Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Remarks at My Installation Service -- 10/27/12

Thank you Rabbi (Jeffrey) Wohlberg for delivering the Installation Address. Rabbi Wohlberg was my first role model as a Conservative rabbi when I lived in Washington in the early 1990s and attended Adas Israel.

My childhood rabbi, Rabbi Henry Weiner, rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, NJ and his wife Rickie are also here tonight, and I am touched beyond words. Thank you to my rabbinical school friend Rabbi Laura Rappaport for giving the invocation. I am glad my father Elliott Arian and his wife Lee, my brother Peter and his daughter Maggie are here today. And my wife Keleigh, without whom I could do nothing. My mother Audrey was not well enough to travel from Florida and our daughter Berkeleigh could not get out of work in Louisville, where she lives.

In Pirkei Avot we read "azeihu chacham? Ha-lomed mi-kol adam" Who is wise? One who is open to learning from anybody. While I don't have the chutzpah to claim the title of "chacham" I will tell you that one of the people from whom I have learned the most is not a rabbi and not a Jew but a Jesuit priest, Fr. James Walsh, one of my professors at Georgetown University. He will be giving the benediction at the conclusion of this ceremony.

A number of years ago I happened upon a speech that Fr. Walsh gave as part of Commencement back in 1986, the year that I was ordained a rabbi and that my brother graduated from Georgetown.

In this speech, Fr. Walsh said that

"education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you in to it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends.

It seems to me that much of what Fr. Walsh says about "education" also applies to Judaism. Yes, we are a religion, but there are many irreligious Jews who still consider themselves Jews. Yes, we are a nation, but most of us don't live in our national homeland or speak our national language. Yes, we are an ethnicity, but more and more Jews today are not biologically descended from Jewish ancestors. What Judaism really is, after all, is a kind of conversation across the generations, or in Hebrew "siach l'dor va-dor."
If you ask most Conservative or Reform Jews what the central text of Judaism is, they will probably say the Bible or the Torah. But really, our central text is the Talmud. As my rabbinical school professor Jacob Rader Marcus o.b. m. said in class, "the Bible is not a Jewish book. The Talmud is a Jewish book. The only thing the Bible is good for is she'neemar -- as it is written." Or as another professor of mine, Michael Cook, said: "Judaism is not what the Bible says. Judaism is what the Rabbis said the Bible means."

And what is the Talmud if not precisely a conversation, a siach, about "what the Bible means" and how to live our lives according to its teachings? One of the most amazing experiences a new student of Talmud can have is to follow a sugya, a back and forth discussion about a law or the interpretation of a text, where two sages are debating back and forth and attempting to refute each other, only to pick up a history book or a guide to Talmud study and realize that these two rabbis lived several hundred years apart and one lived in Palestine while the other lived in Babylonia. Obviously, these two sages were not in direct conversation with one another, but their teachings were known. Each had his disciples, and the rabbis of the Talmud were very careful to attribute teachings properly. And so, the editors of the Talmud some 1500 years ago were able to, as it were, reconstruct the conversion that would have taken place between the two -- a conversation across the generations.

The goal of Judaism is not individual salvation. It is to create a holy community -- a kehila kedosha, a term which most synagogues, including ours, have in their legal Hebrew names. This kehila functions on many levels -- the family, the synagogue, the regional, national and world Jewish communities, and the State of Israel.

Precisely because Judaism is lived in community, I am responsible not only to myself but to the others members of my community. If I am to say Kaddish, you must come to the minyan. If Mr. and Mrs. X's children are to have a religious school, Dr. Y must agree to teach and Ms. Z must agree to be the religious school principal.
So we are responsible to each other, and therefore we must converse with one another. Our conversation is about what God wants of us, how to best implement our understanding of God's demands in our lives, how to strengthen our community and how to make the world a better place. But our community is not just a random collection of individuals; our community is a Jewish community. That is why our conversation must be a conversation among the generations, siach l'dor va-dor.

We have a responsibility to past generations. We are Conservative Jews because we are committed to conserving the Jewish tradition. But we are not "preservative" Jews nor are we curators of a museum. We are not obligated to live our lives precisely as our ancestors did, but we should be able to feel that they would recognize in some way the ties that bind us to them and the continuities from their way of life to ours.

We are not preservative Jews because our responsibility is not only to the past, it is also to the future. The Midrash tells us that the soul of every Jew who ever would live stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. So our conversation between generations includes not only the past but the future as well. We must consider not only what will work best for us in the present and how we maintain our continuity with the past, but also what will best serve future generations.

This is not an easy task, and over the last couple of years this congregation has been through some difficult times. Our difficulties are not over -- we are still revamping and rationalizing our office procedures and looking for permanent staff to implement them.

But as we move forward I hope we will remember Father Walsh’s words -- the goal and the way to the goal are the same: to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. Over the last three months in sixteen separate “Coffee Chats” I have listened to 160 individual members of Kehilat Shalom talk about what brought them here and what keeps them here. I have heard some sadness and some pain and even some anger, but I have also heard a lot of love and hope and devotion.

I am quite confident that we can get through these challenges with a little help from God and a lot of hard work of our own. What will it take? The ability to listen, to go out of ourselves, to be friends.

We need to listen to each other -- it is OK to disagree and indeed we should disagree. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting over. But our disagreements should never spill over into disrespect or questioning the other person’s motives.

We need to go out of ourselves -- yes, we should preserve what we love and what is familiar, but we need to step out of our comfort zone and accept the fact that there is nothing in life so inevitable as change.

And we need to be friends. Our congregational motto is “where friends become family” and in the three months we’ve been here, Keleigh and I have very much found this to be true. We have been embraced, loved, cared for. We are grateful beyond words.

Last night I installed the boards of the synagogue, sisterhood, and men’s club. Tonight, turnabout is fair play and you install me. Together, we can and we will make Kehilat Shalom a true Community of Peace -- if we listen, go out of ourselves, and be friends.

Ken y’hi ratzon -- May this be God’s will.

1 comment:

Ari Sherris said...

Conversation is indeed a key to human understanding and to understanding the human condition. When it is rich and exploratory it potentially resonates with meaning making--the narrative of the heart. Mazal Tov, Rabbi Arian!

Best wishes,

Ari Sherris