Address to the Central Conference of American Rabbis by Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.
April 2, 2019
Thank you, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, for your words and guidance. Your work with me over the last three months has been invaluable and will remain essential for keeping our institution focused on its core mission. There are very few more tangible manifestations of Rabbi Aaron Panken’s legacy than in his appointment of you as Provost. I can only say how sorry I am that he was unable to enjoy the fruits of that decision and forever grateful that in his appointment of you he would provide such outstanding rabbinical leadership for our students, our faculty, our school, and ultimately for me.
Good afternoon and welcome back home. Whether or not Cincinnati was your campus, it is the historic home campus of our beloved Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. It is a pleasure to welcome the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) back here today to strengthen our ties and to thank you for your work in supporting us as together we shape the future of our Reform Movement and the Jewish People.
I want to start by thanking the Dean, Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, and the entire staff, students, and faculty at our Cincinnati campus for their efforts in hosting the CCAR today. From every student greeter, every food server and tent puller, groundskeeper and faculty teacher, the entire community came together to host us today. Please join me in thanking Dean Hecht and the entire crew.
I also want to thank and recognize Rabbi David Stern for his service to the CCAR and congratulate Rabbi Ron Segal for his appointment as President yesterday morning.
Rabbi Stern, thank you for your guidance in the last few weeks and months as I have stepped into this role; I am delighted that you will be remaining on the HUC-JIR board in the future.
And Rabbi Segal, I look forward to finally working together—I say “finally” since we discovered Sunday night that we came within weeks of your being my boss at Greene Family Camp about 30 years ago. Congratulations also to Rabbi Steve Fox for his extraordinary 13 years of service and Rabbi Hara Person for being selected as the next CEO of the CCAR. I look forward to building a collaborative partnership with you and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, as I believe a strong partnership between HUC-JIR, the CCAR, and the URJ is vital to face our collective challenges ahead.
I want to also welcome Rabbi Rick Jacobs to campus. In my prior role as CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, I spent a good deal of time in Jerusalem at the Sochnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel, with Rabbi Jacobs. There I came to admire his outspoken advocacy for Israel: that it must be true to its Zionist heritage as a pluralistic, democratic homeland for the entire Jewish people.
As I’ve written before, I believe our commitment to Israel must be grounded on the three core values that defined Zionism throughout its early history:
that Israel must be a homeland to enjoy the freedom from persecution;
that it must allow our people the freedom to promote the flourishing of the Jewish People and our culture;
and that it must be held to the same standards as any modern nation, conditioning its use of state power on principles of justice and respectful of the equal political and human rights for all who fall under its reach.
You and our Movement leaders have embodied these ideals and continue to follow what we know so well in America: that our love of country and its people should never be confused for unquestioned fealty towards a government or its leadership. For government and leadership exist to serve a people and the collective purpose of their nation. And in that way, I look forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with both Rick and Hara and all of you in this room, in continuing to advance what is Good, Right and Just in Israel and around the world for our Movement, the Jewish People, and in pursuit of justice for all.
It is indeed a privilege and honor to be invited to speak to you, the rabbis of the CCAR today. The chance to welcome you back to campus as I am being welcomed byyou less than two days into my Presidency is particularly meaningful. It presents in symbolic form what I hope will define our relationship going forward: one of collaborative partnership in which we work together to define the future of Reform Judaism and what it means to be a Reform Rabbi in the coming decades. Through your work inside and outside of congregations you sustain, strengthen, and transform our Jewish communities. I thank you for sustaining the College-Institute through your personal and congregational financial support, and through your volunteer engagement and leadership on our behalf.
Now as this is only my second day as your President, and as I am called upon to speak to hundreds of rabbis, I do want to address directly the elephant in the room.
I know that there has been some concern expressed about who I am, a certain, shall we say, “anxiety” about what the historic nature of my appointment might mean for the future of the Rabbinical School and what it says about the valuing of rabbis in our movement. I want to assure you that I recognize that concern and will remain sensitive to it. But let me be clear: I will not let the focus on my historic uniqueness as the first completely bald President of HUC-JIR distract us from the serious business of educating our next generation of klei kodesh.
(Was that not the thing; was there something else?!)
More seriously: as alumni of our Rabbinical School, you bear the full historic legacy of HUC-JIR. Even though we long ago became an institution comprised of many different professional schools training students for service as rabbis, cantors, educators, non-profit managers, and scholars; even though we long ago took on the role of directing the Jewish Studies department for USC, one of the great universities of North America; and even though our graduates serve with distinction in all manner of roles outside of the congregation and beyond the rabbinate, Hebrew Union College was founded as a seminary and the Rabbinical School has been, and will remain, the defining feature of our College-Institute.
HUC-JIR has an inspiring history and we must be sensitive to that history going forward. We just celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Mayer Wise. And we are now celebrating the 144th year of our College-Institute. Today, I want to talk about how we understand that relationship, the relationship between the past and our future, and begin to lay out a vision for what I see ahead. After all, we know from our tradition that the future in some ways is rooted deeply in the past.
There is a wonderful story in the Talmud, Tractate Menachot 29b, of Moses encountering God affixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. When Moses asks why God would be doing such a thing, he is told that the crowns would provide a guide to future generations such that all law can be said to have been given to Moses at Sinai. And, of course, God instructs Moses to turn back around to see what would happen in the future in Rabbi Akiva’s academy.
But think about that action of turning back to look into the future. As Eugene Mihaly, of blessed memory, former faculty member and executive dean for academic affairs of HUC-JIR, notes in his book A Song to Creation, it is of course only by our turning around behind us that we can fully and most faithfully look ahead to develop a vision for the future. And we must do so even if that vision represents, as it must at certain time, a significant break from how we have always done things before.
As Provost Weiss just described, the activity of remembering is critically important to our tradition. In our tradition, memory involves both our will and our recollection of things we had known before, anamnesis. To provide two points of contrast, Nietzsche famously took the past to be a burden and memory to be a thing of the weak. Two hundred years before that, Thomas Hobbes defined memory as a kind of “decaying sense” a mechanistic aspect disconnected to our will. Provost Weiss has shown that our tradition beautifully counters both: memory is both an act of will and involves choices; it is not a burden but an obligation of our tradition.
So we know that the activity of memory and remembering our history is critical to our tradition, and thus that any vision of the future depends on respecting and honoring the past. The problem is that it’s not always clear what we should remember and carry with us, and what we should forget and leave behind.
And as we go forward, we must recognize that the College-Institute is facing significant financial, demographic, and competitive challenges, related to the slow-existential threats to our people today, threats of identity, denominational weakening, lack of general Jewish education, and diminished interest in engagement, including a very low willingness to pay for Jewish life. Given these challenges, what got our institution to the present may or may not be the path for the future. So even as we use the past to guide our future, as we follow Moses and look behind us to see ahead, we need guidance about what we should remember. And this poses the question that I want to explore with you for a few minutes: what does our tradition command us to remember, what are the obligations of memory, and how can these obligations help inform us about the specific challenges and opportunities facing our institution ahead?
On Remembering and that which is Remembered
In our tradition we are daily called to remember six specific things. We must remember Shabbat (Ex 13:3). We must remember how our individual failings enraged God in the wilderness (Deut 9:7). We must remember Miriam’s slanderous rebuke of Moses (Deut 24:9), a rebuke so bad it was punished by leprosy. In addition to these three, we are commanded to remember the Exodus, to remember Sinai, and to remember Amalek.
Now what exactly are we to make of those six things: Shabbat; our individual failings; Miriam’s rebuke; the Exodus, Sinai, and Amalek? Each of them surely denotes an important moment, event, or idea that is fundamental to Jewish life and the Jewish people. But why remember those six things, but not some other thing, like, say, honoring your parents? What meaning can we attribute to these six as a whole that might help guide us toward what we must remember for our future?
Well, I see in these six commands nothing less than a structure to think about Jewish life and peoplehood, and ultimately about the work our College-Institute. Because together they form the key areas that I believe we must be training for excellence: a confrontation with the Transcendent (or the Good) through our text and tradition, a call for individual ethical behavior (or the Right) reinforced by education and ritual, and the skills to build communities of value based on our prophetic tradition and aiming at Justice.
First, let’s start with the command to remember Shabbat. Famously, of course, we do not observe the Sabbath in order to rest, we rest from the mundane in order to observe and honor the Sabbath. Doing so places God, the Transcendent, the Source of all Being, or simply the “Good,” as the focal point of our day. A command to remember Shabbat is thus to be called upon to gaze upward, to recognize daily that we are part of something far beyond our comprehension, from which all existence emanates – the source of all things – and with which we are called upon to struggle.
Second, we are commanded to remember that which enraged God while we were in the wilderness and separately to remember Miriam’s slanderous rebuke of Moses; in short, our individual moral failings. These commands cause us in two ways to reflect on ethical behavior. Enraging God by our individual failings is to me a dramatic example that our ethical ideals are not relative but only ideals that reference a fixed standard that we must find through our struggle with the Divine. After all, what enraged God was not merely that we offended God, but that our actions violated Transcendent norms, norms based on the Good. And, second, the example of Miriam demonstrates that ethical or right-behavior is always concerned with our treatment of other people and requires a level of empathy for them. To use Kant’s formulation and later Buber’s, we must treat people as ends in and of themselves, not means to our own ends. This reminds us of our responsibility for ethical or Right-action based on fixed eternal ideals and realized in our world through the treatment here of now of one another as fully equal moral beings, b’tzelem Elohim, each created in the image of the Divine.
So, a command to remember the Sabbath is a call towards the Transcendent or the Good. The command to remember how we enraged God and Miriam’s slander can be understood as a call towards Ethical, Right-Action or simply “the Right,” based on eternal unchanging ideals. That’s three of the six.
So, what do we make of the last three, to remember the Exodus, Sinai, and Amalek? Unlike the first three that focused on each of us individually, and then individually in relation to others, these last three address us as a collective. For we as a people were freed from slavery, we as a people entered into Covenant at Sinai, and we as a people face eternal attack from Amalek. So, what then does remembering these collective moments tell us about being a people?
In Exodus we are commanded to remember that political community requires that we be free from domination by others. This is related to what Isaiah Berlin called “negative freedom” as well as what Benjamin Constant understood as the “liberty of the moderns.” Exodus recognizes that in order to be a fully realized people we must be able to be free from domination by others.
But negative freedom, freedom from oppression is not enough, if one does not use that freedom to form a positive community of value. This is what (as applied to the individual) Berlin would call “positive freedom” and Constant saw as the “liberty of the ancients,” in which freedom was defined by the active, positive involvement of its citizens in shaping the future of the republic. At the collective level it is a call to self-determination in which we set out the values that define us as a people and towards which we must strive.
A command to remember Sinai is thus a command to remember our role in willingly taking on the Covenant, and to remember the specific positive obligations that formed and defined us as a community of value. And these obligations were to create Jewish communities that aimed towards the Just, justice for ourselves and, as captured in some of the prophetic tradition, for all of humanity.
Finally, we as a people are called to remember Amalek, which in conventional terms is a call to remember that there will always be others seeking our destruction. Given the current resurgence of antisemitism, this is particularly important for us to remember today. But I think we must understand this command in a second way, in terms of the importance of differentiation as the reason people hate us: that as much as we may and must seek universal justice for all, we do so from a position of specificity, a position that openly embraces our particularity as the foundation upon which we advance universalism. For it is in our particularity as a Jewish people and the specific value of our tradition, our Jewish tradition, that causes the irrational hatred of us by others simply for being who we are and our refusing to give up that which makes us distinct as a people.
Thus, these last three commands to remember Exodus, Sinai, and Amalek are a joint command to remember the ideals upon which Jewish peoplehood must aim. Peoplehood depends on our negative freedom from domination by others. It depends on our positive freedom to determine our future through an aspirational Covenant with God that leads towards Justice. And it depends on embracing the distinctiveness of our tradition even in the face of irrational hatred by others.
Stepping back then, we are commanded to remember the framework for Jewish life drawn from these six remembrances.
In remembering Shabbat we remember the supremacy of God, the Transcendent, and “the Good” as the source of all being.
In remembering what we did to enrage God and Miriam’s slander, we are called to remember the importance of our ethical action towards one another, drawn from transcendent ideals, aiming at “the Right.”
And in remembering the triad of Exodus – Sinai – Amalek, we are commanded to remember the role of positive and negative freedom in establishing our covenant with God, steeped in the particularity of our Jewish tradition, and embodying a commitment “to Justice.”
The obligation to remember these six events commands us to turn ourselves toward the Good, the Right and the Just by using the wisdom of our particular texts and the beauty of our particular rituals, as they are inspired by our prophetic tradition in order to engage in the story of our people, instrumentally, as part of a life well lived.
What this means for us.
As we are called each day to remember the Good, the Right, and the Just, I want to reflect on how these can help guide us towards addressing some key challenges we have for our future. Let me start by mentioning a few of our challenges.
First, I believe HUC-JIR must continue to be a laboratory of Jewish ideas and, among the more important, is to articulate what it means to be a liberal Jew. As I see it from the pews, our Movement is currently defined by a set of important practices – inclusion and welcoming, individual choice about practice, and tikkun olam, each of which I think is critically important. However, these practices are not constitutive of Liberal Judaism; these practices emerge from a prior view of what Liberal Judaism demands. And again, from the pews, I don’t think there is as much clarity about what it means to be a Liberal Jew apart from a commitment to these practices.
We have a great opportunity as HUC-JIR to articulate for a new generation the distinctive value of Liberal Judaism, a Judaism that uses reason, free will, and individual autonomy to mediate our confrontation with the Divine as we seek The Good. A Liberal Judaism that understands the role of ritual to inspire awe and cultivate habits of compassion and joy that reinforce our ethical treatment of one another – leading to Right action. A Liberal Judaism that celebrates the particularity of our texts and tradition as a distinctive people and culture as a basis upon which we pursue justice for all – the Just.
Second, the need to articulate a shared vision of Liberal Judaism beyond the practices of Reform Judaism has important institutional ramifications for us. We are facing unprecedented competition from other seminaries, collaborations from very strong and dynamic institutions, in Israel and North America, along with new on-line certification programs. We should be excited by the dynamism of the diversity of at least some of these educational options but we must be clear about the challenges they create for our future as a College-Institute. We need greater clarity and alignment around a shared idea of what it means to be a graduate of our College-Institute, connected, I believe, to foundational ideas of Liberal Judaism, that can differentiate ourselves in a clear and inspirational way.
Third, we have certain practical challenges facing us as an institution. You are on one of our four campuses. In the past, these four campuses have been seen as a liability that needs to be managed. And let us be clear, they are indeed an enormous liability that absolutely needs to be managed. But I think so long as we view our four campuses simply as liabilities that need managing, we are like the Jewish people that is aiming only to achieve the incomplete negative freedom of the Exodus by being free from slavery.
Yes, we do need to be out from under the financial burden of maintaining significant infrastructure, just as we need to remember the importance of the Exodus as our freedom from slavery. But without Sinai, without a positive vision of what we aspire to achieve, we as a people are nothing. So I would suggest we stop thinking of our campuses as burdens from which we must escape – stop thinking of them merely as liabilities, consequences of historical path dependency – all of which of course they are – and treat them instead as opportunities, imagining the purposes to which they might be put, purposes that can elevate, inspire, and advance our mission as a College-Institute and a Movement, to pursue that which we are commanded to remember every day: the Good, the Right and the Just.
There are, of course, so many other challenges. This is but a taste, an introduction to some that we will face together. And most importantly, I will need you, the people in this room, to help me understand more fully what these challenges are, and work collaboratively together to find solutions to them.
So let me use the framework from our tradition to ask you to reflect on these key questions as alumni of this institution:
First, I would ask you to reflect personally on the education you received and ask the question, did we give you what you need to use the wisdom of our text, the beauty of our ritual, and the inspiration of the prophets to struggle with and inspire others to turn towards the Transcendent or the Good? How well did we prepare you to use our tradition to reflect on, teach about and live Ethical lives, using our ritual and text to reinforce and inspire action, compassion, care of others, Right action? And how well did we give you the skills to build sustainable communities, be they congregations or other organizations, communities that can reinforce Jewish values of Justice (The Just) for our people and the world?
Second, you are the front line for our work, interacting, mentoring, and partnering with our most recent graduates. How are we doing today? What are you seeing in the associate and assistant rabbis or others in the field? Are they prepared to lead others in a struggle with God, model and educate about ethical behavior, and pursue Justice from the foundation of a celebration of Jewish peoplehood? What does it seem to you we are doing well, and what do we need to improve upon? Are we recognizing the degree to which there are different rabbinates? In short, what do you think we are doing well and what do we need to do better, again, to promote the skills that would help them pursue the Good, the Right and the Just in our world?
And finally, what can HUC-JIR do to support your current work, whether as a leader of a congregation or throughout the Jewish world? I hope you will look to us and call upon the College-Institute to be a resource and partner to you in your very specific efforts to build Holy Communities, communities of value, communities seeking the Good the Right and the Just.
I want to conclude with a personal note and deep appreciation for the work that you do, because in light of the historical nature of my appointment, it is important to recognize publicly that the work you do as rabbis has had and continues to have a profound impact on my life.
Though the interpretation was my own, I first learned the idea that our tradition taught us six things to remember from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf many years ago. I was rereading that essay last fall as I was interviewing for this job and spoke briefly about these themes in response to a question during that process by Hilly Haber, a fifth-year rabbinical student on the search committee (I suspect you’ll hear a lot more from her in the years ahead).
Rabbi Wolf was my rabbi at KAM-Isaiah-Israel Congregation, where I was a member for almost a decade. There I led the Confirmation Program that was run by Rabbi Rachel Mikvah. Both Rabbi Wolf and Rabbi Mikvah taught me profound lessons about what a devotion to Liberal Judaism is, the importance of continued study, and the demands of incorporating Jewish ritual and practice in a thoughtful way into one’s life. My service there continued as its youth group advisor and board member. All of this followed a prior decade of learning from remarkable rabbis at Kutz Camp when I was a camper and on staff – Rabbis Stuart Geller, Michael Chernick, Ramie Arian, and Larry Hoffman in particular, and during college at the University of Rochester through its Hillel Rabbi and HUC-JIR alum, Paul Saiger. The rabbis I came to know there and through my work as JFTY advisor continue to be dear friends: Rabbis Marc Belgrad, Mark Glickman, Lisa Greene, and Peter Schacktman, among others. I continued this study and learning from rabbis when I moved to St. Louis, and I am thankful to Rabbis Amy Feder, Mark Shook, and Susan Talve for learning their Torah as members of their congregations, and to Rabbis Jim Bennett, Elizabeth Hersh, Brigitte Rosenberg, and Jeffrey Stiffman, for supporting me as part of my active rabbinical advisory council at the St. Louis Jewish Federation. Rabbi Danny Freelander, who was my first boss when I served as JFTY advisor right out of college, and Rabbi Leon Morris – whose call to me almost thirty years ago led to an adventure with the JDC in India together – along with Rabbi Andrea Goldstein in St. Louis were critically helpful as I tried to make sense of this move to HUC-JIR.
These rabbis’ commitment to putting Judaism in practice inspired me to continue to learn on a daily basis, to engage with our tradition as a scholar, and to develop separately classes on Jewish Political Thought and Zionism that I have taught now for many years to undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis. And finally, I owe a note of thanks to Rabbis Lewis Kamrass, Amy Perlin, David Stern and Andrea Weiss who in multiple ways during this process have been invaluable to my transition.
I say this to you because my historic appointment puts me in a unique position to recognize one thing that perhaps most of you as rabbis do not know: the continued power, influence, and importance of rabbis to those of us who have not been ordained, who have not felt called upon for the kind of holy service that shapes your lives, your congregations, and your community. Yours is a profound calling, a profound profession, and I know that because I am a product of your work. I commit myself to listening to each of you and hope you will contact me in the weeks ahead.
Come join me, then, as Moses did by turning behind us to look ahead to our future. Let us recommit here in Cincinnati to the fundamental purposes of our College-Institute to shape the future of the Jewish people by doing what we were commanded to remember: turning ourselves towards the Divine, inspiring us to live ethical lives towards one another, and building communities of value based on our tradition and with justice for all: The Good, the Right and the Just. In that way we will continue to train and inspire the best rabbis like each of you, who shape the future of the Jewish people every single day.
 By contrast for Hobbes, “imagination” is a closely related aspect of our putting back together pieces of decayed sense to create something new like fantastical creatures. Both imagination and memory are closely linked, but nevertheless distinct concepts. See Leviathan.  The use of the term “liberal Jew” does not refer in any way to political or partisan issues. It refers instead to “Liberal Judaism,” the philosophical underpinnings of the Reform Movement that emphasizes the freedom (liberty/liberal) of the individual to take on religious obligation through the use of reason, free will, and moral choice. While there are other names to refer to the underlying ideology of our movement, I prefer “Liberal Judaism” to keep front and center the centrality of individual autonomy and liberty (thus “liberal”) to this philosophical view. Calling it “Reform Judaism” ties it too closely to a specific movement that is a collective expression of Liberal Judaism, but not the same as liberal Judaism. There are also other movements that are fundamentally based on the same philosophical underpinnings—some approaches to Reconstructionism, and much of practicing Conservative Judaism is based on the same—or very similar—philosophical ideas. Calling it “Reform Judaism” situates these ideas in terms of their change (“reform”) or break from the past, where “liberal” (freedom) serves to remind us that individual free will is central. Finally, the alternative “Enlightenment Judaism” also merely denotes the connection of Liberal Judaism with Enlightenment ideals, rather than naming the central Enlightenment ideal upon which Liberal Judaism is built: individual autonomy.