The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR President Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ powerful, moving sermon addressing the Reform rabbinate.
In Masechet B’rachot, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who sees his friend after thirty or more days have passed recites “Blessed is the Eternal One who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time” (B’rachot 58b). Commentators have debated whether it should be recited if some correspondence or conversation took place in the interim. But as I look at each of you gathered here, 350 rabbis, joined together for the first time in three years, and those of you joining us virtually, with the most genuine sentiment I say,
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu v’kyimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh! It is so renewing for us to be together again: studying, praying, laughing, learning, debating, and probing questions of meaning. Perhaps now more than ever, we understand the wonder and the joy of being together as colleagues.
After two years of isolation, of weddings and b’nai mitzvah without guests, of Zoom holidays and classes, of services led with only a camera or a screen before us, and of funerals with no one present to comfort the mourner, I would suggest that on the heels of a pandemic, we feel depleted, not simply because of endless redesigning of our work, but also because we were deprived of the renewing spirit of community found in serving others in person. Now, at this gathering, our thoughtful study or the simple conversations in the hallway or over a meal will have even greater resonance for us, as we seek to replenish and be restored.
To be restored—that is very much what Torah speaks to this week, in Parashat Tazria. While some would say it is that portion that only a dermatologist can love, perhaps these instructions of priestly leadership may also bring heightened meaning to us at this time. For we have known the residual effects of isolation from a plague, of being separated from community. And we rabbis now sense what the ancient priests must have felt: the exhausting responsibility of keeping those isolated in contact, reassured that they would be reconnected to community, that the צרעת tzara’at would pass, that all might be restored.
But of course, even in being restored, nothing can be exactly as it once was. Because we are not the same as we once were. And neither is our world. Since we were last together, we have experienced massive disruption in our work, in our families, and in the larger world. We have known tzara’at of the fabric of society. Consider for a moment a quick review of the last two years: the first pandemic of our lives, widespread illness and death, a threat to democracy, racial tension, rejection of past injustice, the rise of nationalism and antisemitism, terror aimed at synagogues and even our brave colleagues, a war that threatens Europe and brings with it an unparalleled refugee crisis, and so much more. Chaos is the backdrop that drapes our daily lives. Our tzara’at is disruption that afflicts the order in which we once labored.
These headlines of our day deeply impact our lives. Our tradition teaches that a tzara’at is not only to the affected patch of skin, but extends to the thoughts and the emotions, the fears and the hopes of everyone it touches. Our congregations, schools, Hillels, chaplaincies, and communities are not immune from this. As rabbis, we keenly feel the cultural pressure of skepticism of authority, polarization and the diminished value of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Further, the contemporary plague of disruption has touched every individual. There is widespread vulnerability and fragility. Frustration or anger bubbles up too easily. Relationships are frayed. And for so many, mental health concerns proliferate.
Our Torah enumerates the job description of the priest to examine and decree the tzara’at, the affliction. The procedures are detailed with the uncomplicated clarity of an instruction book. Yet, if we place ourselves in the shoes of the priests, we can imagine what might have been in their hearts as they carried out their tasks. More than making a simple pronouncement of tzara’at, that priest stood face to face with the afflicted, looking into their eyes. That priest saw the anxiety and fear of the afflicted person, the disruption to their lives and to their family that isolation brought, the pleading uncertainty written upon their faces. And what they saw there had to unsettle the priests, who, after all, accompanied the afflicted both to isolation and subsequently to their return to the community.
We rabbis stand in the shoes of the ancient priests in our contemporary cultural affliction, the tzara’at of disruption. With tender care and sometimes with heavy hearts, each day we have the privilege to look into the eyes of our people. And we stare in the mirror, seeing reflected in our own eyes our moments of deep and revealing thoughts. Colleagues, we are all מצורע m’tzora—afflicted with the plague and its ensuing dislocation. So many of us have struggled through the added demands and the lengthened hours, and received the frustrations of those we serve, even as we experience our own. The lesion of disruption has shaken us with our own vulnerability. We are burdened with self-doubt, overwhelmed by the demands, and seeking to balance so much in our lives when even the ground beneath us feels unsure. With our high expectations of self, we wonder if we are up to the enormity and complexity of the task.
Now colleagues, as I look into your eyes, this I know: like the ancient rabbis before us and the priests before them, we are up to the task. We are the ones to rise to the moment, because this is the moment to which we have been called. But neither you nor I can do this alone. How much we need to turn to our colleagues with the vulnerable and searching questions of the heart, to help us clarify the direction we seek. We need to discover our strength not in appearing to stand tall through the storm, but in offering a generous hand to lift one another up to this moment. Even rabbis need a rabbi. So let us look to one another to comfort, challenge, teach, and guide us. And we need our Conference as well, not only for resources or knowledge, but for wisdom, strength, support, and care. Along with our volunteer leadership, our extraordinary and compassionate professionals—led by our rabbi, Hara Person—are endeavoring to shape a CCAR that is ever more responsive to those urgent needs of the rabbinic soul. And we look to you to help us do so. We all need to be kinder to one another, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to shape a nourishing environment of understanding and care. That is what a rabbinic chevra is at its essence. So, in these days together here and in the year that unfolds, let us be deeply honest and boldly vulnerable with one another, and let us respond with an equal generous measure of kindness and caring. In an age where k’vod harav כבוד הרב is devalued, we must elevate that fundamental principle within our own discourse.
And colleagues, as our people in the wilderness relied upon the priests, our people today need us more than ever. I can assure you: that need will only grow. If we are to restore our people to faith in the bedrock strength of our tradition and in the comforting care of community, we will need more rabbis in every venue of rabbinic leadership. So, as I did last year, now even more urgently do I sound the warning that we are not raising up enough disciples. It has always been the rabbi who has identified and inspired Jews to become rabbis and to assure our future. We dare not wait for a young person to come to us to ask about the rabbinate, or we will leave Jewish life starved for leadership and strength. The crisis is upon us now, not for the next generation, but now and for the next years before us. We must look past the urgency of today’s many problems that confront us, to the longer horizon in which we lead and serve, for you and I are the solution to this looming crisis. We should engage in rabbinic קירוב keiruv (outreach), with our personal invitation to those we find promising. In this moment, reflect and consider those people to whom you could turn: promising teens, college students, young adults, and those in engaged in Jewish life in our communities. Initiate conversations. Invite them to enter a life of unparalleled meaning. We secure the future of Jewish life not only by our teaching and our deeds, but in the disciples that we inspire and invite to join us. Our history, our community, and our faith hold us accountable to that.
In the rabbinic midrash of Sifra, (Parashat Nega’im 4:4) the text interprets the words לכל מראה עיני הכהן l’chol mareih einei hacohen (Leviticus 13:12) to mean that the priests could only carry out the sacred task if their vision was undiminished and their sight was undimmed. While the midrash meant blindness or visual impairment, I would suggest a different interpretation, that the priest could not serve the proper leadership role with a diminished sense of purpose. And neither can we.
So let us renew that in ourselves. Yes, our world is not the same as when we last gathered, nor are our daily tasks. But our role remains steadfast and clear. This beacon of light and faith still shines undimmed as our steadfast vision: I believe that the destiny of Jewish life is in our hands as rabbis. I believe that as rabbis we must restore ourselves, so that we might restore hope, clarity, vision, and resolve to every corner of our work and to every set of eyes into which we peer. I believe in the undiminished promise and meaning of what we rabbis do. I believe in our impact: in the teaching that can inspire, the word fitly spoken with a person we counsel or comfort at a bedside, or in what someone remembers years later of that moment in which we guided them. From all that I see, more than ever, I believe in what rabbis do, who we are, and to what we aspire. And I believe in us. For we are meaning makers. Our words, our wisdom, and our work can be enduring. And we would do well to remember that, all of us, especially at this moment in time.
To the disruptive tzara’at of our day, may we bring healing. Let us begin with restoring ourselves, turning to one another, reconnecting to a chevra that inspires us with energy, learning, and support. Let us reconnect our people to that reservoir of meaning so desperately needed in their lives. Let us move beyond the exhaustion of the day to embrace the invigorating responsibility of shaping tomorrow. It is that courageous leadership that rabbis have always been called to do, especially in uncertain times.
For colleagues, we are not simply employees with job descriptions in organizations or congregations. As rabbis, we are “builders of our people,” “restorers of the breach,” and the priests who look into the faces of others and who see reflected in their eyes the divine image. We are the guardians of Jewish life and guardians of its light. So together, let us walk with confidence and courage toward that light to restore what we were ordained to do. Amen.
Rabbi Lewis Kamrass is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Senior Rabbi of Isaac M. Wise Temple of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has spent his entire rabbinate.