In this Time and In This Place: Establishing Your Voice and Defining Your Message – Ordination Address
It has been described as a period that witnessed the decline of global markets; the abuse of economic regulations; the presence of a major credit crisis; all leading to extreme levels of distrust in business and government. This era experienced a fundamental shift in this nation’s business operations and banking system.
This description is one offered by historian Scott Railey Nelson of William and Mary College—only he was writing about the 1870’s. For Nelson, the panic of 1873 represents an analogy most closely aligned to our current crisis.
In 1870, as now, the times were marked by a rapid pace of change. But today that focus is on the growth of knowledge and information technologies and the shift to a global economy; these emerging forces are profoundly redefining the social and economic environment of the 21st century.
Nelson also reminds us that the late 19th century was about the “Great Awakening”, a profound religious revival that would reshape the role of faith in America following the Civil War. Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of our movement, was clearly not immune to these penetrating social trends.
The creation of the Hebrew Union College and our Union for Reform Judaism were seen, in part, as a response to this religious renewal and to the emergence of Christian fundamentalism during the decade of the 1870’s.
In such transformative moments, leaders are challenged to re-envision the core elements of society.
Having listened to your sermons and having welcomed the occasion to study with you, earlier in this academic year, we considered your questions and concerns related to leading and serving the Jewish people during these transitional times.
The place of spirituality, the complexities of making religious choices, the opportunities to test new ideas in a changing and competitive marketplace; these themes, and others, were reflected in your sermons, papers and thesis over the course of your tenure at the College-Institute.
This struggle with complexity will define 21st century leadership: welcome to your time in history
. Understanding these new core realities may help you embrace this challenging period in which you will begin your rabbinate.
Consider the following: Civilization is doubling its knowledge-base every five years. The world is producing nearly one million new publications and books each year. The United States alone approves nearly 200,000 new patents annually. In 2001, nine years ago, there were only 625,000 computers in the world. Our nation reported 1.5 billion computers in operation this past year; and by 2012 China will surpass the United States with more than 2 billion computers. This pace of change is one of the defining marks of our times. It is reflected in every arena of our society: science, industry, business, and the arts.
In the world of religion we are witnessing as well profound structural and social changes. The Pew Study on Religion suggests that 47% of our citizens remain religiously unaffiliated. More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all.
In the most recent Pew Survey of the Millennial Generation, your peers seem to be exploring their religious identities by practicing faith, often without formally belonging to institutions or attending services. According to this study, a significant percentage of young adults have switched religious affiliation, while 24% report worshipping outside of their own faith tradition.
Experimentation marks one of the characteristics of American religion today, as your generation seeks to reshape the social matrix of our faith tradition.
As Professor Paul Lichterman of the University of Southern California suggests, this form of religious individualism is the new American religion.
Beginning today, you will bear the mantle and the voice of leadership for our people. The Torah portion we read this week speaks directly to this moment and to your place in the tradition, as symbolically you represent an extension of the priestly class.
In Parashat Naso we are introduced to the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing that will be shared with you in a few moments as an expression of your calling. These words symbolize your unique role and special place within the household of Israel.
As you assume your roles as our future leaders, my tenure of service will conclude. Over a wonderfully diverse and fulfilling career, I have come to appreciate a number of core elements of the discipline of leadership, but four are strikingly significant: the nature of power, the centrality of relationships, the art of listening, and an appreciation of institutional values.
Power used creatively and passionately can embolden an institution and in turn, inspire and define a leader. But power can also turn seductive when deployed to undermine others and thus becomes a corrosive force through intimidation and threats.
Boards and staffs can embrace one another, creating in the process their own symphonic rhythms, but when such relationships break apart through unbridled egos, tension, and conflict the outcomes are debilitating to the participants and destructive to the institution.
The art of listening is both a Jewish mandate and a leadership protocol. How well we listen and what we perceive are core elements to a leader’s success. Identifying the implied and unwrapping the nuance are critical to uncovering the intention and expectations of others.
Organizations and colleges are constructed around core values, but when leaders sacrifice these principles and compromise their mission, then institutions will be discredited and their leaders will be seen as acting outside of the sacred, without integrity, and devoid of purpose.
To understand the leadership paradigm today, one must step back to unravel where we are and what it means to operate in this “the new normal”.
I think it is intentional that we find ourselves symbolically within Bamidbar, literally “in the wilderness”, while on the one hand reaching back for the stability, yet uncertainties, of Egypt and on the other, longing for the unknown destiny and fulfillment of God’s promise, a homeland for the Jewish people.
This week, as we prepare to observe Shavuot, we are again reminded of this journey from our liberation to our renewal as a people. To embrace Torah represents our collective and individual struggle with our tradition.
In our times, a condition of alienation reflects our current state of being, as we are drawn to our past even as we are pulled into an uncertain future.
In contrast, the Biblical narrative enabled our people to construct boundaries for our collective expression, creating a legal and religious order, setting before us a well-defined standard of practice and belief.
In turn, the 19th century story is one of ideology, where faith communities and political systems experimented with alternative expressions of ideas and belief systems. This was Rabbi Wise’s contribution in shaping our movement.
Bereft of such shared ideas and confronting an environment of increasing uncertainty, the community you are entering is absent a sense of mission and of connection, searching for a shared discourse which has disappeared from the Jewish present.
The 21st century has opened around the tales of personal discovery and individual self expression. You, as our rabbis, are being asked to help re-create communities of meaning.
Ideology has exited the stage and in its place are the myriad of questions related to authority, representation, and Jewish connections. This, then, is about recapturing the text and redefining the Jewish story for a new generation, your generation.
But this journey which you are beginning is not only the story of the institutions and social structures you will be asked to serve; it represents the search for self.
In this context, I challenge you to think about your own identity as a leader while affirming your distinctive Jewish voice.
And you are not alone in this endeavor to uncover your personal Jewish response; this also reflects Aaron’s discovery of his priestly voice as well as Isaac Mayer Wise’s journey to define progressive Judaism within a 19th century frame of reference.
For each of us, in this time and in this place, it is about finding our unique Jewish expression that in turn resonates with those who seek to embrace and reclaim community.
As you step away from HUC-JIR, I would hope that you will take with you a vision of leadership that defines who you are and who you want to become.
In these uncertain times, leadership itself has come to mean something significantly different. The art of leading has emerged as relational and inspirational, separating itself from an earlier time when it was more appropriate to be corporate, and even authoritarian.
This journey is about personal leadership and of professional self-awareness, where you must play to your strengths, by embracing your own rhythms.
But, it is also about thinking strategically and managing tactically. Your rabbinate will be about both making and managing complex decisions. Accept the fact that complexity will mark your pathways.
At all levels of society decision-makers are experiencing greater difficulty in making these choices and in managing them.
Every organization has its unique culture; usually it is implicit, few people articulate its substance. In this environment, it is important to explicitly articulate the cultural patterns of our institutions, namely, how decisions are made and executed reflects the essential transparency necessary for leading in these times.
And in this process, you will need to ask: what did we learn, and in turn, what might we do differently in course of making these critical choices?
Your success will be directly tied to how well you build and sustain your core relationships. Here, my suggestion would be: “Don’t work without a net.” Securing a mentor and building a team to share the leadership mandate should mark your tenure of service.
Successful corporate and organizational elites in our times embrace this concept of collaborative partnership.
Professor Ron Heifetz of Harvard challenges us to think about the practice of leadership as the capacity to keep asking the basic questions about ourselves. This is about “hearing your voice”; a theme so powerfully, yet personally captured by the poet Mary Oliver in her creative work, The Journey
. Here, she speaks of one’s ability to unpack what she describes as the “new message” which in the end you uncover as your own distinctive, yet at times, hidden voice.
And you will want to be focused in the pursuit of your mission, shaped and nurtured by your vision. This is about remembering why you do what you do. Ultimately, this commitment to vision will serve to both sustain and to define you.
This will require you not only to frame your rabbinate around these contemporary principles of best practice but also setting a commitment for yourself to reach back into the richness of the Jewish past, unwrapping the historical insights of our tradition that serve in part as a roadmap to your own thinking and conduct.
But your leadership will be more than self-reflection and personal engagement. The stage upon which you are entering will demand and exact more of you.
In our times, individuals face uncertainty and loss within their lives; and within the human psyche, anger and distrust have replaced optimism and promise. But beyond the personal, institutions of all dimensions remain in crisis over purpose and content.
Correspondingly, the global environment is beset by heighten tensions framed by regional conflicts and uncertain economic conditions, while an unstable social order continues to dominate the landscape. In every arena of our society, we are encountering unchartered territory.
Regrettably, as part of these unsettling times, religion in some circles has itself become a political tool committed to radicalism, intolerance, and even terrorism.
Yet, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks so cogently suggests: “Religions do not need to be authoritarian to possess authority”. He notes as well that faith traditions “are less about changing government policies than changing lives.”
You enter the stage at a moment in time where Jewish communal and religious discourse has given way to narrow and disjointed thinking, and civility has all but disappeared from the public square. The Jewish community that you will inherit is bereft of a thoughtful and embracing agenda, despite the presence of significant philanthropic resources, the emergence of an impressive set of new Jewish institutions, and the ascendency of a generation of Jewish activists.
In an acceptance of these penetrating and complex new realities, your leadership must be committed to renewing our faith community, in line with Professor Rachel Adler’s perspective that “modernity has punched holes in the thought and practice of Judaism”.
Aristotle described God as “the most unmoved mover”; challenging this notion, Abraham Joshua Heschel defined God as “the most moved mover”. If God is moved, then we must be moved in this time and in this place, in order to express a new voice for Judaism within the world.
Heschel reminds us that “the gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents”. As Heschel challenged us: “We are God’s stake in human history…” “There is still more in our destiny,” he would argue.
In embracing anxiety, hearing the pain of others, and responding to global concerns and communal crisis, you become in one moment our teacher, counselor, organizer, and leader. Your moment in time will demand a revolutionary spirit no less significant than Aaron’s reframing the priestly order or Isaac Mayer Wise’s vision for building an American Judaism.
As you prepare for this moment, I would ask that you recall the role of our faculty, who over the course of your study, have challenged you to think critically, to master basic concepts and insights, to examine your beliefs, defend your perspectives, and ultimately to define your rabbinate. Our task here was not alone to inspire and teach you but to critically engage you in the complexity of the Jewish story, both its past chapters and emerging outcomes.
Now, we offer you to the Jewish people and humankind. May your journey be bold, yet personally meaningful and enriching. May you hear the words of those who traveled these roads before you, drawing on their courage and creativity, yet marking your own path with your defining message and distinctive voices. And in this transformative moment, may you challenge yourselves, and all of us, to think more richly and to act more profoundly on the stage of human history.