Excerpts from the Presidential Address of Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler
December 2, 1995
Note: Rabbi Schindler presented his final presidential address in the form of an ethical will - "a kind of love letter from the past, written in the hope that you will find on or another aspect of it sufficiently meaningful to accept it and make it your own."
My core conviction, the mainsprings of all my actions, the driving power of my life is ahavat yisrael a love for my fellow Jews which knows no limits. Within my heart, within my identity, there live many different Jews. -- There is the son of a Yiddish poet, the child of the Yiddish tongue. -- There is the German Jewish boy who studied in Munich's Orthodox day school. -- There is the refugee from Nazi terrorism, who joined the Allied Jewish soldiers who helped demolish the Third Reich. -- There is the child of the Old World who was pulled along by his father to catch a glimpse of Chaim Weizman. -- I am an American Rabbi who served joyfully in the pulpit, but I have also served on the larger stage, offering words of both challenge and support to leaders of nations. -- I am an American Jew, fully committed to nurturing our culture, our scholarship, our civilization in this golden land. But I am also a frequent flier to Israel, and a lover of that land.
The multi-colored coat that is my Jewish identity is not an emblem of pride or personal attainment. It is simply a product of the threads of my life experience, indeed, of the threads of recent Jewish history, a history of displacement and persecution and mutual dependence. Whatever its source, this sense of the minyan-within-the self, the sense that I have of representing all Jews, is the force that impelled me ever to intensify our collective feeling of Jewish peoplehood and to make certain that we Reform Jews have a seat and a voice at all tables where Jews convene, both here and abroad. I said that my love for Jews knows no limits. I had better qualify that boast, for I certainly have no truck with religious triumphalists though they call themselves Jews. I renounce those fanatics who presume to know with a certainty whose prayers are and are not acceptable to the Ribono Shel Olam. And I certainly exclude from my Jewish embrace those religious extremists who, in Israel, as well as from within the safe haven of these shores, deify land over life and sanction the murder of peacemakers. But that does not mean that every Orthodox Jew is an extremist. Let's not demonize them, and hold all responsible for the lunacy of the few. I am appalled by the recent wave of mindless discrimination assaulting Jews who wear knitted yarmulkes in Tel Aviv.
My core feeling of at-one-ness embraces Jews of every kind - and I hope that this sense of Jewish unity will persist among us. Let us not ever be obsessed with labels and with fractious energy. If nothing else, the memory of the shoah should impel us to do so. Let us never forget that those who sought to destroy us made no distinctions between us.
The Outreach revolution of Reform Judaism is the programmatic initiative for which I would like to be remembered -- cursed, perhaps, by the fractious minority, and blessed by thousands of ingathered Jews and their partners and children. Ingathering is a good word for what we have heretofore called Outreach, for it suggests a gesture of embrace not of strain. We "outreach" beyond our bounds; we "ingather" to a rightful home. Whatever we call it, our program is rooted in the realistic acknowledgment of the present social condition. Our programs were not designed to stem the rising tide of intermarriage. The mission of Reform Jewish Outreach is not preventive but restorative. It's purpose is to draw the intermarried back into Jewish life in the hope that the non-Jewish partners will ultimately opt for Judaism, and above all that the children of these marriages will be reared as Jews.
But do not all of these strangers in our midst tend to dilute Judaism to water it down? That is up to us. It is we who set the standards in our congregations. And if our standards are high, and our programs substantive, those who come from the periphery to the center, from the outside to the inside invariably are among the first to laud and cultivate a flowering of Jewish literacy and spirituality. Our Outreach program also seeks to bring marginalized Jews from the periphery to the center...and over the years such ba'aley t'shuva have also made their mark on Jewish life. Outreach is not merely a construct for the post-modern moment. It reflects our tradition's most ancient sensibilities.
Our Jewish boundaries should be erected not as fences but as fringes, just as the fringes of the tallit which Jews gather so lovingly and kiss when they recite the sh'ma. Let us always press for non-tribal, non-racial, all-enfolding Judaism.
Let us not be among those who respond to the suffering of the past by living in the past; who react to the long-drawn isolation of our people with an isolationism of their own. Let us rather be among those who define their Jewishness not as exclusive but as exemplary, not as separatist but as universal, not as closed but as open, not as rejecting but as all-embracing and compassionate.
Praying for Shalom - Wholeness - in Israel
In the precious land and state of Israel, "fringes, not fences" has been the consistent goal of the Reform movement. We have expressed this forcefully in our defense of the Law of Return and in our efforts to gain recognition of liberal Judaism's legitimacy in the Jewish State. "Fringes, not fences" has governed the miraculous ingathering of our people, and "fringes, not fences" has made Israel into a sun-colored, luxuriant tapestry of ethnic diversity. The same philosophy has been expressed through our ongoing concern over issues of land, peace, occupation, and the appropriate use of military power. A land whose bloody paths trace back to the barbed-wire fences of Auschwitz, should not erect barbed-wire boundaries of its own -- neither through the domination of two million Palestinians, nor through the hurling of barbed-wire hatreds, Jew against Jew.
The unbearable, soul searing events November 4th give cruel testimony of our failure to persuade, to sway, to influence. Perhaps we were naive: We disbelieved the capacity of demagoguery to translate into violence. This bitter lesson we have relearned: that words are not wind, that they are the shadow of deeds, that thy can hold society together or incite a fanatic to kill. Let us be heedful of our words, then, and let our voices be heard loud and clear, for our silence is suicide, our silence is surrender. In Israel the momentum for peace is irreversible. Its harvest is already ripening on the vine. The Arab-Israeli peace process, flawed and embryonic as it is, has normalized Israel's relations with the rest of the world, even as peace- -building policies are spawning bullish economics. These are realities that no assassin's bullets can undo.
To maintain the land's sanctity, we must fulfill the covenant by which it was given to Abraham: we must help make Israel a model, a miniature that reflects the ideal society that God want us to fashion on this earth. I view Israel as partner to the Diaspora. My Zionism seeks to cultivate an ongoing renaissance for Diaspora Judaism -- and to struggle for Israel's own Zionism to be maximally inclusive. Reform Judaism and the Reform rabbinate will not long be negated in Eretz Yisrael! We have the right, nay the obligation, to demand that our rabbis and our institutions be extended equal standing, authority, and endowment in the Jewish State. We ask this not as a favor, not as an indulgence, but as our rightful entitlement as Jews.
Reform Judaism's Challenge Reform is the adjective that defines my Judaism, and I wear its badge with pride. I deem Reform to be more authentically Jewish than contemporary Orthodox literalism. We Reform Jews feel free to diverge from tradition; we accord halachah a vote but no veto. Halachah was frozen some centuries ago in the name of self preservation, when our people, confronted by the repressive powers of Christendom, were made to bind the community by tightening the links of codification. Our task is to defrost the halachah until it is once again soluble in human tears, human blood, human reality. Reform Judaism's ability to do so is its great virtue. But I fear that we Reform Jews are entirely too lax in our practices. Having asserted our autonomy, insisting on our right to choose, too many among us choose nothing at all, or choosing something we observe it only haphazardly. How we respond to Judaism's mandate that bids us make Torah study a life time task. how we attach deeds to Torah study -- these are our Jewish moorings. Without such a mooring, deeds become entirely non-obligatory. They can be accepted or rejected capriciously.
A Reform Judaism of substance, a Reform Judaism that is more than minimalist, more than a legacy bequeathed only to our children and not to us, more than a formal affiliation lacking in meaningful matter -- is an actual life path, linking the past to the future through the wilderness of our lives.
The Synagogue as Sanctuary and Home
Our lives are like a wilderness, uncharted and unpredictable, no matter how carefully we prepare for our comings and goings. We each carry our own pekel of tsuris, and yet, by gathering our heartaches together into a house of worship, we find something transformative happening: our sorrows become windows of compassion. There, paths through the wilderness, hewed and marked by past generations, give us our bearings. The Talmud called the synagogue the place "where heaven and earth kiss." I simply wish to call it home. Like any home, the synagogue needs upkeep, renovation, innovation, to keep up with the changing climate. The human dynamics within our congregational homes need refreshment and renewal. We hope for intimacy and spiritual engagement and to often we receive awkwardness and spiritual uncertainty. We hope for exaltation and we often receive habit. We hope for support and often we receive rejection.
As president of the Union, I have supported every effort to make our congregations into accessible and caring communities, centers of adult learning, places of inspired worship. But the Covenant is a two-way street, my friends, and in this, my parting message and my ethical will, I urge my fellow Reform Jews to abandon the noncommittal stance that too many have about temple life. So unbound are we from our lives from community, so accustomed to our individualism, that we often carry a kind of consumerist "prove-it-to-me" attitude that is impossible for even the best rabbi and the liveliest congregation to fulfill.
Perhaps we are simply so intimidated by Judaism's prerequisites, so ashamed of our ignorance and uncertainty, so loathe to feel helpless or lonely or foolish, that before our mortification can surrender to awe, we are gone through that revolving door. I urge you: Be steadfast! Learn to make patience and humility your first spiritual discipline. Learn to count awkwardness and discomfort as your first spiritual achievement. Let us overcome the arrogance that blocks our perceptions of Divinity. Let us overcome the fear that constrain us to flee from the synagogue and from spiritual commitment. For it is in the synagogue that, if we stand and pray, "the Holy One listens" -- so the Jerusalem Talmud tells us -- even as a friend in whose ear one whispers a secret.
Social Action -- "Here I am!"
Our experience of God is not confined to the sanctuary. God is made manifest in the marketplace, in the communal and even global issues of the day. Many Reform Jews see this as the pivotal mandate of the religious life, and their "hineni...here I am!" chiefly takes the form social action. "Social Action," as if it were something entirely separate from prayer or study, or outreach, or the quest to slake our thirst for spirituality. Applied Judaism, I would prefer to call it -- for my Judaism does not recognize any dichotomy between the secular and the sacred, the worldly and the heavenly. Our so- called "political" and "economic" and "social problems" are religious in their essence and in their solution.
However we define our "central mission," we would be pursuing folly as well as irresponsibility were we to downgrade our social action work. It is the musculature that binds together our endeavors and gives them power and substance. It has been the pathway to Jewish commitment for thousands of us, young and old. It has helped to rear a generation of Jews for whom there is no schizophrenic division between the real world and the world of Jewish devotion. Our planet's very fate is dependent upon a sacralized human consciousness -- a religious consciousness of blessing, stewardship and community responsibility that would make inconceivable the current environmental pillage. So too, the idolatry of human hatred, the marauding monster of genocide as was manifested in Bosnia, will be cured only through the heightened awareness of Judaism's central teaching that each human being is created in the image of God. The world's upsurge of religious fundamentalism, a reaction to the godless, ruthless materialism of our times will be cured only through the cultivation of a modern religious humanism which, in Buber's words, "combines the human element and religiosity in a way that they do not merely dwell side by side but permeate each other."
The Terrible Relevance of God
Tikkun olam is our quest to bring the world of everyday life into a unity with the world on high, to build a Jacob's Ladder between human reality and human ideals. There are sparks of holiness imprisoned in the stuff of creation. Freeing these fragments and reuniting them with God -- that is what tikkun olam is all about: gathering the sparks, searching for God in every corner of the world, restoring the divine unity. When we use our resources as blessings...when we treat other human beings as human beings...the sparks leap together. Then we know that our God is a living God; and in that knowledge we too come alive.
I, personally, feel the leap of the sparks most readily by listening to great music. It was Abraham Heschel who said:." Music leads to the threshold of repentance, of unbearable realization of our own vanity and frailty, and of the terrible relevance of God." Aye, the "terrible relevance of God." Jacob awakes from his dream shaken to his core. His spiritual awakening is not about bliss or consolation or salvation. It is, rather, about the "terrible relevance of God"-- a yoke about his shoulder, a binding of the heart. For Jacob, the response of such a revelation was to take the stone that he had used for a pillow and make of it an altar -- to anoint the place as Bethel a holy place, where the reality of God became clear.
So it is with our community: We have together built this most dynamic Jewish movement atop the many levels of the Jewish past, and as a gateway into the Jewish future. We have done so by returning from our separate journeys, again and again, to our togetherness, to the place that is God. Together we have made of Jacob's stone a circle of stones
Ringing the World
It is my joy, now, to step out of the center of that circle. My sojourn at Bethel is complete. Younger heads are ready to dream their dreams upon it. God willing, my words and my deeds will remain a part of that altar. God willing, the ladder will be lowered to me and my dear Rhea wherever the years may take us -- that we may ascend and descend and serve and dance with the angels.