Speech, Reason, and Judgment: Remarks to the CN Rabbinical Class of 2022 by President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

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
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
“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 exclude 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.