Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Bob Saks reflects on his many teachers and their many lessons.
With gratitude to my many teachers:
From the rabbis of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed, I learned that fighting for social justice is at the heart of Judaism.
From Lubavitch emissaries, I learned that Judaism is more than social justice.
From the Rabbis, I’ve learned that one should say at least one hundred blessings a day, and that we can start the moment we open our eyes in the morning.
From Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Hasidism, I learned that singing and dancing are gates “to the place where God dwells,” and that nothing penetrates as deeply as a good story.
From Rabbi Seymour Siegel at JTS, I learned the relevance of Torah study.
From Sifrei Musar, I learned that ethics and spirituality encompass all of life.
From Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement (thank you, Alan Morinis), I learned that self-knowledge is the first stage to self-improvement, and that it doesn’t come easily.
From American Indian religions, I learned that we live between earth and sky, and that all living things are family.
From older African-Americans, I learned dignity.
From younger African Americans, I learned anger.
From the Book of Job and writer Annie Dillard, I learned that nature is awesome even when it is grotesque and gruesome.
From Martin Buber and Bishop Pike, I learned that too much doctrine and too many rituals lead us away from God.
From Abraham Joshua Heschel, I learned that the best of us can do it all: fight for justice, learn and teach Torah, live a full traditional life, a life with wonder, and find God in dialogue with others;
But I’m no Heschel.
From the unique spiritual culture of Japan, I’ve learned that a vase with a single flower can speak more eloquently than a whole bouquet and that making the ordinary beautiful is its own wisdom.
From the religions of Asia, I’ve learned to rein in my clattering mind so that I might live some of the time in the “here and now.”
From Danny Matt’s extraordinary translation and commentary on the Zohar, I’ve come to think of God as the energy that is the deepest essence of all things, all thoughts, all laws of nature and of the human personality, and that our role should be to channel the Divine, by channeling ourselves in the direction of justice and mercy.
From my friend Rabbi Steven Shaw, z”l, I learned to take risks, to dare to be creative, to match seekers and teachers, and also that, for some, Jerusalem may be in the woods of Maine.
From the Jews of Israel, I’ve learned that my deepest failure is not to live there with them, as this moment in Jewish history demands.
From the daily news, I’ve learned how good and how evil humans can be.
From my congregants at Bet Mishpachah, I learned about authentic community, courage, and perseverance even in the darkest times, and about the creativity, skills, and knowledge of our lay leaders.
From my mother, I learned to be faithful and to do what one knows one must, even when the price is high.
From my sons, I’m still learning what good parenting looks like.
And from my wife of 50 years I’ve learned how sweet it is to be loved and to love another.
I’ve been blessed with many teachers.
Rabbi Bob Saks was ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1970. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Mishpachah in Washington, DC, where he served from 1991 through 2009. He has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in 2009, Jews United for Justice – Abraham Joshua Heschel Award in 2008, and the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews – Leadership Award in 2008.