Rabbinic Reflections

‘There Is Holiness All Around Us’: Rabbi Michael Zedek on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

My first CCAR Convention included the celebration for that gathering’s 50th year class. And for the moment, that memory seems less than a blink of the eye ago. Tempus fugit.   

In that flight of time, I imagine that we in the class of 1974 have had significant moments of impact and meaning. And while we didn’t change the world, I have no doubt we managed a few moments of clarity, joy, comfort, change, and meaning in innumerable encounters. In fact, I’m confident many share the experience of someone suggesting, “Rabbi, do you remember when you said…? It changed my life.” 

Ironically, you may have no recollection of saying anything of the kind. But some bon mots attributed to me, even without a confident memory of ever having suggested, include: “There are only two movements in Judaism, toward God and away from God.” Or this one, “There is no place where God is not, and where God is, all is well.

My favorite involves philanthropy and a family who attribute their tzedakah efforts in part to me: Once, the Jewish Federation asked me to recruit said family’s husband to lead our campaign, after which he told many this anecdote, about which I have no recollection, save his telling. Two weeks later, he recalls we saw each other. “Rabbi, what have you done? My friends see me coming and run down the alley screaming, holding onto their wallets.” He claims my response: “Isn’t it tragic that the only way they think they have it is if they hold on to it.”   

And I would never have had that impact, or be part of our Jubilee, were it not for an older colleague. I had been a rabbi all of three years and was thinking of quitting. After all, it’s a crazy “job.” The congregants will never do all we hope. We’ll never get to do all we want. His response, “Michael, what makes you think you should be a better failure than Moses?

That wisdom was liberating, for it’s not about success or failure. Rather, it’s about being faithful to a vision, a calling. And 50 years insist that our perspectives embrace an honest appraisal. To paraphrase Rabbi Elimelech, when I die and stand before the heavenly court, they will ask: “Did you study enough?” I’ll have to be honest and answer, “No.” “Pray enough?” Again, true testimony: no. “Did you do enough for social justice?” Once more, my response is no.   

As metaphor perhaps, the court will determine at least you’re honest, for this you deserve admission to the heavenly realm. And such calls to mind a long-ago homiletics class in which one of our classmates—a shared anxiety on display— inquired, “Dr. Mihaly, how do you come up with a sermon every week?”  ”That’s not the problem. You really only have one or two sermons. The important thing is to know what it is.” And as I consider these 50 years, he was right. My sermon: there is holiness all around us; a sacred dimension in us; now get to work. Alas, we didn’t finish the work, but, thankfully and as you know, we were not obligated to finish it. However, forthrightly, fortunately, none of us is finished yet. As to the assignment, even in retirement, there no doubt is a plethora of ways to describe or define it. 

And such brings to mind an enduring image our tradition offers the world and implanted in us: Consider Jacob’s dream and the challenge of his Anochi/ his ‟I-ness”/ his ego getting in the way of the awareness (Genesis 28:16) that God is in this place. And surely our vulnerabilities and strengths, our Anochi’s may get in the way of realizing moments of the holy, of holiness. For this is nothing less than Beit Elohim/a house of God—this one and that one and the next and the next.   

Or, to suggest another of the vital images from our tradition, there are burning bushes scattered randomly, extensively through every day, and because of our work and what we have yet to do, others will, if only metaphorically, take off their shoes. And we occasionally may do so as well.

Rabbi Michael Zedek is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.