Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen's 2014 Ordination Address

Cantors, rabbis, family, friends, members of the JTS family: welcome. This is one of the happiest moments on The Jewish Theological Seminary's calendar. I am glad all of you, sitting in the audience, are here to share this occasion with us and, of course, with the graduates.

As Provost Cooper has already noted, our new rabbis and cantors had the honor of marching down the aisle a few moments ago with three members from the Class of 1964—all of them distinguished, each of them very different from the other in what they have done professionally over the past half-century.

Despite Yogi Berra's dictum that prediction is hard because it usually has to do with the future, I will venture the prediction that the graduates of 1964, in their diversity of career paths, will prove typical of what awaits the Class of 2014. Smartphones and the Internet have profoundly transformed our economy, our society, our relationships, and our selves during the years of your studies at JTS. Similar developments—no less rapid or radical—will overtake us in coming decades. It is reasonable to expect that the rabbinate and cantorate will change more in the next 15 to 20 years, than in the 50 years since the Class of 1964 received its JTS diplomas. Let's consider how these changes might affect you. 

First, I will go out on a limb and say with some confidence that the model of a freestanding synagogue that supplies a full range of services to its members—from early childhood classrooms to adult education for seniors, from religious services to social services, from life-cycle celebrations to events in the annual cycle of holidays—this model, except for the largest and wealthiest of institutions, is not sustainable and will not last. You will be instrumental in conceiving its successor. The mishkan in which you serve as rabbis and cantors will not be surrounded by wilderness or directed by fire and cloud. But like the Tabernacle of old, it will not sit in one place for very long. Our sanctuaries, our Judaism, our Jews are on the move.

Nor-a second prediction—will the study and chanting of text carry the same valence as it once did, now that written texts, taking the form of books and papers, comprise an ever smaller and smaller portion of the way we communicate, process, and discover knowledge. All of us can conjure up from television and films the image of monks poring over handwritten tomes that are chained to the tables in monastery libraries in order to prevent anyone from running off with them, so rare and priceless were books in the time before the printing press. The circle may be completed when books are rare once again—this time because their electronic versions are available everywhere at the click of a finger or voice—command or (coming soon, apparently) brain wave. It is not clear what study of text or chanting of liturgy will mean to minds deluged by words that are surrounded, amplified, challenged, and overpowered by streaming images and pulsations of mind-bending music.

This means, I think, that you, today's graduates, if you do your jobs right, will serve as instruments for the renewed impact of texts and liturgy, whether the impact comes in person or virtually; whether the words are spoken or chanted; whether contact with the sacred word comes inside a worship space or library, at a Shabbat dinner table or an executive conference room table, in a hospital room or an elevator, or alone on a mountaintop with your teaching, a cell phone, and the wind. Text that is again not merely text more closely resembles what Torah wants it to be: a davar that is simultaneously word and thing, utterance and fact, water from the rock and the rock itself. 

While I am at it, let me offer one final thought, prompted by the blessings and curses that conclude the book of Leviticus and the powerful image of wilderness that dominates the next book of the Torah. I strongly suspect that the mitzvah on which our ultimate worth and future turns—yours and mine—may well be that of preserving God's creation. "Tending the garden" means something different than it ever has before, now that the survival of the planet is in question.

Rabbis and cantors have known and taught about poverty, slavery, tyranny, and exile for a long time, as they have known and taught about liberation, redemption, and homecoming. The meaning of the book of Exodus text has been enriched many times in the course of the past century by what my teacher Philip Rieff called "text-analogues": realities that teach powerfully what a text is about (devarim elucidating devarim). I think our generation will be turning back to Parashat Bereishit and Parashat No-ah, driven by text-analogues that we cannot ignore. We will turn to this Torah, not to resolve tensions between science and religion, and certainly not to compare biblical narrative with the Epic of Gilgamesh, but to see if religion, Judaism, can assist humanity's halting attempts to save the planet from self-destruction. The Torah that you will expound constitutes precious evidence that God did not put us here on Earth to preside over a man-made mabul. Human creativity, intelligence, and potential for good—all that enables us to claim we exist in God's image—are not loaned to us for nothing. The human species will be tested in coming decades. Judaism will be tested. You will be tested, as men and women whose very being is inseparable from the tradition you represent.

I put these thoughts before you with humility and despite the fact that I, like many of the people in this room, am a guest in this first e-century: a ger toshav (resident alien) of a sort that the Torah and the Sages could never have imagined. I thank God more and more for the timeless pleasure of pondering a word in the weekly parashah, consulting Hazal and the Rishonim to see what they had to contribute, or taking more recent works of Bible scholarship down from the shelf. Taking any book down from any shelf is a gesture that confirms my membership in a community that spans many centuries and will surely survive the novelty of researching Bible commentators on one's phone. But you, our graduates, must be at home enough in this e-century to teach it Torah, even as you retain the distance from new gadgetry that is needed for you to learn the Torah you will teach. You must be ger and ezrach, as it were, alien and citizen, all the while knowing that the Land remains God's, as always, and so do we.

Some things do not change in the teaching of Torah, and that is one of them—or rather, these things require the same sort of change, judicious and bold, loving and learned, that has made Jews what we are for many centuries. 

Class of 2014: if you love our tradition enough to keep and change it; love our world enough to tend it faithfully even when it causes you pain; love the Jews you serve enough to help them aspire to ever more Torah and good deeds; and love Torah enough to speak its words with all the honesty, courage, and imagination that you can muster, there is no doubt in my mind that your teaching will find hearts ready to receive it. The 21st century offers unparalleled resources for this effort. I hope you are ready to pioneer paths in Torah that have never been walked before. May God bless you on your way.