In Appreciation of Torah—and the Rabbis Who Teach It

The following is adapted from the address I delivered on April 29, 2015, at the JTS Convocation honoring members of the Rabbinical Assembly who have served the Jewish community with distinction for 25 years or more.

My remarks grow out of my thinking and writing over the past few years on the subject of Conservative Judaism and from my experience in the past few weeks—a true highlight of each of my years as chancellor of JTS—teaching and learning from our rabbinical students. I am a confirmed optimist concerning the future of the Conservative rabbinate—both because of its distinguished history of learning, achievement, community building, and creative response to societal and cultural change, and because of the learning, quality, diversity, and commitment of the men and women who, year by year, are preparing to join your ranks.

I will focus here on diversity: not in the sense of background for rabbinical school, gender, sexual orientation, or site of rabbinic vocation (synagogue, school, campus Hillel, and the like), but in the sorts of human need that rabbis address, the aspects of Jewish life that rabbis enrich, the qualities of soul that rabbis exhibit and encounter. As an organizing conceit, I will speak about Bereishit moments and opportunities, Shemot moments, and so on. Together, these moments—openings to holiness, invitations to meaning and community, pathways to encounter with God—make for a full Jewish life, and for an overfull rabbinic calendar. We are blessed, we leaders of Jews in 2015, and we are very, very busy.

Bereishit (Genesis) moments are occasions when one takes on the mantle of being heir to the stories of our ancestors. This is the challenge and opportunity held out to Jews in every generation: the way that the universal question of ayeka (Where are you in the world?) reaches Jewish hearts and minds, and calls us to the covenant. The pages and paragraphs that you and I “write” do not make it into the Five Books of Moses, as did the story of Joseph: the first-generation Child of Israel on whose story the Torah dwells at length. But our stories do join the tradition of commentary through word and deed that has sustained Jewish individuals and communities for centuries. Some of us, like Joseph, serve in Gentile courts of power. We wrestle as our ancestors did with angels and adversity, rise to heights of love, and succumb to lows of pettiness and deception. Almost all of us face tests we do not need and do not always pass. Sometimes we wonder what God wants of us, where God is hiding, how to answer the call, or—let’s be honest—how to avoid answering.

Rabbis hear stories of such things every day, and remind Jews every day that our personal stories, as Children of Israel, neither begin nor end with us. This, in the age of iEverything, of the world at our fingertips in a smartphone, is one of the most important lessons that anyone can learn or pass on.

Shemot (Exodus) moments link personal to national stories, often despite our fondest wishes and best intentions. My life has not been directly impacted by the Holocaust. I am not the child or grandchild of victims or survivors. But all of us confront the Holocaust, either directly in that way or at one remove. Many of the most active and devoted members of our community are driven by the command to remember as Jews remember: not cognitively but by putting into the world counter-facts to evil and extinction. Israel—the other piece of Jewish history that overshadowed the second half of the 20th century, and does so still today—arguably shapes American Jewish life more with each passing year. We cannot allow the distance between Diaspora Jews and Israelis to increase still further, dare not allow our young people to be alienated from Israel or Judaism by campus anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and should not allow our community’s internal conversations about Israel to be halted by understandable fear of giving aid and comfort to an enemy that, in 2015, is all too real. What a shame it would be to miss the chance, spearheaded by the Masorti movement in Israel, of bringing our age-old tradition to bear on unprecedented challenges—the mission of Conservative Judaism since its inception.

That brings me to the other great Shemot moment of this or any generation of Jews:ma’amad Har Sinai, the call to join God in covenant to make the world more just and compassionate. Contemporary Jews hear that call in the shadow of Holocaust and the light of Statehood, every bit as much as the Israelites experienced Sinai in the aftermath of slavery, exodus from Egypt, and salvation at the Sea. It’s one of the great privileges of rabbis in our day to help Jews cope with and make sense of history that is too large for coping or sense. They help Jews bear the burden of memory and take advantage of the blessing that is Israel. They bind Jews in covenant and invite others to enter the covenant’s embrace. This is far from simple, as we know. It remains one of our greatest challenges. But we know too that converting men and women to Judaism, building stronger Jews, and strengthening Jewish communities are among the greatest satisfactions a rabbi can enjoy.

The older I get, the more I take comfort in the intimate routines and daily rituals of Vayikra (Leviticus), which—as opposed to the peak experiences and historical transformations chronicled in Exodus—always seems to operate on a very human scale. I am thinking of skin disease and running sores, mold and mildew in the walls, impurities to be cleansed, sins to be atoned for, longed-for words of thanksgiving or asking forgiveness or saying hello to God, or celebrating key events in the cycle of life or the cycle of a year. All of these are sometimes better expressed formulaically, in words or gestures that we do not create ourselves, or perhaps expressed silently: swaying to a melody, cupping hands over the eyes as one lights Shabbat candles. I love Va-yikra. It recognizes that I am frail, and wants me to know that I am mortal, and—despite that or because of that—it commands me to love my neighbor, to not take vengeance, and to care for the poor,in full confidence that I can do all these things.

Leviticus reaches Jews, much of the time, by means of rabbis and cantors, who in significant degree transmit both the solace of ritual and the Torah’s insistence that ritual be translated into ethics. Ritual is the place where rabbis—called for this very purpose—meet Jews in need of healing, forgiveness, or blessing. Rabbinical students tell me that their first encounter with such moments, through courses and fieldwork in clinical pastoral education (CPE), is a highlight of their lives that leaves them changed.

Wilderness, Bemidbar (Numbers), is where adults live. I learned that when I became a parent. It is also the location of every country on the map of nations. The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig knew this, and therefore expressed a preference, in The Star of Redemption, for the “eternal Jewish people” to remain “outside history” rather than distract itself with affairs of state. He died in 1929, as you know, before the Nazis made Zionists of many Jews who might otherwise have preferred greater purity and cleanness of hands—luxuries of a benign Diaspora. I find the stories collected in the book of Numbers—the spies’ failed mission, Korah’s rebellion, endless Israelite grumbling and challenges to authority—to be reassuring somehow. They testify that the Torah was prepared for the world we inhabit, which seems to grow ever harder to bear or make right. Bemidbar is the book for Jews dismayed at the lack of civil discourse in our Congress or in our own communities. It serves as an indispensable source of wisdom to the real world of wanting, seeking, and wandering. It does not tell you how to vote, but it does remind a Jew—even as we engage in the necessary work of guarding our interests and our survival—that we must never forget that we are here to serve the covenant.

I count on rabbis to sound that reminder loud and clear—and to tell us baby boomers that, no matter how good our GPS and how effectively Siri answers our questions, we are still lost, much of the time—and as far from the Promised Land as ever. But it awaits. We need to keep moving in its direction.

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) for me once meant, above all, its detailed political program for life in that Promised Land, mapped out in the portions called Re’eh, Shofetim, and Ki Tetzei.  In recent years, Devarim has come to mean, more than anything else, Nitzavim, with its radically inclusive invitation to covenant addressed to men and women, old and young, wealthy and poor, Israelites and the ger-khaasher be-kerevmahanekha (your stranger, who dwells in your camp.) I am grateful for that—and for the further enlarging of Moses’s audience to include those “alive that day and those not yet alive that day”: me, you, us, and the generations of descendants to whom we, by passing on Moses’s words, will be treasured ancestors (29:9–14).

Rabbis do a lot of welcoming and inclusion today, and will need to do even more in coming years. A big assist—one which I treasure—comes from Moses’s declaration that there are mysteries belonging to God alone—and revealed things that give us enough knowledge to do the mitzvot that we and our children and students are called to do (29:28). I revel in the fact that God’s teachings are “not in heaven, or beyond the sea,” but as close as our hearts and minds (30:1–13). And I am eternally grateful for the assurance that life and death are set before me, good and evil, blessing and curse, and to a precious extent I get to choose which path to follow (30:15,19). We human beings in 2015 can choose, as a species, to save God’s earth from destruction. I pray that, with God’s help, we will.

It is overwhelming, this word of God through Moses to you and me. The task seems too great for us—and too wondrous. How much gratitude can one person express or contain? But this task, this wonder, and this blessing—nothing less—is what every rabbi who preaches on Shabbat or Holy Days gets to transmit, as does every teacher in every school, every pastor at every funeral or hospital visit, every mentor to every student. Abraham Joshua Heschel passed it to me in 1971, when I spent two hours with him that I shall never forget it. Devarim moments are there for all of us—in part because they are made present, in word and deed, by rabbis.

I know, I know: There are also budgets to cut, board meetings to endure, synagogue and school politics to fret over (sometimes to the point of despair), people who don’t listen, and then complain, and then don’t listen some more. There are Pew Research Center reports to digest and refute and come to terms with and get over. How could we not all know these things? We have read Va-ykra and Bemidbar many times over. Freud and Weber and Philip Roth and the New York Times have added their testimonies to the weight of the “reality principle.” But there is also the Promised Land that beckons, and the ancestors who need us, and the community that travels with us on the way, and the presence of God, who searches for us no less than we do for ourselves.

Do we love this? Think of Golde and Tevye’s duet in Fiddler on the Roof as you ask yourself: Do you love this? After 25 years of service in the rabbinate, all the highs and lows, all the tzuris and the rewards, one might well ask: “If that’s not love, what is?” Rabbi Meir taught (Pirke Avot 6:1) that the person who engages in the study of Torah for its own sake “is called beloved friend, lover of God, lover of humanity, a joy to God, a joy to humanity.” I hope there is enough love in all of us to empower another generation of rabbis, and another after them, with the love of Torah, of Israel, and of God that are chief joys of our existence.