Ordination Address by Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl, Senior Cantor, Central Synagogue, New York
40 years ago our world changed. Sally Priesand walked to the pulpit, HUC President Alfred Gottschalk rested his hands onto her shoulders, whispered the timeless words which you ordinees will hear today, and the newly announced Rabbi Priesand the first woman ordained as a rabbi, ventured forth, carrying with her the potency and the possibility of Ordination. Jewish life has never been the same and it is this moment’s backdrop.
Today we are on the brink of another frontier—the ordination of this generation’s newest rabbis and, for the first time, the ordination of our cantors as well. Ahallela! I will Praise! Some would say today is a day of history. But as a Jew, I’d pronounce this is a day of memorybecause we Jews are a people of memory. We’re not so much about history. In fact,you,who have studied our texts closely know there is no Biblical Hebrew word for history. The best we can do in modern Hebrew is historia, obviously not indigenous to the Hebrew language. When the Bible references the past, it uses the word z’chira, from zachor, a Remembrance. Remembrances need us—we have to actively remember them! Unlike history, which is written down in books that bear testament to its occurrence, in the Jewish view of the past, it’s as if the event doesn’t exist if we don’t remember it.
When Jews remember, as we do annually when we re-live our Exodus from Egypt on Passover, we taste again the very bitterness of our slavery. When Jews remember,as we do each week when we stand at Sinai and read from the Torah, we touch the scroll,entrusted to us from that first revelation. When Jews remember, as we will do in this sacred moment of Ordination, we are not just recalling historic events of the past, we are in fact re-living an experience that is both ancient and immediate. When hands are laid upon these deserving rabbis and cantors we mystically feel the laying of hands of that first ordination from Moses to Joshua.
They say: “You can’t change history.” But here’s the radical thing—you can change memory. In every generation, as we remember anew—we actually re-form Jewish memory itself! We come out of a new Egypt, we change the faces of those who stood at Sinai, we add new leaders who received authority from the very hands of Moses. Unlike history, which is concerned with precise timelines and empirical facts, Jewish memory is imaginative, selective and even pliable. It is concerned not a wit with chronology.
There is a teaching that confirms this fundamentally fluid nature of Jewish memory:
Ain Mukdam um’euchar batorah—there is no before or after, no chronology, in the Torah. Biblical personalities and Jewish ideas can float from one century to another and back again seamlessly. A famous episode of this time-travel comes in the Talmud, when Moses sees God affixing decorative crowns to the letters on the Torah and he asks God what they are for? God responds that these crowns represent interpretations of Torah yet to be. Moses is disturbed and demands to see this for himself. God allows Moses to time-travel from Sinai to visit the Bet Midrash of Rabbi Akiva. Moses sits in the back of the classroom, where he is absolutely lost, and he cannot follow Akiva’s teachings. This could have been a moment of complete rupture in Jewish memory and continuity—with Moshe Rabbeinu not even recognizing his own Torah!
But when Moses hears Rabbi Akiva credit his new teaching to none other than Moses, he realizes that God intended and even prophesied that Torah would be creatively understood in this way—that these very interpretations were inked by the Holy One of Blessing! In those crowns, God asserted that every interpretation of Torah that is, was and will yet be, all were encompassed in the revelation at Sinai!
You who have been studying these letters, interpreting the words and decorating the text with your own understanding, who have spent hours and hours seated in the classroom of remarkable teachers and peers, you are about to contribute to the Jewish people as rabbis and cantors, your own crown of Torah. You will become memory makers.
This day’scantorial ordination carries the special weight of changing Jewish memory. Rabbi David Ellenson, we are indebted to you, for the integrity, thoughtfulness and vision of this decision. You have given authenticity and validation to our aspirations as Jewish leaders, and we can only imagine how this partnership of rabbis and cantors, which now extends back to Sinai, will alter the way rabbis and cantors collaborate and lead in the future. Only time will reveal the profound impact of this decision.
For since 1972, the 40 years of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination, we know that her ordination advanced a revolution in Jewish life. My generation grew up in a world in which we saw women lead from the bimah, we heard women’s interpretations of Jewish law, we study from a Women’s torah commentary written entirely by women rabbis and scholars. Many of my female rabbinic colleagues have their story of a young student who asks her,‘Can boys be rabbis too?’ Now when we recall standing at Sinai, we remember the faces of women—who alongside the men—lead, and reveal the Torah to the Jewish people.
Forty years in our collective Jewish memory of almost 4000 years is but a blink of the eye, but for the individual Jew, 40 years is a lifetime. We know this from our most famous forty years as a Jewish people– wandering in the desert! God imposed this fate on us because God knew the generation redeemed from slavery in Egypt just couldn’t shed their narrow, enslaved mindset. So God made us wander for forty years, so that generation would die off and a new one could emerge.
God knew that it takes 40 years to change the memory of an entire people.
Forty years ago, in 1972, only one month after Sally Priesand was ordained, across the world in South Korea, I was born, to a Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother. At the time, I obviously had no idea that the ordination of the first female rabbi, a month before, would have such a profound impact on the shape of my life. For those early years in Korea, I had no Jewish memory to speak of.
My Jewish life began at age five when we moved into the close-knit Jewish community of Tacoma, Washington, with a wonderful rabbi, Richard Rosenthal of blessed memory. He was the classic picture of a rabbi: full beard, wise and kind eyes, and authentic German-Reform lineage. He fully embraced me and my family when I moved to Tacoma, as did our community. But I always felt a little outside of it, in large part because of the way I looked. People thought it was amusing to say, “That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish.” I laughed…sometimes. But on the inside, I felt inauthentic. Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me in the Jewish community. I never saw pictures on the walls of my synagogue or in my Jewish books that represented anyone who looked different from the Ashkenazi mainstream.
Our collective Jewish memory, 40 years since my birth in Korea, has changed in my lifetime. A personal story brought this home for me: A few years ago, Brendon, my Confirmation student from Westchester Reform Temple came to visit me, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He told me, “A group of students were all going home for Passover my Junior year, and on the train to NY, I was sitting across from this Korean woman. The 2 of us started talking and I asked her if she was also going home for Passover. She started laughing hysterically, and said, ‘What? Passover? Do I look Jewish to you?’ I just shrugged my shoulders.” Brendon continued, “I didn’t know why she thought it was so funny, she looked just like you, Cantor Buchdahl!”
Rabbi Rosenthal, learned and wise, was the only rabbi I knew until I went to UAHC Camp Swig at age 14, where my Jewish world was greatly expanded. New rabbinic faces, new learning and new rhythms of Jewish time. I was especially stirred by the raucous song sessions and the informal services, which were radically different sounding from home—with my musically-challenged Rabbi and the hired non-Jewish choir of my Tacoma synagogue. What I remember most about those services from home was how the choir ended so many prayers with a 3-part Amen that seemed to come from on high:
CHOIR SINGS: Amen, Amen, A-a-a-a-a-amen! (Weinberg)
It was the epitome of the Classical Reform style: formal, beautiful, harmonious. When I heard this Amen, I imagined this was the way the angels on high sealed up our prayers to God. And I instructed my little sister to sing those Amens with me at the end of our own bedtime Shema. It didn’t have quite the same majesty.
Thanks to a guitar playing song leader named Ruthie who moved to Tacoma, and thanks to the music that wafted through the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains of Camp Swig, the souls of my generation were animated by a new song—a song I couldn’t stop singing, in my bedroom, the car, they playground swings, wherever I could:
SING: Sing Unto God. (Debbie Friedman)
Wow. Suddenly my language for praying to God could encompass the spectrum from “A-a-a-a-a-amen” to “BLESS GOD’S NAME! Oh sing Unto Our God a Song of Prayer!” This particular song just filled me up, and gave me a language to feel I belonged in the Jewish community. Suddenly it didn’t matter that I didn’t look like all the other Jews – I had a voice. A voice given to me, given to so many of us,by a Jewish songwriter named Debbie Friedman. But not everyone found comfort with her music back then, especially among my cantorial colleagues who found Debbie’s music threatening to the historical canon of “authentic” Jewish music. Here was this insurgent—a woman with no formal musical background, who couldn’t read notes, and lacked any cantorial training, who was changing Jewish musical memory!
I remember on a trip to Israel over a decade ago, being in Sfat at the end of Shabbat and I saw a group of black hat Jewish men, dancing in a circle preparing for Havdalah. They were singing a very spirited niggun, and then I recognized it:
SING: Debbie’s Havdalah niggun with Hasidic accenting. (Yai Bai Biddy biddy Bai Bai)
I couldn’t believe it! She had entered the canon! If those men only knew that the niggun they were singing was written by a feminist, lesbian, Reform Jewish woman, they would have plotzed!
“Sing Unto God,” Debbie’s first album, was released in—you know where this is going—in 1972, 40 years ago! A very big year for me. 40 years after Debbie releases her music to the public—the time it takes for a people to transform their worldview—her music has become essentially MiSinai. And our School of Sacred Music—a safe-keeper of our musical tradition—now bears Debbie Friedman’s name. Even maasu habonimhaitah leRosh Pinah: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” (Psalms 118:23).
This class is the first cantorial class to graduate from the officially re-dedicated Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. But as Jewish memory works, ein mukdam umeuchar, every cantor who has ever graduated from this school, even those who graduated long ago, will now be associated with Debbie and her legacy.
In only forty years, the assumptions, the connections, the Jewish memory of an entire people can be transformed.
But you don’t have to wait 40 years to start reforming memory, because change is happening much faster than that. The hot topics in our Jewish community today were not remotely on the radar screen when I left HUC a little over a decade ago: Who knew as a Jewish people we would be fighting for the hearts and loyalties of Jews in defending the State of Israel? Who knew that a significant agenda item in synagogues today would be greening practices and Community Supported Agriculture? Who knew that community organizing, long the purview of black churches and evangelical Christians would transform the way we do business in synagogues? Who knew that during High Holy Services at Central Synagogue last fall, tens of thousands of viewers would join our worship through live streaming—surpassing the number of Jews in the pews?
I imagine that Moses, and Rabbi Akiva, if they were to time travel to 2012, would look at Jewish life today and be mystified at the changes. It would in some ways be as unrecognizable to Rabbi Akiva, as his teachings were to Moses in that bet midrash.
And yet, I think they would be smiling at the vitality of Jewish life and the innovations in our time. Jewish memory was never meant to be frozen or finished. Jews don’t live in history. We live in Memory—in remembrances that are authentically rooted in tradition, but in each generation, evoked in new ways. If we want Judaism to be essential today and tomorrow, we must continue to transform it.
This is our task, as rabbis and cantors. And this is your generation to shape—what impact do you want to make? How will you bring our ancient texts to life—give memory a taste and a touch and a feel? How will you revision our congregations to challenge and to comfort, to make meaning? To matter. What crowns will you add to our Torah?
When you stand on this bima today, and Rabbi David Ellenson lays his hands on you, remember that you are not only ordained, you are entrusted. To make memory. In this memory lies our Jewish future. It is an enormous, exhilarating responsibility you take on.
What is at stake is nothing less than the vitality, originality and lifeblood of the synagogues and the Jewish communities you’ll serve. I have no doubt that you, the rabbis and cantors of the class of 2012/5772, will move us, teach us, challenge and connect us.
You are the Face of Our Future. The Promise of a People.
Make us remember anew.
SING: Taking Your Place (with choir down from loft)
Lyrics by Abby Pogrebin (w/slight adaptations for Ordination), Music by Tom Kitt
Taking your place in an enduring line. This is the day that you stood up to say, “Our tradition is mine.” You’re a teacher of Torah. It’s been passed onto you. It’s our law and our story–But each telling is new.
CHORUS: It is said we stood at Sinai And today, you know you’re there. You’re the promise of a people, a blessing and a prayer.
Taking your place, in a resilient line, this is the day that you stood up to say, “Our tradition is mine.” You’re a maker of memory, forging links with the past. You’re the face of our future, and the reason we last.
Lalechet bidrachav v’lishmor mitzvotav kol hayamim. May you walk in God’s ways and may all of your days be blessings. To CHORUS