Friday, March 7, 2008

Sources of Inspiration for a Life in the Rabbinate


Sermon on the Occasion of the Rabbi's Installation

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Temple Beth Shalom of Long Beach

March 7,2008


Sources of Inspiration for a Life in the Rabbinate


Opening Remarks and Acknowledgments

Thank you, Sally, for your beautiful words. Sally Weber is one of the most respected Jewish professionals in our region. I belong to the army of rabbis, Jewish educators, Jewish communal professionals and major lay leaders who admire your vision, courage, and compassion. You are an amazing mother, spouse, and friend and hosts of the best Passover Seder in Los Angeles. I am honored that you are here tonight to install me as Rabbi at Beth Shalom.

When I was in Rabbinical school I was invited to be on an interfaith panel of seminarians from different faiths who were asked to tell their stories of their journeys to the clergy. The Protestant seminarian began by sharing how a number of years ago he was down and out on skid row. One night while lying in a drunken stupor on the street, he had a vision of his savior so powerful that he put back his life together and ultimately entered the seminary to train to become a minister.

He was followed by a Catholic priest in training who told us about his serving as a Navy fighter pilot flying missions over North Vietnam. On one particularly destructive bombing run, he had a vision of his savior. In the vision Jesus told him to stop his war making and instead, choose the path of peace. He left the Navy to become a priest and now he committed himself to a life of celibacy and peacemaking.

It was now my turn. Now the audience was on the edge of its seat waiting to hear the dramatic events that led me to the rabbinate. I admitted, " It was all because of my mother. " I went on to say that it was my parents who laid the groundwork for my becoming a rabbi. They brought me up in a home filled with love, characterized by intellectual curiosity, a commitment to social action and service, and a love of Judaism. While I chose a different religious movement than the one they brought me up in, I have always remained close to them. By coming to Long Beach, I am just down the road from them. I am so happy that they are close by and can share in this happy moment.

I also want to thank my wife, Robbie, who has been so supportive as we have maintained a long distance marriage during this first phase of my time here. She is the best virtual rebbetzin I know. Thank you to my friends and family including many of Robbie's family who are present tonight to share in this simchah.

Lastly, thank you to the congregants of Temple Beth Shalom who placed their trust in me to serve as your Rabbi. I have been thrilled to meet so many wonderful and devoted people during this first seven months. I add my words of praise to Eugene and Eva Schlesinger who we honor tomorrow night. I met them during my interview week and came away deeply impressed by them. They embody the incredible yiddishkeit and menthlichkeit of this congregation which led me to choose to come to Temple Beth Shalom back in April of last year.

The source of inspiration for my rabbinate flows from my distinguished predecessors, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud. They speak to me through their stories and texts and illuminate difficult questions, nurture wisdom, and bring meaning to my life. Tonight I want to share with you four beloved texts from the Rabbis and why they inspire me as your Rabbi. Through them you can get to know me. I hope they inspire you as well.


My first story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Eruvim 13b

R. Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel over a matter of Jewish law. Beit Shammai asserted, 'The halachah is in agreement with our views' and Beit Hillel countered, 'The halachah is in agreement with our views'. Then a bat kol-a voice from Heaven- issued forth and announced: '[The utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel'.

The Talmud now pauses and asks, "Since, however, both are the words of the living God' why was Beit Hillel's position given precedence?"

The answer is given: Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beth Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before theirs…..

אמר רבי אבא אמר שמואל: שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל, הללו אומרים הלכה
כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו. יצאה בת קול ואמרה: אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הלל. וכי מאחר שאלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים מפני מה זכו בית הלל לקבוע הלכה כמותן ־ מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו, ושונין דבריהן ודברי בית שמאי. ולא עוד אלא שמקדימין דברי בית שמאי לדבריהן

Have you ever had an argument for three years? If you are married you know this is very plausible. The Talmud is talking about an intractable dispute between two schools of thought. It doesn't even bother to introduce us to what they were arguing about. The Talmud is simply telling us about an irresolvable dispute that God decides to adjudicate. The Bat Kol is an indirect, but clarifying decision from on high, like the bailiff announcing the decision of a judge.

From this text we receive two wonderful teachings. There are disputes between human beings which carry truth-as expressed in our beautiful formulation: Elu v'elu divrei Elohim Hayim. We are quick in human relations to dismiss or ridicule the strongly held positions of the other. But there is truth to them. Recognizing that truth is the only chance for compromise.

But if God has to choose between two reasonable positions, then He takes regard of the behavior of the adversaries. Which one was civil? Which one was open minded? Which one was firm, but not arrogant about his position? For God according to this text esteems civility in conflict, open mindedness in the face of complexity, and modesty in one's personal demeanor. This text models us on how to disagree with others, yet to afford them dignity, respect, and consideration. There is a way to be a menstch in an argument.



My next text comes to us from the Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 8c (4th century CE)


Shimon ben Shetah traded in cotton. His students said to him: "Master, allow us to buy a donkey so that you will not have to labor so much." They went and bought him a donkey from a certain Syriac (non-Jew) and found upon it a precious stone.

They came and told him: "Now you need not labor ever again."

Said he: "Why so?'

They replied, "We have bought you a donkey from a certain Syriac, and found upon it a precious stone."

He asked" "But does the owner know of it?"

They replied: "No."

He told them: "Go and return it."

They responded to him, 'But did not Rav Huna Bivi Bar Gozlon say, quoting Rav, "It was stated in the presence of Rabbi (Judah, the Prince), ' Even according to the view that stealing from a pagan is forbidden, (appropriating) his lost property is permitted."'?

He looked them intently and said, "What do you think, that Shimon ben Shetah is a barbarian? Shimon b. Shetah preferred hearing, "Blessed be the God of the Jews" to all the riches of this world.


We all must face a God test. Does the God we believe in make sense to those around us? How do we know this? The God we believe in is evident in our actions and our behavior. It doesn't even matter if we don't believe in God. Our actions reveal our beliefs about the moral order of the universe. An avowed atheist who acts with moral impeccability is not an atheist from the Jewish point of view. For a Jew, according to Shimon Ben Shetah, our actions toward other people, especially those who are not of our faith should lead to a response: "Blessed be the God of the Jews."

Shimon Ben Shetah understood that we teach about God by our behavior more than our words and our statements of belief. How do you teach the love God? Engage in loving acts toward other human beings. How do you impart the hatred of God-be a jerk with other human beings. Our children, our neighbors, the strangers we encounter sense God by how we treat them and others. Does our behavior lead to the exclamation: Blessed be the God of the Jews?



My third story comes from the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat

…It happened that a certain pagan came before Rabbi Shammai and said to him, 'Make me a convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I balance on one foot.' Shammai dismissively pushed him out his door with a yardstick that was in his hand. The man then trekked to Rabbi Hillel and made the same request: 'Make me a convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I balance on one foot.' Hillel said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, all those scrolls you see here in the Beit Midrash are commentary on that idea; Now go and learn from them.'

Empathy is a very important quality in the rabbinic tradition. Hillel could connect with the most marginal or unreasonable person and find the gist of what that person was seeking. He would take their strange requests and find the way to connect them to Judaism. Rabbi Hillel was not merely giving this pagan what they call in the modern marketing, an elevator pitch. Hillel grasped the greatness of Judaism and believed that it was his responsibility to help the others to grasp it, in a way that each person could understand it coming from his unique background and capacity.

He also understood that the opening to a life of Torah and Mitzvot consisted of a seed, a kernel, a shoot he needed to plant within the inquirer. Think about your own Jewish journey. Was there someone in your life who planted the seed within you? When was it? How was it planted? What did it lead to? Rabbi Shammai, as brilliant as he was, did not know how to do this. He only could deal with fully grown, pruned, and fertilized plants. Hillel knew how to plant and grow them. A good rabbi has to be a farmer and a gardener.


My last text comes from Talmud Bavli, Berachot 32a:

The Talmud quotes a Midrash, a rabbinic commentary from the story of the Golden Calf in the Book of Exodus.

God, upon seeing the children of Israel dancing around the Golden Calf, says to Moses; "Now then, leave Me alone, that My rage may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them, and instead I will make of you a great nation." (Exodus 32). R. Abbahu comments about Moses subsequent response to God in the next sequence of Torah verses: Moses refuses God's offer of greatness and stands before God, imploring him to not destroy His people who He brought out of Egypt.

Rabbi Abahu says: Were it not explicitly written, it would be impossible to say such a thing: (In other words, this is a very radical Midrash.) Moses response to God is as if he took hold of the Holy One, blessed be He, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment and said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.

Chutzpah is a religious quality. Chutzpah is an authentic spiritual quality that flows from our texts. Moses had Chutzpah. Avraham had Chutzpah. God is not a tyrant, but our partner. We can argue and disagree with our partner. God wants us to challenge Him and hold Him to a higher standard. Likewise we must challenge ourselves to a higher standard. If we are prepared to do that then we may also hold humanity to a higher standard. The God of the Torah and of rabbinic Judaism invites Chutzpah.


We are constructed as human beings by our stories. One of the privileges of being a rabbi is to have access to this great repository of human experience and wisdom. But more than learning this repository, we are commissioned to share it. I have described myself as a 'teaching rabbi'. This is really a redundancy. A rabbi, by definition is a teacher. The challenge of my career has been to not let the burdens and distractions of the modern rabbinate to cut me off from the stories and texts that are the source of my teaching and wisdom that ultimately I impart to you. I hope that in the coming years I can inspire you with these stories and many others. Together we will unfold our own Jewish story at Temple Beth Shalom. Shabbat Shalom and Rav Todot.