Address at 2020 Rabbinical Convocation Ceremony

Posted on Feb 03, 2020

The convocation ceremony honored rabbis who have served the Conservative Movement and the Jewish People with Distinction for Over 25 Years.

It’s a great honor for me, and a source of special pleasure, to address the rabbinical convocation ceremony one last time as Chancellor of JTS and to do so here in the physical expression of JTS’s renaissance. The architects call this atrium a “light court”—hatzer ha-or—and I want to take this opportunity to thank the extraordinary group of rabbis that JTS is honoring today for the light of Torah that you’ve carried and shared over the past 25 years and more. You have served our people and our tradition on at least five continents, by my count, and have done so in a host of different roles, united in your devotion to a cause that JTS and I personally hold very dear, almost as dear as life itself. For this we are grateful to you beyond words.

One reason that we all matter so much to one another, I think, is that our numbers are so small, and the significance of what we do so immense. Each of us serves as what the sociologist Peter Berger called a “plausibility structure” for one another. Dedicated professional and lay leaders show how much Conservative/Masorti Judaism continues to matter in the world, despite the numerical facts that Jews in the United States constitute less than 2 percent of the American population; that this fraction is smaller still in Canada, France, and Argentina; that our share of the world’s population is truly infinitesimal, and that Conservative and Masorti Jews comprise a relatively small minority within that minority. In part thanks to your efforts, there are today well over a million card-carrying Conservative Jews in the world, counting conservatively. Many hundreds of thousands are embraced and enriched each day by the learning you impart, the communities you build and strengthen, the kindnesses you extend, and the commitment to God and Torah that you exhibit and inspire. Considering the collective achievements of the 46 individuals whom we are honoring today, I was reminded that the Torah’s accounting of the “total number of Jacob’s descendants” who went down to Egypt at Joseph’s invitation came to 70 souls in all, shiv’im nefesh. The destiny of those Children of Israel—because it included Exodus, Sinai, wilderness wandering, and entry to the Promised Land—went on to change the entire world. Cleaving to that heritage, our people continues to carry the Jewish story forward, today. Your impact is truly significant.

I know that translating nefesh as “soul” in that pasuk from Shemot, as I just did, is somewhat old-fashioned, and probably philologically and historically inaccurate. I do it nonetheless because I believe that soul is the aspect of the rabbi’s work and of my work, the aspect of your selfhood and of mine, and the element of JTS’s teaching, that is most important at this point in the history of our people and the evolution of our tradition. This is not an easy time for Jews or anyone else. We move from Va’era to Bo this week in full awareness that the moment we are living through is so turbulent, so fateful for the future of humanity and the planet, so plagued by fire, water, and death, that the high drama and awesome stakes of these portions of Torah are frighteningly apt and prescient. Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Antisemitism in America and elsewhere has recently surged to heights that few of us expected to witness, Israel’s security, for all its might, and with or without the president’s peace plan, is far from assured. One might truly wish for a good night’s sleep, as Saul Bellow put it—and we cannot get it because, as the book of Shemot knew it would, Jewish history comes knocking at the door.

Abraham Joshua Heschel had no hesitation in drawing a direct comparison between Pharaoh and the Jim Crow segregationists of his day in the landmark speech on “Religion and Race” that he delivered in 1963. Not being Heschel, I will refrain from politically charged comparisons between Pharaoh and contemporary leaders. But I will follow Heschel’s lead and say that especially in a time like ours, we serve our people by reminding them that “there is Adonai in this place;” by making sure, as Va’era puts it, that God’s name is known in this world, known from experience of the divine and experience of the justice and compassion that we extend in God’s name.

It’s striking, when you think about how the Torah and the prophets talk about God, as opposed to how other religious traditions and some other texts in Judaism do so, that God’s character is not a subject addressed in the quiet of a desert monastery or the calm of a philosopher’s library. Abstraction, objectivity, distance, dispassion—this is not the stuff of Torah. Philo may want to see Moses’s wonder at the bush not being consumed as the start of philosophical speculation that leads him to belief in the deity. I read it as the call to a human being and a people at a moment of turning in their lives and in the history of humanity. Whatever else God’s four-letter name signifies—and we, being human and not divine, can never get to the bottom of God’s nature, cannot think our way to it, cannot acquire mystical knowledge that will take us there—whatever else the name signifies, it carries the assurance that God, who is the very essence of being, who guarantees that being is the heart of reality rather than non-being, will be present. Rashi reads it this way: “I will be present with you in this time of suffering, and I will be present with you in the future as well.”

That is the assurance that Moses and the Israelites require at that moment. Our generation needs it too. Rabbis, because of the title you bear; the privileged position you occupy in people’s lives, especially at moments of peak experience, high and low; and because you stand for and stand behind the tradition you teach—you more than anyone are charged with facilitating such experiences of God’s blessed presence. The chancellor of JTS at times performs a similar role. 

Strident voices in our society and culture trivialize God, or banish God from serious conversation, or invoke God to justify horrors of cruelty, or speak so simplistically about God that any thoughtful person wants to run in the opposite direction. We cannot solve these problems, we cannot provide coherent and convincing theologies in 2020—but we can and do get around or overcome these challenges by providing experiences of what I call Meaning with a Capital M, embraced in Communities with a Capital C. We can and do speak about God with compassion, teach texts that connect God to that which is both loving and righteous, and model a path of mitzvah in all its facets that lives up to those high standards as much as is humanly possible. We can and do listen carefully to the diverse voices of congregants and members of our communities, and of other communities, when they testify that God has been present in their lives—or express their fear that God is absent.

I will not soon forget the rabbinical student who told the story of her conversation in the hospital with a patient about to undergo major surgery. The student asked him, as she had been taught in her class at JTS’s Center for Pastoral Education, “What would you like to say to God if God were with us right now?” “God is here with us,” the patient replied. “God walked into the room with you.” I think teachers of Torah, by word and example, provide that experience on a regular basis—less dramatically, to be sure, but no less significantly. And I believe, after many hundreds of conversations and encounters with Conservative/Masorti Jews over the past 13 years, that this experience of connection to the Source of Holiness and Blessing, to the Ground of Being, to Transcendence personified, to a Cause that existed long before any of us arrived on this Earth and will endure long after we are gone— ledor vador u-lenetzah netzahim—that this is what sustains us as individuals and sustains us as a people. 

I’ve learned a lot over the years about the power stored up in the lay and professional leadership of our movement. I’ve witnessed the fierce determination of many Conservative/Masorti laypeople that this wonderful path of Jewish living and learning gain in strength in coming years. I’ve acquired the conviction that more effective organizations, healthier finances, and more votes for Mercaz in the Zionist elections would go a long way toward restoring our fortunes to where they should be. But what really counts, I am convinced; what counts, now as always, is faithful holding fast to what the philosopher Nachman Krochmal called haruhani hamuhlat, the “absolute spiritual” —his Hegelian term for God.

As long as our hearts yearn for experience of ehyeh asher ehyeh, as long as we nourish the souls planted within us, our people shall experience hayei olam, eternity, and our people shall remain an am olam, eternal people. May it be God’s will that we continue to do the work that makes it so.

See the names of rabbis honored at the convocation