November 21, 2018

Small beginnings, big futures: The first ordination of the Zacharias Frankel College, Berlin, Germany

The Torah portion that we read last week portrays the Children of Israel standing on the border of our Promised Land and wondering whether they could dare take the risk of entering. In a combination of courage and timidity, they assemble a group of spies to enter the Land of Canaan to see what kind of a place it might be. Who dwells there? What are the produce of the land? What are the rivers, and the walls, and the towns, and the mountains? What place has God and Moses taken them to?

They scour the land and then carry back fruit that they find in this unknown place, fruit so heavy laden that they carry them on poles on their backs and when they return to the waiting tribes, in a moment of absolute terror, they blurt out “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and we must have looked that small even to them (Numbers 13:33).”

It is the very nature of beginnings to first appear small; we never know how our tentative launching will play out. So every new beginning represents an act of faith: faith in a future that is, at the moment, merely possible. Whether it will ever grow into actuality, one cannot know in advance. We simply launch and trust.

So, I want us to think about the ways in which something can appear very small from one perspective, yet entirely grand from a second perspective. What is at stake at this moment, from one perspective, is very little indeed. Will one woman become a rabbi or not? In a school that has enrolled only a handful of students and a small number of professors, that action remains relatively trivial. But from another perspective, what is at stake is nothing less than the redemption of Western civilization. Because it is the nature of history that all events have a prior cause. One action (or several coming together) causes a subsequent event, that subsequent event becomes a cause in turn for what transpires next. But the meaning of the series of events always emerges backwards. The meaning of the event is determined by what people do with it later.

Germany is not the only corner of the world that has had a bloody past. The entire planet is drenched in human blood and suffering. We, as a species, oppress each other, harm each other, and brutalize each other repeatedly. But what we are doing here today holds the promise of redeeming that past by giving it a particular context, meaning and direction. Today’s ordination asserts that the suffering that has happened in this place was not purposeless. That suffering has led to this moment, to these possibilities.

Throughout time and across the globe, civilizations have defined themselves against some “other” that is deliberately slandered, trivialized, and misunderstood. The Greeks and the Romans defined themselves against so-called “Barbarians” and their constructed their self-identity in stark contrast to the label “Barbarian” which they reserved for everyone else.

In my country, the United States, the founders and even many people today, define themselves first against the African slaves, and later against some stock notion of African Americans. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of what it means to be a free and democratic “man” was dependent on keeping an entire population enslaved, and understanding white and Black not just as racial shorthand but as moral types. Black people were not marginal to the white American vision at the any point in American history. Similarly, male self-definition problematizes and marginalizes women. Heterosexual culture marginalizes and oppresses LGBT people. The list goes on and on; it is the way we make people “others” and “objects”, and marginal for the sake of our own sense of dignity. And surely one of the people who are measured as “other” throughout European history is the Jew. If you look at the writings of Europeans throughout the millennia, their sense of themselves as free, male, Christian, white, and civilized, was at the earliest levels defined by their not being the Jew. That identity as superior and distinct was affirmed in their launching crusades that slaughtered Jews, in Inquisitions, in Pogroms, and in Holocaust.

What we have here in Berlin at this auspicious moment is the birthing of a new Europe, a Europe in which others are celebrated as ourselves. In which “other” is an invitation to explore and to get to know, not only Jews, but all of us who have a stake in this new Europe, in this new world: a world in which all of us are brothers and sisters, not because we eliminate our differences, but because we accentuate and we delight in each other’s differences. That’s really what this first Masorti Ordination is about. In our own eyes, we may be merely grasshoppers, insignificant insects in the stream of a vast history that is thousands of years old. But every one of us is here today because our vision of tomorrow’s Europe, our vision of tomorrow’s Earth, is a place in which all of us are citizens together. All of us participants of a grand commonwealth of diversity, of multiple languages, of civilizations that are no longer separate, but which flow into each other and inform each other.

We can redefine the meaning of what took place here. We can make choices in such a way that today’s ordination of Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin, is one more affirmation that the Barbarians who attempted to define European greatness in terms of blood, force, and hatred, no longer drive this continent, no longer drive our vision of what is civilized, or righteous, or just. We do.

On a personal note, I lost family in this land, not very long ago in the scheme of human history. I wish that they were alive today to see us ordaining a new Rabbi because the German people joined with the Jewish people to make this celebration possible. It would have felt messianic; it would have been unbelievable to see a room with brothers and sisters who are Christian, Muslim, secular, and Jewish, all coming together in common cause. To stand with people from Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and North America, all together to make this new reality. We are tomorrow, shining a beacon of hope and joy today.

So I say to you, “Am Yisrael Chai.” The Jewish people lives!

I say to you, freedom and dignity beckon us yet.

I say to you that in each newly ordained Rabbi, humanity begins anew.

Let us aspire to, and grasp a rebirth of humanity now.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Germany.