HUC/Los Angeles Ordination Address 2022
Rabbi Laura Geller ’76
For you ordinees, this is indeed a shehechiyanu moment. It is a moment to thank all of the people who have brought you here – your parents, your partners, your children, your teachers, your mentors, our HUC. It is a moment for you to reflect on your journey so far and to imagine the path that is unfolding before you.
And for all of us, it is a moment to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman to be ordained at a rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Sally Priesand ’72.
So much has changed over these 50 years. More than 1,500 women have been ordained across the Jewish world. Women-identified rabbis have been an important part of the transformation of Judaism, supported by the scholarship, leadership and vision that has brought the insights of feminism and women identified voices from the margins into the center of the Jewish story. Every dimension of Judaism is different – theology, liturgy, ritual, leadership, even synagogue architecture. Judaism has become more inclusive, more welcoming, more meaningful. Men as well as women and non-binary Jews have benefited from these changes.
This is a moment of real celebration. It is thrilling for me that the rabbi who will ordain you is Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, an outstanding scholar, and teacher, who represents what is best in the tradition we are passing on today. Yes, we have come a long way and yet, at the same time, we need to remember that while it only took our ancestors 40 years to get to the promised land, we still have a long way to go.
Yes, a long way to go. The revelations that emerged through the reckoning of both the College and other institutions of our movement about an unsafe culture that permitted serious boundary violations were heartbreaking for you ordinees, and for all of us. Making the report public is the first step toward restorative justice, but only the first step.
As the book of Leviticus comes to a close, we are heading for the Midbar, the wilderness. We feel this acutely as we confront the wilderness within our movement. The next book in Torah is called B’midbar which we could read midrashicly as m’dibur – from speech. It is only when people can speak the truth of their experience that change can begin. Real transformation requires honest listening to all the stories, the ones that emerged in the report and the many others that we know were not acknowledged. As those stories are shared, we will discover that there were more perpetrators than the ones named in the report. We will also be able to name those allies, the upstanders, who supported the students and also our rabbinic, educator, and nonprofit management colleagues who were hurt. And we need to make room for the stories of the bystanders who now feel shame that they didn’t know how to respond. We can never get to the promised land without a safe space to speak our truths. The institutional and personal commitment to work toward changing the culture belongs to all of us, including you newly-minted rabbis. We all need to hold our beloved College and the other Reform institutions accountable to implement the plans they have articulated to repair what is broken, including our hearts, and to move us through this wilderness into the promised land.
It’s not just a wilderness in our Reform movement. Even more, it is a wilderness out there in the wider world with rising antisemitism and a future that feels more uncertain, as the brutal war in Ukraine continues, authoritatrian dictators flourish, climate change threatens, the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine seems further away than ever, and here at home the civil and human rights we thought were permanent are being eroded. It is a terrifying wilderness.
But our tradition describes two different versions of the wilderness. The first is that it is a scary place with all kinds of dangers, with no signs to tell us which way to go, no certainty that a path will open up. The second is that it is a place where everything you need is actually right there – the food that falls from heaven, the clothes that never need washing, the very clear presence of God telling you when to go forward and when to rest.
The Jewish world before you is a bit of both. The people you will serve are wounded by the more than two years of pandemic; the colleagues you will work with are all suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress, having somehow managed to pivot to a hybrid Jewish community that no one was prepared for, pastoring to depressed, angry, frightened, and overwhelmed people, who have lost years of their lives and often people they loved. Yes, a scary uncharted wilderness, for them as well as for you, who carry the sadness of two years of virtual and hybrid classes and a very different learning experience than you expected from HUC.
For others, this Jewish wilderness is more comforting. For some of the people you will serve, the years of pandemic offered surprising blessings – time to slow down, to connect with families in unplanned ways, to rediscover nurturing connections, and have time for what there was never time for. Our Jewish communities have both thrived and suffered – with more people coming to synagogue virtually, more people learning via zoom, more people discovering the opportunities and the challenges provided by technology.
In either version, a scary place or a comforting place, it is a wilderness…and you are the leaders about to enter.
In this wilderness, unthinkable things are now thinkable. Services both in person and on line, daf yomi via tik tok, a synagogue immersive experience where we can turn to an avatar or a hologram of a person who lives on the other side of the world, who will appear to be sitting next to us…and we can interact. Now we have the ability to visit any synagogue anywhere in the world in our pajamas, or to learn with some of the greatest teachers of our century and we can also visit cities and museums without leaving home. In this wilderness, will people still choose to belong, to pay membership dues, to support Jewish institutions? In this wilderness what does it mean to be a member of a community, what does it means “to belong”? To what do people want to belong? In this wilderness, more and more Jews choose not to affiliate with denominations, choosing instead to think of themselves as post denominational or as cultural, secular, or spiritual but not religious. Whatever the labels, in my view there are really only two kinds of Jews – serious and non-serious. In this wilderness, how do we rabbis help people discover a serious Jewish identity that can bring meaning, purpose, and joy to their lives?
The Talmud Bavli, in Yevamot 121a, gives us a clue about how to do this:
Rabban Gamliel told a story.
“Once I was traveling on a ship, and from a distance I saw a another ship that shattered and sank. And I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked onto dry land, Rabbi Akiva came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up from the water? He said to me: A plank from the ship came to me, and I bowed my head before each and every wave that came toward me.”
The word for plank is “daf.” It was a piece of the shipwrecked boat that appeared in front of him. Rabbi Akiva saw it, grabbed hold and navigated the stormy waters. And instead of fighting the dangerous waves, he nodded his head as each wave approached, maintaining a calm, non-anxious presence. I imagine him saying “yes” to each wave. Riding it, even welcoming it. I imagine that he was also strengthened by his understanding that “daf” also means a page of Talmud. What kept him centered, non-anxious? Holding on to Torah, to Jewish learning. That was the Torah of his life.
Whether the metaphor is wilderness or stormy ocean, what you need for your journey is clarity about the Torah of your own life. We all know that there are two Torahs, usually understood as the written Torah and the oral Torah. I prefer to think of these two Torahs as the Torah of tradition and the Torah of our lives.
Each of you has your own Torah – refined and enriched as it has interacted with the Torah of tradition you have studied here at HUC. I was moved as I read the texts that shape your own Torah. For Scott, the hope that you find the possibility of light even in the darkest places; for Elana, that the covenant we made with God – all of us who ever were or ever will be – is to choose life with love; for Rachel, to interpret questions and answers as we honor our dreams; for Brett, to know the abundance of possibilities when teachers and students elevate each other toward wisdom and understanding; for Mira, how the sacred comes to us through our engagement with other people; for Sofia, to trust that your feet will lead you to the place your heart loves; and for Michael, the idea that the first words of Torah invite us into a Jewish conversation that inspires people to grapple with the most important questions, including what it means to be alive.
Each of you is part of that ongoing Jewish conversation. In your years of study you have wrestled with those who came before you, struggling to really hear and comprehend them, arguing with them, challenging them, learning from them, inviting their Torah to help shape yours. You’ve had gifted teachers to guide you and to remind you that these years at HUC are the beginning of a journey and your learning should never stop. You know how important it is to find yourself a chaver, a study partner, in order to be a rav, a chaver like the one described in Avot d’Rabbi Natan as one with whom you can study, and with whom you can share secrets, secrets of Torah and secrets of the world. You know you will need a chaver who can help you navigate the challenging boundaries all clergy face, who can point out signposts in the wilderness, who can hold you accountable to your best vision of yourself. Listen to that chaver and listen to your heart. Listen to what drew you to this vocation: the call of your authentic self, the Torah of your life.
The wilderness is full of distractions. There is a long “to do” list and so much that seems urgent. So remember to take a breath and to be a non-anxious presence for the drama of your own life, even as you offer that presence to those around you. Compassion for others begins with compassion for your own self. Pay attention not only to self-care, but also to your own inner life. Cultivate the tools our tradition offers: study, prayer, social justice, spiritual direction, gratitude, and stillness. As Psalm 65 says: לְךָ֤ דֻֽמִיָּ֬ה תְהִלָּ֓ה To You, stillness is praise. And in that stillness, that silence, listen to the invitation the Divine presents you at every moment. At every moment. Shehechianu, v’kiyamanu v’higianu laz man ha zeh.
Welcome to the wilderness. Be guided by your Torah. And trust that your feet will lead you to the place your heart loves. Maybe even a promised land.