With Voices Raised…Where To?

It is truly a joy and an honor to be in your presence this morning.  They say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder - I behold women!

Before I start, I want to thank Janet Tobin. I have enjoyed the privilege of knowing many of the presidents of the Women’s League, dating back to 1983 when I was a new student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was initiated during my first year in rabbinical school through an opportunity to appear on an Eternal Light radio show with the extraordinary Selma Weintraub. The members of the Women’s League truly are blessed with a tradition of remarkable leadership and Janet Tobin is fully the equal to the other greats of the Women’s League.  In her tenure she has propelled the Women’s League to even greater heights and has accomplished even more than that – she has encouraged the arms of Conservative Judaism into being more fully a Movement.  Her leadership has extended beyond the ranks of Women’s League; she has mobilized all of us and she has brought out our best.  Janet, on behalf of all of us - thank you!

I know, Gloria Cohen, that you will fully live up to the greatness of your predecessors, and I am thrilled  to be able to work with you in the years ahead towards our common sacred goals.

The theme of this gathering is “Lifting Up Our Voices.” So, being the technologically hip Rabbi that I am, I kicked in my CD to look up “lifting up voices”.  I found a fascinating passage in the Talmud (Arachin 11a) which reminds us that the Levites in the wilderness, as they carried the Ark from place to place in the Wilderness of Sinai, performed the “service of work.”  The Talmud then inquires, “What is the nature of work that require service?”  And the answer the Sages give is, “It is singing, it is song that requires the work of service. And they lifted up their voices and they sang.” 

What the members of the Women’s League have been doing over the past several days and, indeed, for the past century, is to lift up your voices in song with strength, and with pride, and with joy.  There is much to be joyous about, and there is much that yet needs our attention and our work.  We too, all of us today, are engaged in a service that requires service, in a work that requires work.  We face a challenge no less pressing than the one that faced our ancestors in the Wilderness, four areas in which the world and the Jewish people are waiting for our response, for what Women’s League – through the strength and the voices of its members across North and South America and Israel – can do to bring healing to this ailing world. 

Service of the Mind

The first work that requires service is the work of the mind.  We live in an age beset by a pathetic need for simplicity.  Ours is a time when fundamentalisms of the Right and the Left are rising up, threatening the freedom of the human mind to think untrammeled, seeking to silence whatever questions would occur to a venturesome soul.  The fundamentalism of the Right is the assertion that if you do not believe precisely the way the self-appointed guardians of the faith do in each and every detail, than your faith is unbelief.  The fundamentalism of the Left is to assert that there is only one way through which human knowledge is gained – the method of scientific inquiry.  Now, I want to be very clear here: scientific inquiry is itself a wonderful tool. There are important facets of knowledge that are available to us only through science. But human wisdom is borne by many messengers. We learn through love, through moral commitment, and through our traditions. We learn through our literature, and through the revelations uncovered in the depths of our own souls.  In our age, as in the past, we need Jewish voices to rise up proudly and unafraid, to assert, as have the sages of the medieval period, that we are eager to learn truth from any source. 

There is no treif question. A mentality unwilling to ask certain questions, a piety that depends upon ignoring much of what humanity has learned in a last two hundred years is a religion too afraid to encounter the living God.  Israel’s God of Torah is the God of truth.  And truth can only be one, and truth can never be apportioned or hidden.
Through Conservative Judaism we enjoy a courageous and a bold Judaism – a Judaism willing to look to the past for insight, inspiration, and imperative.  At the same time, Conservative Judaism recognizes that the God of Israel lives, and therefore that Judaism itself is alive.  We just published a new Humash, Etz Hayim (or, as we like to call it in California, the Lieber Humash) that is a model for 21st Century faithfulness. It is unwilling to compromise its commitment to hearing God’s voice percolate through Torah.  And at the same time it is insistent that we listen best when we learn broadly.  When we are able to integrate the insights of sociology and anthropology, and physics, and astronomy, and bring them home to Torah, than we harvest Torah that is worthy of the respect and the affection of today’s intelligent Jew.  And it is to those Jews– professional, educated, seeking depth, community, and meaning in their lives – that we address ourselves.  Let those who are afraid of what the truth may bring, let them cower in their quarters.  But for us, the light of day; and for us, the courage of knowing that wisdom is the reward of those who seek with eyes open.

At the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem and the Seminario Rabbinico in Buenos Aires, and a the Seminary in Budapest, we are producing rabbinical students in your image – women and men who are not afraid of today or tomorrow, men and women who are profoundly loyal to the Torah that we have inherited as the greatest privilege of our lives, women and men who are sensitive to the currents and the insights of our age, and of the legitimate needs of this generation of Am Israel.  With the continuing help and partnership of the Women’s League, we together will succeed in transforming American and world Jewry. The best is yet to be.

Service of the Hand

Service of the mind, worthy as it is, is insufficient.  The mind, severed from the heart and the soul, grows dry, and dull, and brittle.  Our conviction must insist that one can refine a mind fully engaged in a world without becoming precious, or pedantic, or distant.  We must give voice to a Judaism that also addresses the spirit. In our time Judaism cannot afford to be restricted to a library or a classroom.  Let me remind you that gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai was not an elite group of scholars and rabbis, but the entire Jewish people.  It was to the entire Jewish people that the Creator of the Universe spoke.  Therefore it is essential that we, as they, address ourselves not merely to the inside world of Jewish institutions, but to the world at large.  Let us remember that the purpose of Jewish survival is not Jewish survival.  The purpose of Jewish survival is Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. 

I have a ten-year-old son, Jacob.  Jacob is autistic, and Jacob is my rebbe.  Jacob communicates not primarily through spoken word, but by what is called Facilitated Communication.  My wife, Elana, holds his hand and pulls it away from the keyboard with sufficient resistance that Jacob can then select the letters and type.  When he types, my son is eloquent.  Permit me to share with you words of Torah from my rebbe, my son. 

Last Passover, Jacob was participating in a wonderful program at Valley Beth Shalom, a great Conservative Synagogue located in San Fernando Valley.  They run the Tikvah program, a Sunday school for special needs children. Jacob was in his classroom while they were presenting the sanitized version of the Passover story.   (The way we teach Bible stories to children is we take out anything that is mildly troubling.  So we teach the Passover story while omitting the juicy stuff).  The teacher explains that one day Moses is in Pharaoh’s court, and the next day he is in the wilderness, but she doesn’t explain why. 

So, my wife Elana says to Jacob: “Do you know why, according to the Torah, Moses had to leave Egypt?” 

Jacob types: “No”. 

“He killed an Egyptian taskmaster who struck down an Israelite.”

Jacob responds, “I like the movie version better.”

Elana asks him: “Why?” and Jacob types, “Because the movie version is more like my life - Moses’ brother is the one who gets to be Pharaoh, not Moses. That’s like my life.”

Elana responds without missing a beat, “Yes, but in the Torah Moses has a hard time speaking and even though, his brother Aaron can speak more easily than he can, Moses is the one that God chooses to give the Torah through.”
Jacob pauses for a moment, and then he types, “Maybe I do like the Torah version after all.”

Now here comes Jacob’s core Torah teaching:  Jacob’s friend Mark, who’s also autistic, takes the keyboard and types: “If I went before Pharaoh, Pharaoh would not listen to me.”

Jacob retrieves the keyboard and he types: “If God sent you to Pharaoh, God would make Pharaoh listen.”

The great paralysis of our age is the fear that the Pharaohs will win.  Yet our’s has always been the faith that God is on the side of liberation. As long as that is true, the Pharaohs will always lose.  In the service that requires work, we must be God’s hands. We must be the ones who reach out. We must be the ones who embrace, who heal, and who rebuild.  The work is ours to do, but we do not labor alone; we stand on the shoulders of our mothers and fathers who took their place before us in a chain that connects us to the Holy One.  Our victory is assured because the Ancient One works through us.  With God’s help we dare not fail.

Service of the Heart

The service of the mind and the service of the hand must be supplemented by the service of the heart, lev.  It is not enough to think clearly, it is not even enough to do righteously.  We must also orient our hearts to what we know to be true.  In our tradition there are two great emotional poles between which the Jewish people cycle.  On the one hand is the virtue of yira, reverence, fear, awe.  On the other is virtue of ahavah, love.  We are commanded both to revere and to love the Holy One.  We are commanded to revere and to love each other. 

Neither pole is sufficient by itself.

Fear and reverence that do not know love crumble the moment power disappears.  Look at what happened when the Soviet Union fell. All of its former allies simply walked away, because their relationship to the Soviet Union was pure yira, fear. 

Love by itself becomes indulgent.  It becomes narcissistic.  We reduce God to a big buddy who understands and encourages our every shortcoming and foible, and we cease to strive to better ourselves, to be more than we are at present.  Love alone accommodates the world as it is, not as it might yet be.

We need to embrace yira and ahavah together.  Living in a world that can be frightening, pretending in some Pollyanna way that all is merely sweetness and light, is naive and dangerous.  And at that regard this year we no longer have that luxury.  There are barbarians out in the world who would do mischief to us simply because we are Jews, simply because in the last century we’ve mustered the courage, the resolve, and the integrity to reestablish our homeland and to stand by the State of Israel.  In that regard, my friends, our commitment to Israel must be more than it was ten years ago, it must be more than it has ever been in the past.

And that service of the heart that avodah sheh ba-lev should be with joy.  To have the privilege to stand with your people and for your people is a privilege.  Far too many Jews in the last two thousand years, while they had the motivation, did not have the freedom to be able to make a difference in that way.  When you participate in your synagogue, in your branch, in the Women’s league, in Conservative Judaism, when we make of our lives a part of the Zionist epic, we enjoy a great privilege. Ivdu be-simcha, let us serve with joy!

Service of Values

Finally, the fourth service that requires work is the commitment to the timeless values of Torah that have always motivated us.  And so here I will indulge myself with a second rebbe story, this time from my daughter, Shira.  We are driving out to Palm Springs from Los Angeles to allow our children to play in the snow. The way my family drives is that I am generally the driver because I am the Dad. Elana sleeps because she is the (overworked) Mom. Jacob, after about an hour, usually falls asleep as well, leaving Shira and me to schmooze.  At the time, Shira is eight years old.

Shira says to me: “Turn on the radio” and she then tells me which station to turn in to.  I start hearing the words of my parents emerging from my throat:  “This is the music?  You can’t even understand what they are saying!”  Shira is able not only to sing the lyrics (which, frankly, I would prefer not to have known), she also knows every song and every group. As I am driving to the snow, I’m thinking that there is already a chasm separating my daughter from me.  There is this cultural gulf where we cannot connect. 

Shira then says to me, “Abba, do you want to be a king?”  I said to her, “No.” 

“Why not?” 

“Well, kings always have to be in public and they always at banquets, and..”  And I start to realize that I am describing the rabbinate. 

Shira says to me: “Abba, the boys in my class like to pretend that they are kings.”  (I think: “Great, eight years old and I now have to explain men to her”). 

“Sweetheart, that doesn’t stop.  They actually have that fantasy their whole life.” 

She says: “Would you like to have the money that a king has?”  I’m thinking that we are now approaching that chasm again this time a display of teenage materialism.  I say: “Shira, what would you do if you have the money of the King?” 
She says: “I would give a lot to the shul, I would use some to build schools, I would use some to make sure that hungry people could eat, and I use some to build a pool for dolphins.”

I suddenly realized that the gap separating my daughter from me is purely in the realm of esthetics.  Thanks to Torah, thanks to Judaism, in the realm of values there is no difference between her convictions and my own. 

Ours is the privilege to stand up in a world gone crazy and assert the values of Torah, to say that true freedom is to be found in a life of Mitzvot, in a commitment to Halakhah, in a commitment to the commandments that have made Jewish life sacred across the millennium.  It is ours to affirm that our Torah commands of us ethical rigor, to recognize the fundamental divinity shining inside each and every human soul, without exception.  Men and women, gay and straight, disabled and not yet disabled, Jewish and gentile - we are all God’s children. 

So, I plead with you – in an age of terrorism, let us embody the strength of freedom. In an age of barbarism, let us demonstrate the depth of the wisdom that comes from living and studying Torah.  In an age awash in materialism and hedonism let us offer the rootedness of a sacred and ancient tradition. And in an age flattened by a skeptical secularism, let us apply the balm of the service of God.

It is our task, and our great privilege, to remind the world, that we truly own only what we can share with others, and that our truest possessions – community, family, heritage, justice – are freely available to all.

In these four arenas, service of mind, hands, heart, and values, there is much work to be done, and much reward to be gained. With spirits high, with voices raised, nurtured with the strength of Torah, let us resolve to do accomplish the work for which God created us.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).