Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 17

Two Gems and a Tune

June 9, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

We hope and pray that this correspondence finds you in good health and managing our difficult circumstances. I want to remind you to feel free to call me or email me at any time (contact information below) and to share your experiences, theological questions and even, to ask, how we, as your community, can support you! If you know anyone experiencing health issues, please allow us to pray for them. If you know someone who needs our support, please contact me or the dedicated officers of our shul.

Allow me to share a piece of personal professional history.

I was ordained from the Cantors Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990 and accepted my first pulpit in Chicago immediately afterwards. I was thrilled to have been afforded the opportunity to apply my “idealistic” skill-sets to lead a congregation in a major city and it was an amazing experience for which I am eternally grateful. Over the years, I continued to build my resume by obtaining certification as a Mohel, completing a doctorate in Jewish education, and receiving ordination as a Rabbi. During this time, I was privileged to study with many extraordinary teachers.

As I was reflecting, today, upon my many years of formal work as Hazzan, I realized that I have worked with literally dozens of Rabbis. I am not jesting when I note that my fingers and toes could not together innumerate the number of Rabbis with whom I have worked, but this afforded me the opportunity to learn from so many Talmidei Chachamim (Masters of Torah).

Based on my years of experience, I know that people do not always recall exactly the words that the rabbi preaches. In fact, there is a saying amongst Cantors, “Nobody leaves the shul humming the sermon!” However, as I reflect back over my career and in response to the world situation in which we presently reside, I want to share with you two of the most memorable sayings that I ever heard from the pulpit (It’s not quite akin to a Letterman Top Ten, but it is of the same genre!).

In my second year in Chicago, I worked with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Karp, a well-known U.S. Conservative rabbi and scholar. Karp, was born in Amidur, Poland, and was brought to the United States in 1930. Serving many pulpits, he most significantly became well-known as an important scholar of American Judaism. He was a compassionate and brilliant intellectual, who explained to me that his accomplishments in academia were largely due to his inability to sleep regularly. This allowed him to devote immeasurable time to his reading and writing.

A few times during the service, during our two High Holy Days together, he not only asked the congregation permission to “stop the show,” but during that time he suggested that silence and reflection in a room of 2,000 people was very powerful. Silence, he explained, is sometimes as important as sound. He also suggested that in our communities, words are not always positive. His message, in response to the political and religious climate at the time (which included issues of political rancor, racism and anti-Semitism), still resonates with me today: “You don’t pull yourself up by putting someone else down.” This is as true today as it was twenty-nine years ago.

Fifteen years later, I worked briefly with Rabbi Allan Kensky, who had served as Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. His doctoral dissertation was a critical edition of the Midrash Tanhuma on the Book of Exodus (I recollect this specifically, because, when my oldest daughter was born, I committed to studying this specific text on a weekly basis, in gratitude to God, who blessed me with my first child).

A quiet, diminutive scholar, I recall Kensky’s first interaction during a social crisis in the Midwest. While many shuls were shying away from making what might have been perceived as provocative statements (recall that Chicago is a strongly conservative community), Kensky said, we must speak out. He taught me and others from the pulpit that, “If you don’t stand for something, you don’t stand for anything.”

These many years later, I want to acknowledge their wisdom about the importance of ethical, personal, and communal responsibility, which spoke volumes then, as it does now. We must always adhere to the ideology of never diminishing another group of people and always speak up for what we believe is right. If we cannot do that, we are all falling short.

While answers and reactions during tough times are not always easy, allow me to encourage you to take these teachings to heart as we interact with and in the Jewish and secular worlds around us. It is only through this coordination of heart, soul, and mind, that we will make this world a better place in God’s image.

And, if you are still not sure what to do, then, at least, leave the ZOOM shul, humming the niggun!


Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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