Monthly Archives: May 2013

JTS Ordination Address 5773 (May 17, 2013)

Dear graduates, it is my great honor to address you and your loving supporters—your family, friends and teachers—as we begin the ceremony of your investiture and ordination. We are pleased to welcome many distinguished guests, including our JTS faculty, and members of the Cantor’s Assembly and the Rabbinical Assembly, whose presidents will participate in ceremonies of investiture and ordination. We are especially grateful for the presence of your mentors, whose names are listed in the program, and who will soon be offering you their personal blessings.

In chapter 9 of Leviticus we read: And it was on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and to the elders of Israel.

ויקרא פרק ט

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי קָרָא מֹשֶׁה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וּלְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

This day was a day of hasmakhah—of dedication for the first clergy of our people. In English we call this ritual either ordination or investiture, but in Hebrew we use the word semikhah, or the more modern hasmakhah—literally a laying-on of hands and leaning into the recipient as if to act out the transfer of energy from one body to another. In the Talmud Bavli, Hagiga 16b, Rami bar Hama teaches that the act if semikhah requires all of one’s strength:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף טז עמוד ב

אמר רמי בר חמא: שמע מינה סמיכה בכל כחו בעינן.

Now, he was talking about the laying on of hands before sacrifice—as the Mishnah says, ותכף לסמיכה שחיטה (Menahot 9:8), which is somewhat different than what we plan today…. Still, there is something tactile about the transfer of authority, and it is not only from teacher to disciple. Continue reading

Behar-Behukotai 5773 (May 3, 2013)

The other night I read a magazine article on the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), an international collaboration to construct the greatest earth-based observatory up in the Andes Mountains in Chile.  The technology involved in manufacturing the massive set of primary mirrors, with an effective diameter of 24.5 meters (80 feet), is remarkable, but what really excites my imagination is the concept of “adaptive optics.” The primary mirrors will gather the faintest light and reflect it onto a set of secondary mirrors, which will in turn focus the light onto an array of sensors to capture the broadest range of wavelengths. 20081216_giant_magellan_tel These secondary mirrors are designed to adapt their shape in extremely subtle ways to compensate for the distortions of light caused by earth’s atmosphere. Lasers around the telescope will probe the sky in order to measure these distortions, allowing the telescope to adapt the shape of its secondary mirrors and collect the oldest and faintest light at the highest possible resolution. While it is of course preferable to avoid atmospheric distortions altogether by locating a telescope in space (like the Hubble Space Telescope, whose mirror is a mere 2.4 meters), it is difficult and expensive to place and maintain equipment there, making earth-based telescopes an important component of astronomy for the future (see this link from Harvard Magazine for the full article).

Why, you may be asking, am I starting a d’var Torah with a discussion of telescopes? In my integrating seminar this week, my student Philip was discussing Rabbi Isaac Luria’s concept of shevirat hakelim, the primordial shattering of vessels that were intended to convey the light of creation throughout the cosmos, but which were compromised by evil and thus incapable of containing this divine energy. As Philip spoke, I associated this concept with the article on the Giant Magellan Telescope, and realized that both of these are apt metaphors for the religious life. As with astronomy, Judaism is an “observational science.” Astronomers devote themselves to observing the cosmos, searching for the earliest moments of existence, and seeking to understand the nature of both the light and the darkness that present themselves to every creature that scans the night sky. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, are also “observational” disciplines in that they direct us to study all aspects of existence—physical, spiritual, scriptural and natural—so that we too can understand both the darkness and the light, and can shape our souls to become more perfect mirrors of God. Continue reading