Chaverai – My Friends:
I began writing these weekly E-Blasts about ten years ago. Originally the messages were intended as very short indicators of the significance of the Torah portion for any given week, along with a schedule of upcoming events. As the years passed, they evolved into fuller commentaries: on the Torah portion, on current events or historical events of note, on people I’ve met and places I’ve visited. Putting this together each week for the past decade has been an interesting and formidable challenge. But also, in this time of Internet communication and social media, it has been an important and helpful medium through which to communicate with you. Over the years I have been pleased to hear from many of you about them: on E-mail, standing at the temple elevator, or passing in the street, and have very much appreciated the subsequent questions and conversations these commentaries have sparked between us. A number of you have told me that you particularly enjoyed the commentaries I have sent from Israel over the years, about events, and people, and places of significance and interest. Because of the intensity of the Shalom Hartman schedule, and the time difference, of course, it was particularly challenging for me and for Harriet (and Effi before her) to prepare them in time for Shabbat. But by hook or by crook we managed, because it was an important mode of maintaining connections, even from the other side of the world. Those of you who are Union Temple members may not realize that there are also people from other congregations, and from the general neighborhood and beyond, who subscribe to these E-blasts every week. And sometimes, after reading a particular E-blast, some of them have joined us for services that Shabbat, and I have very much enjoyed seeing them. I saw several of our friends from the neighborhood this past Friday evening, in fact, which was my last service as Rabbi of Union Temple. I will continue as Rabbi Emerita, of course, which will ensure my ongoing relationship with our wonderful congregation. But in fact, my presence will be significantly less frequent, and that will take some getting used to, for all of us.
The following are the remarks that I delivered during the service on Friday night. They were, and are, heartfelt. But it is with these that I now will conclude my weekly E-blasts to you. Those that have been formatted for the website will remain there. And this of course does not obviate the possibility for our continued communication, which I would welcome! But at least in this format, and in this capacity, I now will sign off, and offer my profound thanks to all of you once again for your time and interest in reading them.
Rabbi Goodman’s Parting Words, June 22, 2018
This past Monday night, I attended the semikha ceremony (the rabbinic ordination) for Yeshivat Maharat (I’ll explain the name in a moment), which was held at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. My good friend, Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler, who has been on the faculty of Maharat for several years, was receiving semikha. The president of Yeshivat Maharat, of course, is another good friend of mine, Rabba Sara Hurwitz. Sara was the first Orthodox woman to receive semikha. As of Monday night, there are now 26 Orthodox Jewish women who are musmakhot (ordained). This enables them to teach, to lead, and to decide matters of Halakha – Jewish law. All seven of Monday’s musmakhot are equally impressive, enthusiastic, eager young women. To recite their credentials would take way too long, so you’ll have to take my word for it. The ceremony in Riverdale was joyful and spiritually uplifting.
Erin and Sara both came into my circle of personal friends in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute for 3 years, and where we all became Senior Rabbinic Fellows during the summer of 2016. Erin, who holds a BA from Harvard, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, has been serving for several years as Director of Spiritual Development at Yeshivat Maharat, and will continue in that position. She also has joined the faculty of the Hartman Institute.
When I was installed as President of the New York Board of Rabbis in 2012, here at Union Temple, the keynote speaker was Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, who was celebrating the 40th anniversary of her ordination as the first woman officially ordained a rabbi. In her remarks that evening, Rabbi Priesand told us that after her ordination, when she came to New York to begin her term as Assistant Rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, of course she applied for membership in the New York Board of Rabbis. But a number of Orthodox colleagues threatened to resign if her application was accepted. In protest to the Orthodox opposition, Rabbi Edward Klein, z”l (then Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise), and Rabbi Dr. Alfred Gottshalk, z”l (then President of HUC-JIR, who had ordained Rabbi Priesand – and me as well, 13 years later) also threatened to resign! At this, the leadership of the Board came together to reason this through. They knew full well that though Sally was the first, she most assuredly would not be the last. Their choice was rather simple: accept this new reality of the Jewish world, or bring about the dissolution of the New York Board of Rabbis, which, since its founding in 1881, has stood as a model of K’lal Yisrael – interdenominational cooperation within the Jewish community – and an active interfaith partner as well, with other religious leaders in the greater New York Metropolitan area. Ultimately, these rabbis understood that welcoming Sally into the Board was the right thing to do. And so, they did. And, 40 years later, in 2012, at the longest established Jewish congregation in Brooklyn – from this very pulpit – Rabbi Priesand delivered the keynote address as, for the first time, a woman was installed as President of the Board.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz was ordained in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber. Both Rabbis Weiss and Sperber are leading Modern Orthodox scholars, and forward-thinking rabbis. But within the Orthodox community there was great resistance, particularly in the use of Rabba, the feminine derivative of Rav – Rabbi. I was not privy to the goings-on in the Orthodox world. But it was clear that even a powerhouse the likes of Avi Weiss felt the torrent of pressure that came down upon him. So, in an effort to proceed, the word “Rav” was dropped for the time being, though by now some of the musmachot are indeed using various derivatives. At the time, however, a new word was created: Maharat. Maharat is an acronym for Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toratit – A Leader of Jewish Law, Spirituality, and Torah learning. Nevertheless, the RCA – the Rabbinical Council of America – the “mainstream” professional Orthodox rabbinic organization – refused to accept Rabba Hurwitz, and would not grant her membership in the RCA. (Sound familiar?) I will not go into any greater detail at the moment, other than to say that ultimately the New York Board of Rabbis, did accept Rabba Hurwitz’s application for membership. And, in 2014, my last official act as President was to formally welcome into the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox woman to be ordained a rabbi.
Welcoming Rabbi Priesand here, and Rabba Hurwitz there, were both moments of profound significance to me. I hope that in my own career in the Rabbinate, I have done both these remarkable women proud. I hope as well, that I have done all of you proud – in earning your trust and support – as you made the commitment in 1992 to elect the first woman to occupy the rabbinic pulpit in the long and distinguished history of this congregation. I know that it was an extremely serious decision for you, and at the time, a risk as well. And from the very first moment, I have considered it a singular privilege and honor to serve as Rabbi of Union Temple. Though there have been many changes that you and I together have brought about over these 26 years, it has always been with the utmost respect for the history and traditions of the congregation, and with the intent of upholding the values of Jewish teaching, with particular adherence to a Reform iteration of that teaching. I have always been incredibly proud of our Movement, and proud and grateful to be a Reform Jew. I will continue to work for the benefit of our Movement, both here and in Israel – and, you never know, maybe elsewhere as well.
Earlier this week, I called my good friend Rabbi Alan Henkin – Steve’s good friend too, and classmate, in fact – and of course, our congregant as well. I told him that suddenly I was experiencing a bit of a shock – that davka, just this week, in the midst of this latest insult to our sense of equilibrium in this country – my instinct was to gather together with you and go and fight together.
But in fact, for right now, I have to step back. Of course, we’ll be upholding the same causes, and we’ll probably see each other at gatherings or demonstrations here and there. But for this very moment, I have to – let go. Alan opined on how you and I have generally been on the same wavelength in the political arena, and I can’t tell you what an amazing facet of our relationship that has been. He reminded me that some of our colleagues out there are not nearly as lucky in that regard. They live and work in “red” states – in “open carry” states – in states that support everything that is abhorrent to them, and to us. And indeed, I myself have heard some of the personal struggles of these colleagues – because they know they must minister to their people, even when they find their people’s political leanings to be diametrically opposed to their own. In that respect, I may be one of the luckiest rabbis in the country!
A particular joy for me over these years has been studying with you – as ongoing study is one of the central features and aspirations of Jewish life. Adult Ed in all its various forms: midweek, Sunday mornings, and the Shabbat Morning Hevre. That Hevre has been one of the absolute pleasures in my life – and it wasn’t because of the bagels! It was because of the commitment and the hevruta. And I am grateful to every person who has been a part of it, whether as a “regular” or “here and there.”
You have listened to my sermons with seriousness and respect; not always in complete agreement, but always with seriousness and respect. And, a shameless plug, if I may, for those of you who are members of our congregation, if you have not yet picked up your copy of my little book of sermons, which is my gift to you, please make sure to do that before you leave. In the preface I have written a short summation of my understanding of the deepest and most fundamental teachings of Jewish tradition: to be kind, generous, and honest; to live with dignity and integrity; to pursue justice and fairness; to refine our relationship with God and improve our relationships with one another; to continue our quest to understand that which is beyond ourselves in the Universe; to love and honor the Torah, and study our tradition throughout our lives; to love Judaism and the Jewish People.
You have allowed me into your lives at the most sensitive moments, both very happy, and extremely sad. And you have been part of our lives as well – Steve’s and Philip’s and mine – at those same sensitive moments, both very happy, and also, extremely sad. You have trusted me with your kids, whom I will always think of as my kids. We have prayed together, sung together, partied together, schmoozed together, laughed together, sometimes argued together, and at times, cried together. We have marched together – whether here in New York, or up in Albany, or down in Washington. We have traveled to Israel together. And of course, we have eaten, and eaten, and eaten together. You are my people. You are my friends. You are my family. I will miss you. I will come back, here and there, but I will miss you. Stephen and Philip and I wish you nothing but the best, and, as they used to say over the radio during the years that I was at Temple Emanu-El, it will always be “with very great love.”