Rabbi Arthur Green My Rabbinate
An abbreviated version of this text was delivered by Rabbi Green at the Rabbinical School semikhah ceremony on Sunday, June 4, 2017.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi. I was ordained on June 4, 1967 – the day before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. It was a moment of high drama for all involved. Elie Wiesel was the graduation speaker; the air was thick with tremors of a new Holocaust, while we as a community were just beginning to fully absorb the shock of the last one.
I had come remarkably close to missing that event. I was a pretty radical young man in those days. Within weeks of graduation, I had been ready to tell the institution that I wanted no part of its degree, that the rabbinate had become so corrupt an institution, and the title so debased, that I would not accept it. That was 1967, after all. Even two years later, I published a now embarrassingly self-righteous piece in a Judaism Magazine symposium, where I complained about the vacuousness of synagogue life and railed against rabbis who shared the bourgeois lives and values of their congregants. If you want to be generous, you may call it my Heschelian prophetic period.
Yes, I was young and foolish. But not quite that foolish. I did accept the degree and promptly began to make good use of it. Without it, I could hardly have founded Havurat Shalom, which in some ways served as the cornerstone of what has become a lifelong involvement with teaching rabbis and other leaders as a step toward reconceiving a future North American Jewish community. Three times in the course of my career I have turned away from a relatively successful career in the secular academy to work in smaller and more intimate settings to train future rabbis. My wife Kathy used to say that some guys, when they reach a certain age, get a little red sports car every few years. “Green gets a little red rabbinical school.” My response has been that the “red” in that sentence refers mostly to the color ink in the ledger books of those rabbinical schools (someone please explain that reference to the young people), but also the politics of some of the students who apply to them.
Why have I been doing this? I decided at some point, while in the midst of my first university teaching job, that I really cared deeply about the future of the Jewish people. I felt that Judaic scholarship, fascinating as it was to me and to a few others whom I saw at Jewish Studies conventions, would have little value in engaging new generations of Jews in the creative project of building that Jewish future. As American Jews grew ever farther from the memory of immigration, they were naturally ever more open to total assimilation and absorption within an increasingly welcoming American melting pot. We would need to create a new language of Judaism that would speak to these generations. I began teaching and writing that vision, something in which I am still deeply engaged. But a crucial part of what I could do for the future of Jewry and Judaism (I cared about both) was to train leaders who shared something of my vision, who had at least opened and read the texts from the Jewish past that I considered most vital and exciting, and who would engage with me and after me in the questions of how to live both as a Jew and as a religious human being in what we would later come to call the post-modern world.
The texts to which I refer are those of the Jewish mystical, especially the Hasidic, tradition. These had not been taught in regular courses in any modern rabbinical school, all of which had been nurtured by the traditions ofhaskalah and Wissenschaft (modern rationalist “enlightenment” and critical scholarship), which had openly rejected them. I knew that it was only these sources and their reading of the tradition that had saved Judaism for me. Without them, I would have sought and found my spiritual nourishment elsewhere. I suspected, already in the 1960’s, that I was not alone in that need. As the decades have gone forward, I am happy and proud to have played some small role in the recovery of those sources for the Jewish mainstream, including the nachas of seeing my own students writing about them, translating them, and teaching them to future generations of rabbis and others.
The shaping of the Jewish future as I envision it required attracting certain types of people to the task of Jewish leadership, including precisely some of those I saw turning their backs on Judaism – often for good reason – and seeking their truth elsewhere. After some experimentation, I saw that this could not be done in a denominational setting. It needed a new, informal, and intimate learning environment where those sorts of souls could flourish, finding both the nourishment and the freedom they needed to grow. Because each of those souls was unique and had to find its own distinct Jewish path, the root of its own soul in the Torah – and here I was following the best of Hasidic teaching – pluralism and openness were essential to the vision. That explains many of the choices I have made, especially in the founding of this institution, the faculty who teach in it, and questions that have emerged in the course of its existence. Of course I wanted Jewish leaders who were deeply rooted in the tradition, who felt at home among the original sources. I also wanted rabbis to have the skills they needed, as educators, pastors, and communal leaders, to do their work successfully and without too much frustration. But in these things my approach was not unique. Essentially I wanted to train rabbis who had three qualities: I wanted them to be seekers, devotees, and lovers. From here on I want to unpack what I mean by each of these three terms.
In the opening paragraph of my book Radical Judaism, I said that after fifty years of teaching and passing on the tradition, I still see myself primarily as aseeker. This means an ongoing quest to live in God’s presence, to become ever more aware that “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” and to share that insight with others in ways that are stimulating and awakening, rather than dogmatic and dulling. An “ongoing” quest is one that indeed never ends, following the Psalmist’s advice to “seek His face always.” Each day and each moment is there to offer a new opportunity to seek the face of Y-H-W-H, the ever-elusive One that stands behind all the masks that hide and reveal God at once.
I want seekers to become rabbis and rabbis to become seekers. For seekers to become rabbis requires their striking deep roots within the tradition, becoming immersed in Jewish sources, learning to speak as insiders to Judaism, while still in the course of seeking. For rabbis to become seekers is a more difficult process. It requires a reduction of self-assurance, finding room for more questions and fewer answers. Too many rabbis have thought they need to resolve the seekers’ questions, much as their ancestors engaged inteshuvot, responsa, to questions of religious law. In taking on this role, they felt that they had to hide their own doubts and confusion, feelings unseemly for a rabbi who was supposed to be in authority. But all that is gone now. This is a new sort of rabbinate, one in which you are qualified to be a rabbi and teacher not because you have the answers, but only because you have been seeking a little harder or a little longer, perhaps with more access to the original sources, than those around you. Your authority stems precisely from the honesty with which you admit how much you don’t know.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s Days of Awe recounts the following parable by Rabbi Hayyim of Sanz:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked the man: “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.”
Said the other to him: “Brother, I do not know the way out either. But I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: Do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together.”
That’s the kind of person I would like to see in the rabbinate, and I have spent my life creating centers of rabbinic training that would welcome them. Brothers and sisters to the seekers who surround them, not authority figures who seek to quell or dismiss their doubts. I like to think of such rabbis as faithful descendants of our father Abraham: the original iconoclast; adventurer and religious experimentalist, who set us all off on an endless journey.
Finding God or truth cannot be put off to the end of that quest, since it never ends. But we come to learn that the finding takes place within the seeking, that they are indeed one. This discovery is the cause of great celebration and gratitude, an oft-repeated moment of awareness, da‘at, that leads us from seeking to devotion.
The rabbi as devotee should begin each day with a prayer of gratitude for the great privilege (and responsibility) of serving as spiritual guide to others. The life of quest has to become one of service, both to God and to the community. The phrase ana ‘avda de-qudsha brikh hu, “I am a servant of the blessed Holy One” is not an easy one for people like us to utter. Modernity has made us too self-assured for that, too proud of our many accomplishments. Some of those are indeed quite impressive: fighting back disease, lengthening the human lifespan, instant cross-global communication, living in relative peace with so many diverse sorts of people. Other things about our age are terribly condemning: the ongoing rape of the planet’s resources, the terrible widening gap between rich and poor, the idolatries of money, success, and superficial beauty. Realizing that mortality is still with us, that we understand very little, and that each of us is here only for an instant in planetary history, should humble us and help us to understand that we were placed here to serve.
Being a devotee means cultivating one’s own inner life. The best tool we have for this is prayer, both traditional and spontaneous. Prayer is not easy for the newcomer and is too easy for one used to it, who wears it like an old shoe. We have to grow constantly in our life of prayer. So too in our ongoing learning. In this way, seeker and devotee live together in our hearts. The text of our prayerbook is a great help in this, if we learn to open ourselves to it. There are moments, however, when its language gets in the way. Silence, with or without special training in meditation, is also a resource to be welcomed and cultivated. So too walks in the woods or around bodies of water. Spiritual friendship is also a great boost to the devotional life. We have tried to model it for you here in your hevrutot. Don’t be without it.
Our tradition calls us to a devotional life of great simplicity. Celebrate life by singing about the daily miracles of dawn and dusk, the call of the weekly Sabbath, on which we were first told to neither light fires nor gather sticks, two beautifully stone-age markers of a special time. We worship throughout the year by such acts as waving branches, blowing horns, lighting candles, living in huts, eating crackers. Of course these have to be the right branches, the right horns, the right huts, and the right crackers, each on the proper day of the year. But they are still acts of utter simplicity, and we must take care that this simplicity not get lost amid the welter of details about how to do them “right.” They are there to show us how the most ordinary of human deeds may become filled with holiness, invoking God’s presence, causing us to bow down in awe while our hearts fill up with joy. Openness to this devotional life is essential to the rabbi, as it should be to every Jew, to every human being.
And now to the third point. Here comes the bumper sticker for it: Rabbis are great lovers! (But I do not recommend that bumper sticker for your synagogue parking lot!.
The Ba ‘al Shem Tov said that his soul had come into the world because of three loves: the love of God, the love of Torah, and the love of all Israel. The first Neo-Hasidic teachers, more than a century ago, already insisted on widening “Israel” to embrace all of humanity, everyone created in the divine image. Of the love of God we have already spoken. More on love of Torah below. But the real test of love lies in our ability to generously and unselfishly love people. Yes, that continues to mean loving Jews in a special way, because that is the community we are here to serve. There is no being a rabbi without becoming comfortable with that. We are here to be leaders of the Jewish people. We are here to stand up for the best of our tradition’s moral teachings, and to guide Jews toward them. When our community turns away from those values, the failing is ours; we have not succeeded in our role as leaders. Our sages referred to themselves as neturey karta, guardians of the polis, of the community, many centuries before that title was grabbed by a small, self-righteous sect within the Jewish people. But our teaching is one of love that extends to all humanity, and indeed the kingdom of all God’s creatures. Only that way do we give flesh and bone to ve-ahavta et ha-shem elokekha – “ Love Y-H-W-H your God” – by manifesting it in ve-ahavta le-re‘akha kamokha, loving one another as we love ourselves.
For us as Jews, God’s love is manifest in a special way, in the form of teachings. “You so loved our ancestors,” we say each morning in Ahavah Rabbah, “that You became their Teacher. Give us that same grace; be our Teacher as well.” We rabbis, as faithful students of divine teaching, are here to help share it with others, to pass on the teaching – and the love. God shows us love through the act of teaching. We spend our lives learning to do the same. In a sense, love is all we have to offer: our love of God, of Judaism, and of Jews. The Judaisms motivated by authority, by fear, and by guilt are all gone for most Jews. All we have is love. Everything else derives from that. But that love is plenty, if we know both how to share and how to replenish it in ourselves.
All this talk of love sounds very like Rabbi Akiva, the one who taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was klal gadol ba-Torah, the most basic rule of Torah. On this particular matter, however, I am a disciple of his friend R. Simeon ben Azzai, who insisted that “Every human is created in God’s image” is a still more basic rule. Seeing to it that more and more people are treated with the fullest of human dignity, and are thus enabled to discover the divine spark within themselves, is what it’s all about. That is our mission as people of love. All our daily interactions with others must make this an ever-growing reality. All the social and political platforms that enhance this possibility must be our own. There is no separation possible between the call for love and the demand for justice.
That is our essential truth. The rest is indeed commentary, as Hillel taught so long ago, so early in the formation of what was to become Judaism. “The rest is commentary,” indeed. But of course commentary is where all the fun is, as we Jews have known so well. So having fun means loving, living, and learning Torah. That is the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s ahavat Torah. And it should indeed be fun, undertaken with lots of joy and even a bit of levity. That is the essential process of talmud torah. “Read that verse one more time. Find new meaning in it. Use it to gain an insight you never had before. Stretch your mind and a heart a little wider open. Go for it! Have fun!”
Who would have believed, back in June of 1967, that fifty years later I would be standing before a class of new rabbis who are being ordained in no-less threatening times. Then it felt like an existential challenge to the existence of Israel, maybe even of the Jewish people. Now we stand before an existential threat to our values, to our sense of human decency, to honesty and integrity in public life, to principles of democracy and care for the poor and underprivileged that we thought could be taken for granted in our country. All this with the fate of humanity and our planet hanging precariously in the balance. “Take nothing for granted” is what we are learning again in this hour.
In such an hour, we are in need of leaders. They have to be anshey middot, a wonderful Biblical phrase that can mean “people of values,” but also “people who measure up” to the needs of the hour. They need to be seekers of truth, devotees to God and to community, and lovers of God, Torah, and humanity. I have sought and found quite a few of those over these years, bringing them along to join in the task of building a Jewish future. I am proud that you are among them.
Becoming a rabbi is a deeply humbling moment. Looking back on one’s rabbinate fifty years later is no less humbling. May we all be worthy to be called “rabbi” someday.
Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.