This Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of my smichah—my rabbinic ordination. It is remarkable to think that three decades have passed since I stood on the bimah at Temple Emanu-El in New York and received the title of Rabbi. And it is humbling to realize that I have spent my entire rabbinate in one community. I am truly grateful to all of you for the privilege to continue serving the TSTI community.
As you might suspect, this approaching personal milestone has been an opportunity for me to reflect. Recently, I came upon, and reread, the essay I wrote on October 16, 1986 when I first applied to rabbinic school. Toward the end of that essay I wrote the following:
…while still in Israel I came to the conclusion that I wanted to continue studying Judaism, and wanted to work within the Jewish-American community. The question then became that of Rabbinic School or a PhD program. My decision, helped by many discussions with teachers, rabbis, my parents, and friends, was that Rabbinic School was clearly the direction I preferred to take. I do not want to study rabbinics and Judaism as simply historical and academic subjects and deal primarily with the facts, which would be the focus of a PhD program. To me, Judaism is alive, meaningful, relevant, vibrant and not just an academic subject. Even archaeology, a continuing love, means the most to me when I can relate the ancient societies to how we live today. I want to work, not just as an academic but also as a community leader, teaching, counseling and helping people. During and after my formal studies I want to be involved with a congregation and its members, for to me it is that which is the basis and the center of Judaism.”
Rereading that essay in its entirety, I was struck by the degree to which my core values and approach to Judaism were already taking shape prior to my beginning my formal studies. And while those values and commitments remain the same, my perspective has, as one would hope, evolved over the years. One of the major changes can be found in this week’s Torah portion.
The portion, Emor, is rife with laws and statutes that deal with everything from how we observe various festivals to what items could be used when performing various religious rituals. But the portion also states, “You shall have one standard for the stranger and citizen alike, for I am Adonai Your God.”
In other words, while Emor goes into extensive detail on the structure of Judaism, it also makes clear that, in our performance of various religious rituals, we can never forget the soul of Judaism. The rituals are not the end goal in and of themselves. Instead, they remind us of our moral and ethical obligations to others, even when they are strangers to our community.
This is a lesson that has become increasingly important to me over the years. I love tradition. I love ritual. It is part of what drew me back into Judaism in college. But I now realize there may have been times in the early days of my rabbinate when I may have been overly focused on whether I was doing something “right.” Increasingly, I now find myself more concerned with whether I am doing something with “meaning.” You see, as Emor points out, the structure of Judaism is intended to remind us that how we treat one another is a reflection of how we treat God. Our rituals are beautiful but they are not end goals in and of themselves. Instead, they are there to remind us of our obligations to one another. They are there as signposts to guide us to greater compassion, increased concern for the needy and, as the portion makes clear, acceptance of each person no matter who they are.
The rituals form the structure of Judaism but it is the kindness, the compassion, the concern for the needy and the acceptance of others that fills that structure with meaning. And THAT is the true essence of what a meaningful, modern, relevant Judaism is all about.
Keep that in mind the next time you see a politician or so-called religious leader use religious text to justify cruelty or vilify and exclude one group or another. Because a Judaism, or any religion for that matter, that ignores central mandates such as “You shall have one standard for the stranger and citizen alike, for I am Adonai Your God” has taken something that can be beautiful and uplifting and turned it into something dark and hateful.
As I begin my fourth decade in the rabbinate I am grateful to do so in a community that celebrates a people-centric Judaism and works to bring God’s light into the dark corners of the world.
Rabbi Daniel M Cohen