In April of 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the journal Nature describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This molecule of life was arranged in a double helix structure comprised of four nucleotides symbolized by the letters A, T, C and G. Aided by the photographs and analysis of a Jewish scientist named Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick explained how the four letters are arranged in pairs—A with T, C with G—and in their arrangement along the strands of DNA, how they form a genetic code from which proteins are created, and all organisms are formed. They are the letters of life. Each nucleotide is indispensable, but in isolation, they are powerless. Only in their combination do the components of DNA assume their great ability to fashion life in all of its diversity and wonder.
What scientists spent much of the twentieth century discovering and describing was similar in a sense to the intuition of our ancient Sages of blessed memory. They too believed that life was formed from building blocks, and that these could be identified with a letter code, specifically with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Talmud at Brakhot 55a, Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav that Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle in Exodus, knew how to combine the letters used by God to create the world. Continue reading
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