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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

New Rabbis, New Challenges: from Sinai to Kafka, and beyond

Last weekend I had the privilege, the honour, of addressing the graduating rabbinic students of the Leo Baeck College at the College’s annual Ordination service and ceremony. The ceremony is known as semikhah and is rooted in an ancient tradition of rabbinic teachers passing on authority to the next generation of students through a ceremony of ‘laying on of hands’. This rabbinic tradition is itself traced back symbolically to the way in which Moses appointed Joshua as his successor to lead the Israelite community (Numbers 27:15-23).

I received semikhah in 1980. (The rabbi who ordained me happened to be seated next to me on Sunday). That seems a world away in both time and in the ethos of the times, and when I came to think about what I wanted to speak about to the graduating class of 2017 ( four women and three men) I found myself thinking about the extraordinary challenges not just Jewish communities will be facing in the next decades, but challenges all of us in Europe will be facing. What will a new generation of rabbis need to find within themselves? These new Jewish leaders will be asked to teach in, and minister to,  communities in circumstances quite different, I felt, from the challenges rabbis have faced in the last 40 years. What follows here is an edited version of the address I offered the graduating class and the assembled gathering of family, friends and congregants who came together at West London Synagogue to celebrate this special occasion. I was grateful to the students for asking me. And grateful to the Leo Baeck College for acceding to their request.


You all know the parable, Kafka’s numinous midrash: I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. Each one of you has heard this call, this summons, addressed to you, when others may have heard nothing – or doubted your hearing of it - and it took you eventually on your journey to the Leo Baeck College, and into the rabbinate.
Kafka’s bugle (Trompete in the original) is a close relative of the shofar, present at the revelation at Sinai when the Israelite community, our people, learn of the moral and ethical vision that it has been their burden and destiny to carry and try to enact. And just as at Sinai when the call went out and tradition says that each person heard it in their own way, according to their own character and personality, each one of you has heard that collective call in your own way, interpreted it, wrestled with it, questioned it, inhabited it, on this path into the rabbinate.
So you are inheritors of both mythopoeic traditions – one speaking of a call addressed to all the Jewish people that each one of you has been developing your own relationship to; the other speaking of a call that only you alone have heard. This dialogue, and dialectic, between these two traditions – between Sinai and modernity - will form and inform your future careers.
So, attuned to that call – for they are, at root, a single call -  what are you each going to do with it? ’Where are you riding to, master?’ ‘I do not know’, I said, ‘only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.’  On one level of course you know your destination [the communities in the UK and Europe in which they will serve]...but of course, in reality, ‘away from here’, none of you have any idea about your destinations.
In the next 30 years, 40 years with strength, the timeframe (more or less) of your rabbinate, the world we have all grown up in, that you have grown up in and know, will increasingly come under strain. It’s been said that ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms can appear’ [Antonio Gramsci].  The signs of stress and fracture are all around us – the ‘morbid symptoms’.   
What resources will you have – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – what resources will you bring, to this morbidity when it breaks apart the familiar world we feel so settled  within? What kind of Judaic hopefulness will you represent, enact? How will you stay attuned to that ancient call of the shofar that in our tradition also announces the possibility of, the coming of, a time of messianic transformation for humanity on our fragile planet? How– attuned to that call – how will you help your communities respond to - and those you work with adapt to - what might happen? How will you support them through the enormous changes people are facing in the world of work? how will you help them through  ethnic tensions, societal tensions? How will you guide them through in the face of some of the dark human impulses that have recently come to the fore, from the small-minded and mean-spirited to the murderous?  How will you guide them through the consequences of the build-up of carbon in the air and nitrogen in the soil, the acidification of oceans and the desertification of once-fertile lands, as the Anthropocene age really takes a grip and globalisation and late capitalism increases the gaps between the haves and the have-nots?
Will you have the inner strength, the resilience, to resist colluding with the many modes of concealment of these realities, that prevent people taking effective action?
In these decades ahead the spiritual and Enlightenment values that you all embrace and embody in such an impressive way – open-minded, liberal, egalitarian, emotionally literate, intellectually clued-in – will come under pressure, we don’t know how severe, from regressive forces of intolerance and fear, communal rivalry and international conflict. What will you as Jewish leaders, Jewish religious leaders and thinkers, need to be saying? What are the Jewish truths that will keep you steady in a post-truth age?
How will you use the truths of Torah to inspire, to soothe, to heal - or to provoke – your communities? How will you help your communities keep their vision alive? their capacity to be attuned to the bugle’s call? How will you help them relate to the truths of Ha-Kadosh Baruch-Hu – the Holy One of Israel – one of whose names is Emet/ truthfulness?
‘You have no provisions with you,’ he said. ‘I need none,’ I said, ‘the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
If  - in spite of the last five years of intense study at the College - there are ‘no provisions’ that can be prepared in advance to help us cope with the vicissitudes of life and the dramas of history, then you are like the children of Israel in the wilderness who depend on receiving manna from the Eternal One. Nothing can save us, Kafka intuits - channelling his innate spiritual understanding of the Judaic story – unless we are open to receive what life offers us day by day. This is the daily miracle – we receive what we need to keep us going. You have already found this out during your last 5 years together at the College – you do receive what you need, and often it is from each other, from the divine spark active in each other. What a resource! What a resource you have in each other – you know this, and I know that you treasure this.
I hope what I have said hasn’t daunted you too much! Remember that ‘it is, fortunately( es ist ja zum Glück), a truly immense journey’. What a wonderful sense of celebration, anticipation, hopefulness this evokes. That concluding phrase, and indeed the whole parable, is one of the great religious commentaries on the story of the Jewish people.
Today – fortunately! – you are taking your places in that story, the story of a people enamoured by stories, in thrall to stories, who still have a story to tell to the world, a story to live out. May you, ordinands of 2017, live it well. You have all our very best wishes as you set out.






  1. Thank you, Howard, for this. I enjoyed your address on Sunday, and this follow-up post. Actually, I think we DO have some provisions: Torah, Tanach, Talmud, Jewish history and heritage, Jewish community, the human family. We start with all of these in our luggage that we take with us on the immense journey.

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