gender But here we recognize how it was used to keep individuals unjustly Wrongly, unethically From access to the rabbinate on account of that distinction.
It is because you will now be differentiated as “Rabbi” That you will gain immediate authority and power To teach Torah. To create beauty through ritual and worship To care for those in need To solidify and strengthen a community As a leader of our people before God.
Because our community will separate you from others They will give you access to the most personal parts of themselves, Trusting in you, to guide, teach, lead, and pastor to them. It will now be up to you to respect, honor, and strengthen appropriate boundaries between you and those you serve. As you exercise your speech, reason, and judgment With humility and compassion…and with sensitivity to your power to sow division or heal and reconcile.
So go forth and seek to emulate the Divine Using speech and reason kindly, Exercising your capacity to make distinctions That reflect good ethical judgment That strengthens our People And brings justice and righteousness to our entire world.
2022 North American Graduation Remarks
Graduation season most often falls right between Passover and Shavuot, during the counting of the Omer.
This period provides an important framing for our celebration today. Passover marked our Exodus from EgyptShavuot marks our acceptance of the Covenant at SinaiThe Covenant that would form the Jewish People as a political entityAnd set forth the beginning of Judaism that we know today.
We are now at this “in-between” moment of the OmerAs we enumerate the days between our negative freedom from bondageand our positive freedom to accept the responsibilities of the CovenantTo become the Jewish People.
And so here you stand In this in-between momentFree from the demands of your academic programsLooking to accept the responsibilities either of new jobs or continued study
We celebrate this moment with you
Just as the Israelites did with Miriam at the shores of the sea.
This in-between moment resonates for us as a Reform MovementA Movement in which reason and autonomy would guide our engagement with religious life.
Created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the DivineWe would now be equally and individually responsibleFor the moral and religious choices we make. No longer would we value Jewish life only for its own sakeBut also instrumentally, as a means to promote justice in our world.
Elevating our freedom from earlier forms of traditional religious authorityOur Movement’s manta became “Choice through knowledge.” Our choices.Our knowledge.
Choice through knowledge requiresA commitment to do what each of you has already doneLearn and continue to learnSo that you can inspire your students and communities to be steeped in understanding and wisdomDrawn 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 freedom to chooseWe may be tempted to resist adopting practices that createmeaningful Jewish lives. When we celebrate only our freedom to choose, 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.
Our communities may remain Israelites perpetually dancing by the shores of the seaCelebrating our freedomWithout recognizing that Miriam has already put down her timbrel And is standing against Sinai.Waiting for us to exercise our freedomNot merely celebrate that we have it.
Over the last 150 years Reform Judaism as a philosophyhas re-formed Jewish life in North AmericaNow the vast majority of JewsWhether 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 todayThe 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 idolThese Obligations included commitments we make to deepen our Jewish engagement, including:
Torah: Serious study of Jewish text and ideas Avodah: ritual practices Kahal: community and congregations K’lal Yisrael: The Jewish People and IsraelG’milut Chasadim: ethical conduct Tzedek: Justice
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, Helping your communities To make moral and religious commitments That will strengthen them and our world
Whether you are completing this phase of your study or this phase of your careerYou have all distinguished yourselves mightily.We are so proud of those achievements.And so during this season of the OmerGo forth from the shores of these seasFollowing Miriam in putting down her timbrelAnd celebrating the commitments you will make towards the universal and the particularThat will Strengthen our worldAt your own Sinai in the years ahead.