Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Norman J. Cohen.
Though it has been fifty-three years since we were ordained by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z”l, at Central Synagogue, it seems like yesterday. But as I look back and remember the emotions of that day, which were heightened for me by my mother’s death only months before, little did I know that fifteen years later, Dr. Gottschalk would ask me to join the Administration of the College-Institute. And, as I stood on the bimah of Central Synagogue with Dr. Gottschalk, seated on the bimah was his ultimate successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, then a rabbi at Central. What an amazing snapshot! Three presidents of HUC-JIR on the bimah at one time. Who would have thought that I would also have the honor of serving for a brief time as Interim President of the College-Institute.
At that moment of Ordination, it surely would have been impossible to imagine how my life as a rabbi would play out. My goal then was simply to enter our graduate school in Cincinnati and immerse myself in rabbinic text study, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of its various genres. The years studying Midrash and Rabbinic Literature were such a blessing, and in great measure, it was due to the knowledge I gained and the passion I imbibed from wonderful mentors, chief among them, Drs. Eugene Mihaly, z”l, Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, and Ellis Rivkin, z”l.
Little did I know then that my entire rabbinic career would be bound up with the College-Institute, as a faculty member who also spent twenty-three years working in the administration. And it began with my return to the New York School in 1975, due in large measure to the faith that Dr. Gottschalk had in me, as well as the efforts of Dr. Paul Steinberg, z”l, and Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l. For thirteen years I served as a full-time member of the Faculty, teaching and advising rabbinic and cantorial students; trying to impart to them not only the knowledge that I gained, but a sense of what it means to be a rabbi, a cantor, really a Teacher of Torah.
Serving as the Director of the Rabbinical School and then Dean of the New York School, and finally as Provost of our College-Institute was indeed a wonderful way for me to channel my rabbinic aspirations. Helping to shape the training and growth of future rabbis, cantors and educators provided me a tremendous opportunity to ensure that future Reform Jewish leaders would become the newest chuliot, links in the Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the chain of tradition and help ensure Jewish continuity. And in the process, I gained so much from so many of the students with whom I was truly privileged to study.
During the years I spent working in the administration, it meant a great deal to work with clergy, education and administrative staff, and faculty who embodied supreme dedication to shaping a seminary which could be a bastion of creativity and commitment to Jewish life. They, in turn, would train leaders who would make a significant difference in the lives of all those whom they were blessed to serve.
Yet, as I reflect upon almost five decades of work at our alma mater, it has been clear to me that the greatest joy and personal fulfillment I experience comes in the myriad of moments in which I share my love and passion for words of Torah. Studying with students and laypeople alike—opening ourselves to every element in the text, biblical and rabbinic, and having it teach us who we are and who we aspire to be as Jews and as human beings—has given me indescribable pleasure. Through my teaching at the College-Institute and in congregations, and the six books I have written, I’ve tried to demonstrate the power of words suffused with k’dushah, the holiness latent in every textual element, which have been transformational for me in my life. The most important insight I have ever gained about the importance of the teaching of Torah came from a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, who noted, “Teaching begins when the subject matter ceases to be subject matter and changes into inner power. We truly teach when we ourselves are drastically changed in the process. We truly learn when our autonomous self is pierced and we move beyond ourselves to the Other.”
And so we praise the power in the universe, in us, which is the source of mayim chayim, life-giving water, Torah:
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Rabbi Norman J. Cohen is celebrating 50 years in the Rabbinate. Rabbi Cohen serves as Professor Emeritus of Midrash at HUC-JIR New York.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.
One reply on “A Career Dedicated to Teaching and Learning Torah: Rabbi Norman J. Cohen on 50 Years in the Rabbinate”
Thank you for sharing your wisdom and love of Midrash to your students. I hear your voice whenever I engage with Midrashic material. You will always be a beloved teacher for those of us who had the privilege of studying with you.