Rabbi Ackerman's Blog
Rabbi David Ackerman
10/13/2009 - Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a TributeThis week I had the honor and privilege of visiting the congregation of my youth in order to present the annual lecture in memory of my rabbi, Mordecai Waxman. Rabbi Waxman was one of the true giants of the 20th century American rabbinate, a great leader and visionary, a brilliant speaker and writer, a superb pastor and community builder. The words that follow are those of the talk I gave in his memory, words which I hope you will enjoy, even if you didn't know, or know of, Rabbi Waxman.
Rabbi Mordecai Waxman Memorial Lecture – October 13, 2009
Delivered by Rabbi David M Ackerman, Beth Am Israel, Penn Valley, PA
Thank you for welcoming me home with such warmth. It is truly a rich honor for me to stand at this lectern, a spot that for me will always belong to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, and to have the opportunity to speak about my mentor and teacher as part of this annual gathering. When I applied to the Seminary’s Rabbinical School a quarter of a century ago, I sought a letter of recommendation from Rabbi Waxman. After he submitted his letter on my behalf he called me and delivered the following message: “David, I’m calling to let you know that my letter is in and I told all the appropriate lies.” My task this evening is far less taxing. I’m here, my heart filled with thanks, to share a few appropriate truths about my Rabbi.
A few words of thanks are in order before I turn to tonight’s topic. I’d like to express deep thanks to Jacob Stein for his gracious introduction. It is an honor, sir, to be presented by you, especially on this bima. I wish to thank the organizers of this memorial evening, Arthur Anderman, and long time family friends Gloria and Stuart Delott and their committee. I thank my dad for his loving remarks and my mom for the delicious quote in the biography that appears in your program. I am grateful to Temple Israel’s outstanding clergy – Rabbi Seth Adelson, and old friends, Rabbi Marim Charry, Cantor Raphael Frieder, and Rabbi Howard Stecker. You may not be aware that Rabbi Stecker and I are former band mates. I was the elder statesman of our Ramah in the Berkshires trio in the 1980’s. I don’t remember any of our performances or rehearsals, but I can tell you that our piano player went on to become rabbi of Temple Israel of Great Neck, and our drummer went on to become the Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School. Not too shabby; we must have done something right. Finally, I am moved and honored by the presence of so many members of the Waxman family. I very much appreciate my teacher Rabbi Jonathan Waxman’s discrete and polite choice not to describe my misbehavior as an 8th grader in his American Jewish History class. It really was pretty gruesome and in no way a reflection on his ability as a teacher.
The anecdotes which I have already cited should indicate to you that I have a lot of stories to tell this evening, all of them chapters in the larger tale that I’d like to share. Needless to say, I mean for the whole conversation to be a tribute to Rabbi Waxman’s memory, an affirmation of the words about him in this evening’s programs. And I do want to assure my contemporaries here tonight that I won’t give away too many of our Youth House secrets. Some stories really should remain buried! And so, in good Waxmanesque (or perhaps Waxmanian) fashion, I fully intend to exceed the limits of my talk’s title – and possibly even its expected length. Not to be a wise guy, mind you, but out of a sense that my personal story is part and parcel of the much larger story of Rabbi Waxman’s legacy.
Also in good Waxmanesque fashion, I’ve brought along my still fairly new reading glasses. My eye doctor, a certain William Putterman, assures me that I don’t really need them just yet. Tonight, for other reasons, I intend to make ample use of them; and with that here’s the first Rabbi Waxman story on which I’d like to reflect.
It’s a well known Hasidic story that comes to us in multiple versions. The version I remember hearing from Rabbi Waxman goes like this. The Maggid makes the claim that Torah wisdom, some evidence of God’s presence, can be found in all places, even in the many new inventions that revolutionized so many lives in the latter years of the 19th century. A student challenges the Maggid to prove his claim with reference to three new phenomena – the telegraph, the telephone, and the passenger train. Without missing a beat, the Maggid responds: from the telegraph we learn that every word, even every letter, counts. You pay for every single one. From the telephone we learn that what is spoken here is heard there. Words and ideas travel far beyond their point of origin. And from the train we learn that if you miss an opportunity, it’s gone. Don’t miss the chances put before you.
These three lessons are part of what I learned growing up here at Temple Israel, and in all three cases, it was Rabbi Waxman’s example that taught the lesson.
Rabbi Waxman as we all know was a man of the written and spoken word: a voracious reader without peer, a superb orator, an elegant writer. I remember running into him at the Great Neck Library. I must have been a rabbinical student already. He had already amassed two towers of volumes to take home and we got to talking about how he decided what to read and how to read it. His piles of books covered every discipline known to humanity as far as I could tell - science, art, philosophy, music, fiction, of course history and of course Judaism. Many here will recall his wisecrack that the Library carried a line item on its annual budget for his overdue fines. I, for one, don’t doubt it. To this rabbi to be, the lessons of that encounter were many. All of the world’s wisdom was worthy of a rabbi’s attention. It could all yield up Torah if read well and thought through with care. Mind you, it didn’t mean one had to read everything word for word. One of the volumes I recall from that encounter was a history of post World War II diplomacy written by Abba Eban. Rabbi Waxman’s comment about it resonates for me to this day. “Well,” he said, “I already know the history. What’s of interest is Eban’s point of view.” New perspectives enrich one’s knowledge rather than challenging it. New voices expand conversations rather than undermine them. Nothing was off limits.
Rabbi Waxman’s speaking was every bit as prodigious and open minded as his reading. And he made his many words count. In my high school years I was part of a cadre of Youth House students who read Torah in the main sanctuary once a month. We generally arrived about a half an hour prior to the start of the Torah service and we always sat together in a particular corner of the balcony. A pair of entertainments that only a group of Jewish high school students could invent kept us busy on many a Shabbat morning. First was the running count that we kept of the number of times that Rabbi Waxman removed and replaced his reading glasses during the course of a set of remarks. Records were kept I assure you. I think 20 or 25 was the all time high for a non sermon set of remarks, which leads me to our second ongoing game, namely predicting the length of a Torah comment on the basis of its opening line. A comment that began with “let me offer a few remarks about…” guaranteed us ten minutes of waiting in the balcony. One that opened with, ”allow me an observation about…” added between five and seven minutes to our time in the main sanctuary. Every word mattered and we in the balcony kept careful count.
Rabbi Waxman’s words, in all seriousness, really counted. I still remember many of those comments and many more from my rabbinical school years, years which afforded me the privilege of coming home for the holidays to serve as a baal shaharit on what I came to refer to as ‘Team Waxman’. My seat on the bimah enabled me to watch his Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons literally take shape and grow over the course of the holiday. It was an extraordinary education for a new rabbinical student, certainly with regard to technique, but far more importantly with regard to range and choice of themes. The Maggid’s commentary about the telephone truly comes to mind here. What Rabbi Waxman spoke here was heard in many, many places throughout the Jewish world, carried out into that world by all of us.
He taught me, certainly, to think big, to extend one’s ideas outward, to see the linkage between congregational life and the larger issues faced by everyone. I well remember what seemed like his weekly reports on the dialogues with the Vatican which occupied so much of his energy for many years and the corollary sense that we, as his congregants, actually had real impact far beyond these four walls, and vice versa. He taught me too, that a rabbi should not shy away from commenting on the big issues. I continue to hear his voice offering rich and deep and thoughtful observations about the Sabra and Shatilla massacres and about the Yom Kippur War, about the OJ Simpson trial (“a miscarriage of justice” is my recollection of his words at Kol Nidre; and I think the verdict was announced at 4:00 that afternoon) and about what he saw as the enduring Jewish commitment to liberal ideals. Many more big themes, the large burning issues of the day, found eloquent expression from this lectern. Any of us fortunate enough to have heard those words here, knows full well that they continue to echo and resonate far beyond the confines of 108 Old Mill Road.
The lesson of the train – grab the opportunity when it stands before you – is for me one of the overriding lessons of Rabbi Waxman’s legacy. The continuing vitality of this great kehillah offers the best evidence, but it’s hardly the only evidence. I’m a proud graduate of one of his great dreams, one that rightly bears his name. He saw and seized the opportunity to put supplementary high school education on the map and created a house for this community’s youth that remains the model for synagogue communities everywhere. Today I serve a wonderful congregation in Philadelphia which may, one day, have the opportunity to expand its property by buying a piece of ground across the street. When I mentioned that possibility to Nomi, the first words out of her mouth were: build a Youth House. It only seems right of course, as the Youth House at Temple Israel built me.
Rabbi Waxman took that knack for spotting the opportunity of the given moment beyond these walls in so many ways. Sooner than most, and more dramatically than everyone else in the picture, he saw the possibility of recasting the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people in fundamental ways, and he put all of his considerable political and intellectual talent toward achieving just that. That the Vatican today maintains a formal diplomatic embassy in the State of Israel is a very large symbol of the transformation that he envisioned and helped to bring about. His efforts in building and sustaining so many of the institutions of Conservative Judaism follow that very same pattern. The Rabbinical Assembly which he served as President, and its journal Conservative Judaism which he edited for a number of years come immediately to mind. So too do the building up of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in Israel and elsewhere around the world. Masorti Olami’s highest annual honor is called the ‘Rabbi Mordecai Waxman Memorial Rabbinic and Community Leadership Award’ and with good reason. He saw the opportunity to build a worldwide network of Conservative/Masorti communities and institutions, got on that train and pulled many other leaders and activists aboard with him.
I want to stay on the theme of Conservative Judaism for a few minutes. As we are well aware, this past year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Tradition and Change. It’s an occasion that has received a bit of attention in Conservative Movement circles and I know that the anniversary has been well addressed here. I’d like to add to the mix a decidedly personal reading of Tradition and Change. By personal, I mean to offer a reflection on its editor and author – the Baal Tradition and Change - along with a personal assessment of that seminal collection’s impact on me as a native son of its home turf. Let’s start with two telling opening sentences, one from Rabbi Waxman’s foreword, and the other from his groundbreaking and far reaching introductory essay, still the single best statement of Conservative Judaism’s core principles in print a half century later. The foreword begins with this comment: “a collection of writings on Conservative Judaism has long been needed.” And the introductory essay commences with this nugget: “Conservative Judaism is perhaps the most misunderstood term in current Jewish life.” Either statement could have been penned today or last month or, most likely, next year. Part of Conservative Judaism’s tradition is its nuanced sense of its own ideas. From the very beginning we have articulated our central ideas and principles with a keen sense of ambiguity and complexity. It doesn’t make for good sound bites. It never has. That fact produces no small amount of frustration for many Conservative Jews. Who are we? What do we stand for? What, really, do we believe?
With Rabbi Waxman’s life as my primary evidence – exhibits alef through tav – I wish to make a case for nuance and ambiguity. My life is replete with complexity and subtlety. I’m betting that yours is as well. If organic, living Judaism weren’t subtle and supple then I’d be really worried. ‘Elegantly complex’ strikes me as a pretty good description of Dr. Ruth Waxman and Rabbi Mordecai Waxman. Their lived example provides all us a daily model. The letter that Rabbi Waxman sent to the congregation from his hospital bed in Boston thirty plus years ago, powerfully read to us earlier this evening, eloquently supports my claim.
Let me deepen that claim in three ways. First, Rabbi Waxman’s chosen title for his collection of writings about Conservative Judaism. The key word is “and.” Both sides of the equation, Rabbi Waxman taught - in word and deed - make demands on us. For his part, struggling to find today’s appropriate synthesis, was the ongoing challenge. And please note well that today’s solution may no longer apply tomorrow. I remember hearing from Rabbi Waxman an anecdote about his teacher, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a story that I later learned was a well established part of Seminary lore. Kaplan taught homiletics, guiding students in the art of writing sermons and divrei Torah. One Thursday, he reviewed the outline of an upcoming sermon with a student, sending him home to complete his work in advance of delivering his sermon in class on the following Monday. Monday arrived, the student rose to speak and Professor Kaplan tore the sermon to bits. Stunned, the student reminded Kaplan that he himself has signed off on the outline on the Thursday before. Kaplan’s response, often repeated on this bimah was, “I’ve grown since Thursday.” Rabbi Waxman never ceased struggling and consequently never stopped growing. Next Monday may very well demand a synthesis that differs dramatically from that of last Thursday.
Just yesterday I attended a conference that Rabbi Waxman would have adored. The University of Pennsylvania maintains a Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, a think tank of sorts for cutting edge scholarship in Jewish Studies. Yesterday its director, Professor David Ruderman, invited rabbis in the community to a conversation about finding the common ground between academic scholarship and the search for community and religious meaning that rabbis work at each day. “And” is the key word in that sentence as well. I can’t compromise my commitment to either end of that equation just as Rabbi Waxman wouldn’t have dreamed of compromising his devotion either to our tradition or to modernity. The key word is “and.”
Second, in the constant search for synthesis that his outline of Conservative Jewish ideals entails, we need to recognize that the center is always in motion. This is an organic, dynamic system, not a relic. Rabbi Waxman’s intellectual predecessors, Schechter & Kaplan most notably, are today part of the tradition. The same can be said of the writings of his contemporaries and colleagues – most notably Finkelstein and Heschel. Their ideas, a central component of our shared tradition as contemporary Conservative Jews, are themselves subject to change in the form of continual rereading and recasting. Life in general doesn’t stand still. Jewish life shouldn’t be expected to either. Rabbi Waxman himself very much recognized this dynamic. His call for more theology rather than more history, issued in his preface to the 35th anniversary edition of Tradition and Change is an apt measure of his far sightedness. Whereas his generation found deep religious satisfaction in the many expressions of peoplehood that have animated 20th century Jewish life, my generation, and those younger, seeks its connection in the form of individual spiritual and ethical meaning. As he might say, it’s not a shift in doctrine but rather a shift in emphasis.
Third, and for me most important, Mordecai Waxman was not afraid. His fearlessness built this community as it contributed mightily to the growth of Conservative Judaism in North America and around the world. Among the Waxmanisms that echo in my head with regularity is this sentiment: “We live in an age of revolution and all too often we respond like 14th century rabbis.” I don’t believe that he had anything against the 14th century. I do believe that he saw that modernity was different, that America was different, and that Jewish leaders and Jewish communities had to build the future with more of what Heschel memorably called “Spiritual Audacity.” Rabbi Waxman operated with a full storehouse of spiritual audacity. Unafraid of what others thought, utterly confident in his and our movement’s absolute authenticity, he was willing always to try something new, to take risks, to be wrong, and to try again. There will be no second century of Conservative Judaism in North America without that sort of spiritual audacity.
Allow me to conclude with a word of Torah. [I’ll get it out in less than five minutes, I promise.] This is the week of parashat Bereshit, the source of so many first principles in Jewish life. One of those principles derives from a surprising place. Toward the end of the parsha, the Torah launches into one of its famous genealogies, a long list of ‘begats,’ introduced by this headline: zeh sefer toldot ha’adam – this is the book of humanity’s history. The continuation of that verse reiterates the creation story’s overriding claim that humans are created b’dmut elohim – in God’s image. The Talmud of the land of Israel preserves a debate between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva. Akiva claims that the ringing words of the Holiness code – v’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha – “love your neighbor as yourself” - represent the Torah’s central principle – k’lal gadol ba’Torah. Ben Azzai disagrees, citing the aforementioned verse from Bereshit. Akiva’s principle, grand and beautiful as it is, limits its concern to neighbors, to those near at hand. Ben Azzai’s principle, in contrast, broadens our concern to take in all of humanity. Rabbi Waxman, from whom I and many of us learned these two Biblical statements in the first place, lived out both commitments fully, brilliantly, with abounding energy and unending elegance. Y’hi zikhro barukh – may his memory endure as a blessing.
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