November 13, 2018

Providing Leadership for Troubled Times

The following is the address Rabbi Artson delivered at the ordination ceremony for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University on May 7.

These have been brutal and soul-crushing times…
• The lack of civility that has swept the world, the inability of human beings to treat each other with kindness or gentility or dignity
• Our incapacity to extend the most fundamental kindness to each other
• The ways that crass vulgarity — words and behavior that once were impossible to imagine or to countenance in public — are now so commonplace that the only thing that makes us forget one obscenity is the next
• The rise of groupthink and the ability of human beings to make other people peripheral in their minds because of the way they live their lives, because of how they look, because of the color of their skin, because of their income or their neighborhoods
• The rampant resurgence of public anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry. It once was true that bigots had the temerity to cover themselves with a sheet, and now they walk freely and speak publicly without shame or second thought
• The rise of militant nationalism with the assertion that my nation, right or wrong, can do whatever it wants and trample yours
• The recourse of violence not as the last and final option but as the first
• The ongoing war against women and girls
• The ongoing bloody war against gays, lesbians and trans people
• The attacks against free speech
• The inability to allow people to offer different opinions than our own
• An unwillingness to value truth or science

… Small wonder that in our personal lives, our institutional lives, and on the global stage everyone feels on edge, under assault.

Wisdom in Hurban (Destruction)

We face an uncertain future in part because everything we thought we knew, everything we thought we could assume to be shared values and common discourse has been swept away. People live their lives with a sense of dread, a sense of meaningless rote, feeling unappreciated for the work they have done or they will do, a sense of going unnoticed. We lurch from one crisis to the next without any intelligent planning, without patience, without forethought.

You newly ordained rabbis are called to offer leadership in troubled times. Would that this were an age of resurgence, an age of good feelings, so I could offer you a very different charge tonight. But that is not the world in which your leadership will be launched. What wisdom can we bring to bear to the darkness? What can our ancient, sacred tradition offer us as we shoulder this heavy burden, as we strive for a world of compassion, dignity and goodness?

How brilliant that a central metaphor in our tradition for the last 2,000 years has been that of Hurban — destruction! We are the people whose homeland was ripped from us. We are the people whose Holy Temple was burned to the ground, not once but twice, and with it our capacity to serve God perfectly. The delusion that we live in a world of wholeness, a world of stasis, a world of calm, has been ripped from us again and again. We live in a state of Hurban.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: “Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!” Then Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my child. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. What is it? We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written: “I desire lovingkindness, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).” Avot De-Rabbi Natan 11a

Hurban and Healing
In a place of literal ruins, Rabban Yochanan rises up above his colleagues. He becomes our rabbi by offering us a way to see past the destruction. Not by pretending the destruction isn’t real, or cruel, or incapacitating, but by insisting we soar above it. His disciple, Rabbi Joshua, is trapped by his pain, by his fears, his anger, perhaps his guilt; he is blinded to any possible alternative ways to move. His teacher offers him the restoration of hope in three ways:

The first is that Rabban Yochanan broadens our vision of what is possible. My child, he says, I know you expect that sacrifice is the only way to atone. But lift up your eyes. Within the tradition there are other — in fact, better — ways to bring atonement, and if we recommit ourselves to deeds of lovingkindness, then we can gain atonement for ourselves, even amidst the ruins.

Second, Rabban Yochanan roots this idea in the power of relationship — it’s not a coincidence that he addresses his disciple as b’ni, my child. The evil that Hurban plots is to sever connectedness, to make us each shrink into our own, however we define those borders, until we are each of us and all of us truly isolated, alone, and thinking only of our own defense. B’ni, he says, break through the barrier of loneliness. We are not alone in this suffering, we remain b’ni/my child, and we do not suffer alone.

The third mode of hope Rabban Yochanan offers is to expand the realm of meaning making. In a world that assumes that the only way to achieve atonement is through the punctilious practice of ritual, he says, “No! no! no! I’m going to quote a text.” Because, it turns out that when you open yourself up to learning (all learning, but Torah learning especially), the learning transforms us. We take on someone else’s words, someone else’s thoughts, someone else’s experiences, and we enter inside those words or experiences. They become our own, and so our vision is one of new insight, new emotion. We learn to think the thoughts and feel the feelings of people we have never personally met. We try on perspectives outside our own lives and community. We cultivate empathy and imagination, and then we are renewed.

“Broader vision, strengthened relationships, rooting ourselves in sacred texts and transformational learning: these are the gifts that rabbis bring.”

Vision, Relationships and Learning
Broader vision, strengthened relationships, rooting ourselves in sacred texts and transformational learning: these are the gifts that rabbis bring. These are the treasures that Judaism offers, both as remedy and antidote. These are the sources of resilience and healing that we and all humanity need in these trying times.

In today’s storm of alienation and loneliness, bigotry and fear-generated hate, the Torah takes a stand as a haven and as a lifesaver, a tree of life offering shade, shelter and nourishment to weather the storm.

As we seek to survive the buffeting, brutality and uncertainties that we are facing today — and have faced for some time now — we turn to you, our future rabbis, to provide these blessings.

I bless you that where you stand and where you walk, you bring with you a Torah of vision, expanded to include possibilities that our fear renders temporarily invisible, a response that offers hope, not fear.

I bless you that you bring in your wake a Torah of covenantal relationship, so we remember that we are not alone. That no one need ever be truly alone, a response that mobilizes love, not rage, not hate.

And l bless you that where you teach and where you stand becomes a makom/place of Torah, of learning, so that those who are in your presence can open themselves to the transforming power of empathy, creativity and imagination, a response that values wisdom, not rash and crass impulse.

We must now gain atonement through righteous deeds of audacious lovingkindness, for it has truly been written for us: “ I desire lovingkindness, not sacrifice.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University. He is also the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of Potsdam University in Germany, ordaining Conservative / Masorti rabbis for Europe.