I've been thinking a lot over the past couple weeks about the message I should deliver to our newest rabbis and cantors today. The inspiration I was seeking came from grading the final papers for my course on the History and Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, and from a walk I took with a graduating rabbinical student who was not in that course. There are two things I'd like to say.
The first is thank you for what you've taught my colleagues and me during your years here, and for being conversation partners on the particular path in Torah that we walk together. It meant a lot to me to read a final exam that offered a cogent and perceptive analysis of the differences between Heschel and Kaplan on issues of God, Torah, and Israel, and then went on to say the following:
I believe that what makes my approach to halakhah distinctly Conservative is that I believe fervently in the responsibility that lies in each generation to receive Torah and struggle to find its meaning. I find myself constantly referring to the midrash on Shir HaShirim 1:2, in which the kisses that the lover seeks are words of Torah from God's Mouth. Just as God renews Creation each day, we must renew the cycle of Revelation.
That moved me deeply, I confess, as did the person who, in his paper, agreed with Dr. Neil Gillman that he is a Kaplanian when he does theology and a Heschelian when he prays. He then confessed past love for Marx and Adorno, quoted Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and went on to explain why he, whose spirituality is indebted to Zen Buddhism, sometimes feels more included as a Jew in Israel than he does in America.
I'll mention only one more student paper. It argued—convincingly, I think—that "Heschel reasserts the primacy of halakhic practice and spirituality as one and the same." The student not only agreed with Heschel on that point, but made a strong case for both halakhah and spirituality, and for the connection of both of these to the pursuit of social justice.
There is more to my satisfaction at these three papers, and many others, than what my teacher Philip Rieff called "the pleasure of agreement." The resonance goes deeper than the relatively unimportant matter of saying yes or no to a particular argument or conviction. What matters to me is that the kind of learning exhibited in the papers, in all of you, is the kind of learning for which JTS stands, the sort of Judaism for which I stand. These ways of studying and practicing Torah are increasingly imperiled by demographic and cultural forces that all too often lead some observers to pronounce them doomed. Against that view, we have you: thoughtful and committed rabbis and cantors, future shelihim of and to our tzibbur, who believe with me that the Torah we live and teach can and should be rooted deeply in Jewish tradition, but also open to other traditions and communities; who are fully prepared to challenge Jewish tradition from the inside, but also ready to marshal the best insights of the contemporary world in Torah's defense; who are committed to study of Torah for its own sake; and no less committed to making sure that study leads to doing good.
That's the source of my thanks to you. As individuals and as a group, you are the main reason for my confidence that the path in Torah for which JTS stands—Conservative Judaism and what I call the "vital religious center" of contemporary Judaism—has a bright future. There is sociology and history to back up that confidence. It also rests on faith, personal experience, and a nonnegotiable sense of commandedness. But what most inspires confidence in me about the need for this kind of Torah, and in its durability, is that you are dedicating your lives to its service.
You know, I think of how difficult that service will be at times and how rewarding. I think you know, too, that you will teach this Torah not only by the singing into which you pour your souls and the sermons powered equally by your hearts and your minds, but by the people you are as Jewish human beings and Jewish leaders; the caring and respect you radiate; the quality of your relationships; the words and actions through which, on a daily basis, you express love for Torah, for the Jewish People, and for the individuals you serve.
The second thing I want to tell you is that, for whatever it's worth—and I hope it is worth a lot—I have total confidence in your ability to do these tasks well. You leave JTS with more than a certificate attesting to credits accumulated, languages mastered, and professorial demands satisfied. My colleagues and I are attesting that, knowing you as well as the challenges that await you, we think you are equal to them. And we are not saying goodbye. I hope you will take advantage of the set of tools for professional education and advancement that JTS is making available on the web and through in-person gatherings like the Rabbinical Training Institute, many of them offered in cooperation with the Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantors Assembly. Beyond that, I hope you will take us up on the invitation—offered publicly and personally, here and now—to let us know how things are going, what your challenges are, and how JTS can help you to meet them. Rabbis and cantors who have sat where you are sitting over the past six years do take me up on this offer with some regularity. It generally makes my day. Please join them.
I'm a person who believes that the light from God's Countenance reaches us in the reflection from each other's eyes. That is evident in siddur ceremonies for first graders, and it is equally obvious at graduation ceremonies like this one. Just look around. I hope that JTS has helped you to think better over the past few years. I trust that we have also helped you to love better as Jewish leaders for many years to come. May God bless you and, through you, bless kol 'Am Yisra'el vekhol yoshevei teiveil.