[From my retirement talk, delivered at a testimonial dinner, October 24, 2018]
I am retiring after 45 years of teaching at the Hebrew Union College , not because I do not love the College but because I believe that God isn’t finished with me yet. I believe I have another chapter, but I won’t know what it is until I turn the page. I think of it as applying for residency in the post-graduate School of Deuteronomy. I have been unable to ascertain in advance how long the program lasts, but its curriculum involves projects that I alone can do and that might make a difference to others: like traveling to help synagogues, taking alumni calls, and writing a book or two or more, of course. I want more time with Gayle. Mostly, however, I will prepare for my final exam, by reviewing my life as Moses did, that I may become my very best self before God, and die knowing that I have loved my family and friends, that I was faithful to the work God set me here to do, and that I pass it down to some Joshuas to carry on where I left off.
As I leave the College, I can reveal a secret that I have carefully kept from everyone: what I have been doing at HUC all these years. My job, you see (teaching and such) is not what I do; it is just how I do it.
What I do, I hope, is practice kindness: Helping students, counseling alumni, responding to phone calls, righting wrongs (when I can), watching for unhappy people to whom I can lend an ear or a hand — I am proudest of things like that. They do not get in the way of my work; they aremy work.
Beyond that, what I do most and best, I think, is think! Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory, recalled moving to a synagogue and instructing his assistant to inform early morning callers, “The rabbi cannot speak right now; he is busy thinking.” The rabbis and cantors here will have a pretty good idea of how that went over. When congregants professed outrage, he had his assistant say, “The rabbi is in conference.” People understood that.
As you saw from the video, I have done a great many things, but I have studiously avoided being “in conference.” I luxuriate instead in being paid to think! “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” our Rabbis said of Torah. I do that; I write a regular newspaper column on the parashat hashavu’a; and then put it in my newly-conceived and barely-born-blog. But I like Galileo’s defense (before the Church that condemned his scientific observations) to the effect that the universe is actually God’s second book; how can we notstudy it? I have made a point of turning and turning both of God’s books, Torah and the universe, both Jewish and general knowledge, which I take as mutually complementary.
“You’re no rabbi,” an illustrious rabbi once complained, “You’re a philosopher or an anthropologist.” More embarrassing still, I once had rabbis condemn me for wasting my time with cantors and even cavorting too closely with Christians. I plead guilty, your honor, on all counts. “Open our eyes that we may see and welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time,” the old Union Prayer Bookadvised — I love that line!
It took many paths of truth to learn that actual prayertexts(their origins and history) are relatively inconsequential, compared with how we pray them: all the world’s a stage, but especially when poetry, drama, space and music magically explode in worship. I hope the College continues my life’s work of moving the study of liturgy forward into worship, without which liturgy is like reading descriptions of Van Gogh but never seeing his sunflowers. I take pride in teaching the generation who has revolutionized Reform worship — a revolution still continuing. So many of my students, now our teachers, yours and mine, are revitalizing prayer in synagogue after synagogue. They and what they are achieving is my legacy. They and it exist because the College let me think.
“Think big,” I tell my students, or, preferably, “Think bigly” – they remember it better that way. At creation’s first unfolding, God said, “Let there be light” not “Let there be a bagel.” To be human is to think like God, to think bigly, not bagelly.
But God did not just think the world into being; God spoke it, and ever since, we Jews have marveled at the miracle of human speech. Plants, the Rabbis say, are tsame’ach — they grow; animals, a step up, are chai, “they live.” But humans are like God: we m’daber, we speak. Philosopher Richard Rorty says, “We make progress not by arguing better but by speaking differently.” So I tell students, “Speak differently and think bigly.”
I think bigly a lot about the human condition, our penchant to love, to work, to laugh, to matter; and to be eulogized at the end, for a life worth remembering. I define religion as the practice of speaking in a register that does justice to the human condition— most compellingly through prayer, the ritual artistry that delivers its lessons in exclamation marks, not just commas and periods. Ritual is the wrapping for ideas that would otherwise be unbelievable, unthinkable, unsayable.
A small-town synagogue president once attended a biennial in Canada and was carried away by 5,000 Jews all praying together. When border guards asked what he had to declare, he said, “I declare the glory of God!” I tell the story not because I think you should try it out when you next encounter immigration, but to show you one way to think about prayer: it is a people’s reservoir of the most important things we can say.
So I model the way we allmight talk differently, moving synagogue board conversations (for instance) from the banal to the beautiful, the prosaic to the profound. I do not know exactly who God is, but I invoke God regularly, because at the very least, the word “God” is my placeholder for the best I can imagine, the best that life can offer. Thanks to Gayle’s gift for gardening, our once barren backyard bursts each year into a riot of flowers, a chance not just to think “How lovely!” – that’s thinking bagelly; but to think bigly, and to say, “Barukh atah Adonai shekakhah lo ba’olamo–“Blessed is God for a world such as this.” I teach students to end meetings with prayers, not just “Thanks for coming.”
Since words are holy, I call Judaism a conversation, a conversation that does justice to the human condition: our loves and laughter, our problems and promise. It is a conversation that occurs through music and the arts as well; it is inherently elevating and compelling. All may join in it, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, and anyone else at all, who happily locate themselves in a Jewish orbit.
That’s what I do. I speak differently, think bigly, and deepen the Jewish conversation to appreciate the human condition. None of that is my official job description, but I have stayed at the College, not move somewhere else, because the College let me do it. The Hebrew Union College is not just a school; it can be the cutting edge of what will save us.
It is, moreover, Reform. I applaud all denominations – I have taught or received honorary degrees from them all; through the Wexner Foundation, in particular, I have taught Jews of every stamp and conviction all across this continent. But as much as we need strong Jewish addresses throughout the spectrum of Jewish life, ReformJudaism is myaddress, and Hebrew Union College is the hearth and heart of that address, my home.
The College took a chance on me, a kid from the boonies of Canada, who showed up knowing how to daven, but not much more. At my admissions interview I was asked to adjudge the impact of the Baal Shem Tov on Franz Kafka — Can you imagine? I had barely heard of either one (was it maybe Baal shem Kavka and Franz Tov???). But someone at the table said, “You love people; and you are willing to think; we can teach you the rest.” The College took me in and made me what I am; and then encouraged me to make myself, that I would later help make others – some of those others being some of you, who have gathered here tonight. But the maker has himself been made by those whom he was making — whatever I have given you, you have given me more; I can never adequately thank you all for coming.
Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed is God for life and its promise; for family and friends, for students and teachers, for thinking and speaking a world into being; for speech and song, for warmth and love, for hope and comfort, and for gratitude. Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed is God indeed, shekakhah lo ba’olamo,for a world such as this.